Richard Wheeler is from the old school. He joined the Libertarian Party when it formed in 1972, while he was attending the University of Oregon as a 43-year-old freshman. After graduation the Korean War vet and former Goldwater Republican spent nearly two decades earning his keep as a technical writer. Perpetually disgusted with the "sons of bitches" in Washington, he considered a run at the U.S. Senate on more than one occasion. In 1990 Wheeler suffered a stroke and moved back to Ulen, in northwest Minnesota, where he'd been raised a farm boy.
Nowadays the 70-year-old Wheeler favors off-the-rack suits, faded silk ties, and worn wingtips, and he walks with the help of a knotty, polished cane. Watching him saunter from point A to point B, his shock of white hair sticking straight up à la Einstein, is somewhat like listening to him pick apart "The System": He's deliberate yet spry. Wheeler delivers his political punch lines deadpan, the corners of his mouth always threatening to twitch into a tobacco-stained smile. "Look, I'm just like everyone wants to be," he'll brag with a wink. "I'm blunt. I have a tendency to call a stupid sonofabitch a stupid sonofabitch."
Like a schoolteacher trying to quiet the class clown, Sharon Harris doesn't quite know what to do with Wheeler--laugh at him, laugh with him, or ignore the endearing agitator altogether. A founding member of Georgia's Libertarian Party and president of the nonprofit communications firm Advocates for Self-Government, Harris has traveled from her home in Atlanta to spend the weekend of September 18-19 at Mystic Lake Casino. She has come to tutor 21 local Libertarians, ages 18 to Wheeler, who've paid $79 apiece to participate in Success '99, an "intensive" two-day leadership conference replete with minimuffins and bottomless cups of coffee. Her message is simple: If you want to win elections, tone down the rhetoric and turn up the charm. Not surprisingly, Wheeler is hesitant to swallow the hook.
During an hourlong Saturday-morning session titled Message and the Messenger, Harris suggests that Libertarians substitute the word replace for the word abolish when talking to the uninitiated about public schools or drug laws or public transportation--services deemed inadequate and unnecessary according to the party's free-market platform. Wheeler lets out a loud cough, then clears his throat: "Are you trying to say we didn't abolish slavery, we replaced it?" The laughter of Wheeler's fellow pupils is muffled only by the carpeted conference room's prefab walls.
"Ever since the beginning of time, the government has been an enemy of the people," Wheeler quips a little while later. "That's why we've been advocates for anarchy."
"We don't use that word any more," Harris counters from behind her podium, surveying the crowd over her wire-rim glasses. "If you look it up in the dictionary now, it means 'violence and chaos.' If we want people to continue joining our movement, we simply can't use that word."
Wheeler shrugs. Besides providing entertainment for the sixteen men and four women also in attendance, his Twainesque observations ("Politicians count on people's short memories") and inherent suspicion of all things mainstream are illustrative of the chasm between principle and practice Success '99 is designed to bridge. Nationally the Libertarian Party is made up of about 33,000 political purists who subscribe to the Jeffersonian notion that--save for the military, the courts, and the police--government is unnecessary. Self-government in a free-market environment, they say, is the best way to ensure peace and prosperity. "We are the real liberals," Wheeler will tell you. "The real 19th-century liberals."
But while the rank and file wax idealistic about "absolute liberty" and "overthrowing the system," party leaders such as national director Steve Dasbach preach "relentless incrementalism," hoping to convince the Wheelers of the organization that before there can be a revolution, Libertarians must become a part of the political process. They must attack from within. And to do that a message must be crafted to seduce disenfranchised voters, not scare them off. This doesn't mean selling out, Dasbach insists, just changing the sales pitch. And it's a strategy pundits outside the Libertarian loop tend to endorse.
"For the most part, Libertarians are very ideological, which makes it difficult to debate specific issues, particularly on the local level," says Minneapolis-based political consultant Steven Clift. "To broaden their message, they need to create positions on issues where the majority of people have accepted a role for government, perhaps come up with solutions based in Libertarian ideals instead of talking in absolutes, like saying taxation is slavery."
Dasbach's ilk are weary of living on the fringe, struggling to get above five percent in some local school-board election or state House race, tired of being lumped in with the wackos (at Mystic Lake, the national director points out that the American Frisbee Association boasts nearly three times as many active members as the Libertarian Party). Although the party has been around for nearly 30 years and has put candidates on the ballot in all 50 states, it has yet to win a high-profile election. In contrast, the Reform Party, which didn't get started until 1992 and has organized itself in only 21 states, is already a legitimate political force. Ross Perot's presidential candidacy in the party's inaugural year gave the reformers immediate major-party status on the national level. Six years later Gov. Jesse Ventura's triumph turned the party of Perot into a cultural phenomenon.