Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Major-Party Status

Local Libertarians gathered at Mystic Lake Casino to fine-tune their message, play the slots, and practice the Ransberger Pivot

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.

And to Libertarians, that stings. Especially given that Ventura, who just a year ago was courting this state's Libertarians for an endorsement, has put the "freedom" party on his hit list.

"Libertarians, at least the ones here in Minnesota, they're anarchists," Ventura erupts. "Their philosophy is a great thing. But in practice, in many ways it's a dream world. They enjoy bitching. They enjoy sitting out there on the sidelines waving their flags. They enjoy standing out on the capitol steps protesting. But the point is, they don't want to win. They had an opportunity to win when I asked for their endorsement. They could have had their name right up there with mine."

Dasbach is quick to point out that Libertarians don't endorse candidates outside the party: If a Reformer like Ventura isn't willing to carry the Libertarian flag and only the Libertarian flag, it does little good for the organization. He does admit, however, that the party in Minnesota did squander the chance to capitalize on Ventura's upset: "If this had been a state where the party had been in a position to be more aggressive, it would've been an opportunity," says Dasbach. "If there were more candidates in place, we could have reached out to those voters who hadn't traditionally been involved in the political process but who came out to vote for an independent."

A former public high school science teacher who campaigned for presidential candidate George McGovern in 1972 and marched against the bombing of Cambodia, Dasbach devised the curriculum for the Success conferences back in 1997. By the time the 2000 election rolls around, he, Harris, and national campaign manager Aaron Starr (who was unable to attend the Minnesota seminar) will have brought their pitch to more than 20 states, in the hope of equipping their troops to surf the next populist wave, regardless of ideology.

"We're trying to build a majority. And we can't build a majority based on our destination," Dasbach tells the faithful as they furiously scribble notes on pads emblazoned with Mystic Lake's blue-and-white logo. "We must agree on a direction. Direction unites us; arguing about destination divides us."

 

As well-rehearsed as it is basic, the two-day crash course focuses on fundraising, grassroots organizing, and media relations--areas in which moderation and professionalism are a necessity. (Dasbach recommends avoiding "Libertarian macho flash.")

Participants are told that in order to win they must master the five vowels of organization: A-ctivity, E-xcellence, I-nfrastructure, O-utreach, and (sometimes) Y-ou. Dasbach admits upfront that this is not sexy stuff. But he stresses that knowing how to format a fax, solicit campaign contributions from family and friends, cold-call local reporters, and properly recruit and train prospective candidates for lesser offices (first step: "Make sure they've read the platform") is as important to the Libertarian movement as the free market was to Thomas Paine. To keep people from falling asleep, he and Harris slather the bare bones with well-rehearsed slogans and canned humor: "Nobody will give you money unless you ask them." "Media doesn't produce success; success produces media." "Complaining doesn't get things accomplished; doing gets things accomplished." "Good communication is not only knowing what to say, but knowing what people hear."

Sitting arrow-straight, nodding enthusiastically, the best-dressed member of the congregation is Larry Fuhol. And for good reason. In the short term, at least, the 44-year-old factory worker from Isanti, who came to the party in the late Eighties after being cited by the IRS for a tax-code violation, stands to gain the most from Success '99. This past summer Sen. Janet Johnson (DFL-North Branch) died, leaving a vacant senate seat in the state's 18th District. A special election is being held in November and Fuhol, who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Rep. James Oberstar's Eighth District seat in 1996, is counting on local name recognition (at present he's serving as planning commissioner for Isanti Township), anti-stadium sentiment, suspicion of the state's light-rail plans, and a general disdain of taxes to help him pull off a stunner. There are no polls to support his claim that victory is a "real possibility," no indication that he'll even be able to raise enough money to buy lawn signs. Still, Fuhol feels it.

On Saturday afternoon, after everyone has munched on the macaroni salad, iceberg lettuce, and most of the meat group at Mystic Lake's all-you-can-eat buffet, Sharon Harris launches into a presentation on the Ransberger Pivot. In 1992, Harris explains, California Libertarian Ray Ransberger got his name etched in party history books when he devised a strategy for dealing with hostile questions. The rhetorical dance comprises a few basic steps: Listen to the question, take a deep breath, decide what the inquisitor's concerns are, empathize, then formulate an answer that addresses those concerns. Don't preach. Don't bore the audience with platitudes. Tell them what they want to hear; try not to abandon your ideals; move on.

Fuhol, his jet-black locks greased into a ducktail, his body starched stiffly in a blue sportcoat and tie, is the guinea pig. Forrest Wilkinson, a freelance handyman and Fuhol's volunteer campaign manager ("I'm a jack-of-all-trades, master of several"), throws out a question every Libertarian has heard a thousand times. "Larry, is it true you Libertarians want to legalize drugs?"

Fuhol takes the required deep breath, but then stammers, a deer caught in the rhetorical headlights. "My concerns are your concerns," he ventures hesitantly.

