THE BLOG
12/27/2012 04:29 pm ET | Updated Feb 26, 2013

The Liberty Movement Must Ask the Most Important Question

The only British political party that describes itself as libertarian is the United Kingdom Independence Party, or "UKIP". Twenty years ago, it did not exist. Today, it has the support of anywhere between 7 percent and 14 percent of the British electorate. This rise from non-existence to a force in British politics so powerful that even the mainstream media have begun to identify it as the biggest threat to the governing Conservative party is all the more remarkable because the majority of the British electorate doesn't actually know what the word "libertarian" means.

On our side of the pond, the much more robustly libertarian "Libertarian Party" of the United States, is more than twice as old as UKIP. Yet, even after all the unprecedented excitement for libertarian ideas that was generated by the extraordinary presidential run of Ron Paul, and even with the willingness of the American mainstream media to use the word "libertarian" (small "l") to describe Dr. Paul and those who broadly agree with him, the Libertarian Party's candidate, who has a very impressive executive resume, barely picked up 1 percent of the vote in November. The meager impact of the liberty movement looks even weaker when one considers that the USA is (arguably) the most libertarian country on the planet and (less arguably) the country with the most libertarian founding narrative.

Why, then, has the Libertarian Party -- and more importantly, the much broadly based new liberty movement -- failed to make a significant electoral impact, despite its recent tailwinds?

More specifically, why can't a libertarian-leaning movement in the U.S., which is a libertarian-leaning country, have even one tenth of the success of a libertarian-leaning movement in the UK, a deeply social democratic country, despite working on the task for twice as long?

The answer -- or at least the largest part of it -- is surely not that elusive.

A new political movement or party never succeeds in practice (at the ballot box) because it has successfully educated a majority of a population in a whole new philosophy. Rather, it succeeds because it is identified with the winning side of the dominant issue (or perhaps two dominant issues) of the day about which a majority of voters are deeply concerned but feel that the mainstream parties do not speak to their concerns in any way that indicates that those parties really understand them. The widespread adoption of a movement's broader political philosophy comes only as a result of the initial success of the movement: it is not a cause of the success in the first place.

In the case of UKIP, this dominant issue is the soft tyranny of the European Union as it interferes in the identity and the lives of the average Brit, reducing the power of Britons to shape their own culture. UKIP stands on the side of the British majority (who would likely vote, given the chance, to withdraw from the European Union), while the entire political establishment (the Conservatives (closest to our Republicans), the Labour party (closest to our Democrats) and the Liberal Democrats) not only insist that we have to be in this undemocratic entity, but also have actively pushed the nation into its jaws for at least two generations.

The lesson for the American liberty movement is that UKIP hasn't spent the 20 years of its existence trying hard to educate people on the problems of the EU: enough people could already see those problems for themselves; rather, UKIP spent two decades speaking to a feeling already widely held but politically unrepresented. Although a vote for UKIP is in fact a vote for a pro-free-market, pro-national-sovereignty, pro-individual rights, small-government philosophy, UKIP doesn't market itself by putting that entire worldview front and center: it likely knows how strange much of it would sound to the average Brit who has known nothing but social democracy since Margaret Thatcher.

Just as a sale can easily be lost when the salesman fails to stop talking after the sale has been made, UKIP simply connects with its new voters on whatever issue or two that voter is most concerned about, and then welcomes the new voter into the fold -- rather than seeking to educating him or her in a new political orthodoxy.

Libertarian types are disproportionately rationalists of an analytical bent. They are therefore prone to the quaint but false idea that the best way to win a supporter is explain one's view logically to as many people as possible. The reality, however, is that voters who adopt or even "try out" a new party come to accept its platform over time more by osmosis than logical deduction, as they discover that they feel comfortable with other members of the movement or party that they have newly joined. Ultimately, most of us are tribal beings so nearly all politics are the politics of identity.

Of course, all political activists rightly seek to persuade others of their core philosophy over time -- but doing so is not necessary to the initial electoral success on which most movements depend to influence the political mainstream and increase their base.

To a first approximation, we can see the same in American's history with the rapid rise of the Republicans as an anti-slavery party. This is a good example of a party that rose because it was on the right side an issue whose dominance as the issue of the day did not depend on the party's staking out its historic position on it.

The fact that politics are invariably dominated by one or two issues at any particular time also explains the rise of less savory movements, such as Golden Dawn in Greece today, or the Nazis in the 1930s. This fact is worth noting only because it further illustrates that the right principles are not even necessary, let alone sufficient, conditions for political success: timeliness and connection to the masses are much more electorally powerful.

Applying this fact requires members of the liberty movement to recognize that liberty's winning issue, on which they must focus when campaigning, may not be the most important issue as judged by the liberty movement's own philosophy: rather, it will be the issue that is most important to everyone else, of which the establishment is on the wrong side but the liberty movement is on the people's side.

This begs the obvious question: what is that issue? This may well be the most important question on which the potential electoral success of the liberty movement depends.

If the U.S. electorate were not so ill-informed and the American media quite so derelict, the answer would be, as it should be, the massive elimination of our civil (Constitutional) rights that has proceeded mostly over the last decade, driven by a politics of fear.

But, alas, our mainstream media are derelict and the American electorate is ill-informed at best.

Accordingly, I suspect that liberty's best chance at the ballot box is the one issue that the overwhelming majority notice everyday, quite independently of what they hear on cable news. Interestingly, it is an issue that can best be described by a term that most in the liberty movement dislike intensely, but on which it is, more than any other political grouping, most in line with the American people. That issue is "economic justice," used here to refer to that visceral sense, felt by Americans of all political stripes, that a system in which those with whom power is concentrated (the government) affords special privileges to those with whom huge wealth is concentrated (corporations, especially in big finance) and certain other favored groups (lobbyists, public unions), cannot be allowed to stand.

The issue of "economic justice", broadly defined as that which is lost when a market becomes something other than the free choices of individuals who transact for mutual benefit without forcing negative externalities on anyone else, has already birthed the Tea Party and the Occupy movement. It is starkest today because of the recent bailouts and the increasing visibility of excessive pensions and benefits of a few in the government's employ, to be paid by taxpayers who are working every bit as hard but without enjoying similar benefits, to name just two examples.

Now, I am not sure that "economic justice" is the historic issue felt by all citizens and exacerbated by our political establishment that will see America's liberty movement into the mainstream. But I do know that unless the liberty movement puts the finer points of political philosophy on the back burner and sets about finding the one or two issues that matter most to people who don't even care how "libertarian" is spelled, with the humble purpose of making simple connections with the average working American, it will be in the electoral wilderness for longer than it needs to be. And ending the Fed might be a great boon to economic and social justice, but leading with that won't help the movement connect to that average American if he's not yet started through the movement's reading list. (He hasn't.)

Throughout history, political groups that have risen rapidly have resonated with the immediate experiences of the common man and woman: they haven't (just) engaged in a nationwide educational project with necessarily limited resources.

And if all this reads like an argument for a crude populism, then I can only point out that elections are simultaneously the purest and the crudest popularity contests modern society indulges in. The fact that the words "popularity" and "populism" are almost the same is not an accident. If American liberty is to gain more of the first, it shouldn't be scared by a little of the second.