Steve Dasbach, observing from the back of the room, chuckles. "That's the Clinton pivot, Larry," he jokes.

"In order to pull this off, you really have to believe people will be better off," Harris emphasizes. She encourages the candidate to talk about the failure of Prohibition, the smuggling and violence that results from any black market. "We're not pro-drugs," she enthuses. "We're anti-drug war."

Wilkinson tries to fire up his candidate: "Start with the good, Larry. Start with the honey."

Michael Henderson, a businessman from Minneapolis and a newcomer to the party, cringes at the spectacle from his seat at the back of the room. "He's not very quick on his feet," Henderson whispers. "The poor guy's suffering. He's not going to make a very good candidate."

More than anything, especially in the shadow of Jesse Ventura's celebrity, the Libertarians need a "good candidate," a contestant who can break from the pack like Ventura or Jesse Jackson or Pat Buchanan. They don't have to win, but they need to create a stir.

"I'm surprised my friends in the Libertarian party haven't learned that sooner," observes Jack Gargan, the Reform Party's chairman-elect. "I would've joined the Libertarians years ago if they wouldn't have been so strident about their message. They've done a marvelous job at grassroots organizing on the local level, but now they need a high-profile candidacy."

St. Paul political consultant Sarah Janecek agrees. "The only way for them to succeed is to get lucky and have a candidate like Jesse [Ventura]. That's the only way to raise a decent amount of money."

Fuhol probably isn't the guy.

During a break in the proceedings, Forrest Wilkinson and Robert Smith--the latter a longtime party activist who designed the Libertarians' local Web site (www.lpmn.org) and who came to the weekend retreat wearing a tricorner hat--discuss Fuhol's pivot over an ashtray in the hallway. Wilkinson believes it would be much easier to manage Fuhol on paper, keep him out of the public eye. "Duct tape," Smith jokingly suggests.

"Minnesota is a little behind the curve," Dasbach admits later, when asked how long it might be before Fuhol or someone else in the state breaks through. "They have a stable state organization, and now they need to develop locally. They're just starting to get into serious campaigns, and it will take some time."

 

Judging by audience response, Success '99 will be remembered for two high points: a joke Richard Wheeler credits to Abe Lincoln involving a king, a farmer, and a jackass (not necessarily in that order); and Sharon Harris's Saturday-morning lecture on the "Temperament Card System."

To become a "master communicator," Harris lectures her charges, you must first understand the mood of your audience. You can then adapt your presentation to fit that audience's "needs." To do this, Libertarians can use a set of four color-coded cards designed with an eye to Hippocrates, Carl Jung, and the minds behind the ubiquitous Myers-Briggs personality test.

Blue cards are idealists--people who are into causes, harmony, and community. Orange cards are risk-takers, entrepreneurs, people who like to move and shake. Gold cards are reliable, punctual, and helpful people; they value security, structure, family, and tradition (Harris claims 70 percent of the American populace fall into this category). Green cards are scientific, ingenious, logical, and visionary. They seek knowledge to excel in all things.

When Harris asks those gathered to hold up the card that best describes themselves, nearly everyone produces a green card. No surprise, Harris observes: Logical visionaries are the lifeblood of the Libertarian Party.

Then someone in the back of the room guesses that Bill Clinton's color is plaid. Feeling liberated from dry lectures on party organization, everyone begins to pipe up. Golds vote. Oranges don't. Blues tend to be liberal. Greens are usually conservative. But hey, freedom is colorblind.

Harris is delighted. "What's so neat about this is that basically Libertarianism is for everyone," she gushes. "That is what's so beautiful about our philosophy!"

"It's all about political cross-dressing," Dasbach chimes in. "When you talk to conservatives, talk about things in conservative terms. Talk about the free market, talk about how the drug war is an excuse to outlaw guns. When you talk to liberals, talk about liberty."

"Democrats want to control my wallet, Republicans want to control my life," says 34-year-old Minneapolis Libertarian party activist Kevin Houston. "I say, 'Convince me, don't coerce me.' Sure, people are going to make wrong decisions in a truly free market. But if you don't allow them to make wrong decisions, they'll never make the right ones."

The 45-minute psychology session is a hit, perhaps because it appeals to the green cards' need to quantify everything, right down to human emotion. Or because to be a Libertarian is to believe in the universal appeal and truth of a philosophy. Or because, in short, everyone in the room believes the issue is simple: Let freedom ring.

Of course, Dasbach can't resist pointing out that the mood cards also have a practical application. Blue cards make good volunteer coordinators. Golds should be in charge of the details. The orange should fundraise. Greens make great candidates, if they're managed properly by another color. "Match the task to temperament," the party director urges.

But as the happy hubbub swirls around him, Richard Wheeler seems lost in thought. He scribbles notes and shakes his head in wonderment. Asked later what color he would use to describe himself, the old-timer looks around to see if anyone's listening, then flashes his trademark smirk.

"Blue!" he exclaims. "I think I was the only one in the room."

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