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Losing My Religion: Re-Watching the 2016 Libertarian National Convention

So much of the 2016 LNC convention can be summarized by what it lacked: a beating heart.

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By Spencer Kellogg | USA

What in the hell happened down there in Orlando? The tacky drab color palette of death grey, burnt green and mustard yellow lining the windowless convention center, the awkward debate panel hosted by Larry Elder, the consistently authoritative streak of party chair Nicholas Sarwark triumphed only by the hemming and hawing from clearly overwhelmed moderator and former LNC chair James Lark. Looking back, so much of the 2016 LNC convention can be summarized by what it lacked: a beating heart. How anyone could come away with a positive outlook on the state of the party is beyond me. The great ballot petitioner and jury nullification advocate Jake Witmer accurately likened the convention to “great white sharks inside of a mud puddle.” And no, I’m not talking about James Weeks, the infamous strip-dancing founder of the socialist wing of the party whose membership was revoked for being, arguably, the most libertarian person on stage that weekend. He was promptly brow beaten by the BBQ eating ‘freedom’ cabal for showing a pulse of free will and humor. For 40 years we’ve elected no one important to office. We have had absolutely no impact on policy in this country or its states. We can’t stop a single person from going to prison and the primary concern at the convention was that someone engaged in an ‘inappropriate’ protest?

Re-watching the convention is like listening to sustained scratching of nails on a chalk board. One man suggests Weeks dance to be an attack against the precious NAP while Lark berates over top of him sternly repeating that the gentleman ‘hasn’t been recognized!’ Another man from California, seething with anger over the audacity of Mr. Weeks to perform such a stunt, announces he has a one sentence resolution to address this behavior. The only problem is, Lark isn’t sure if he’s allowed to say it. The back and forth between him and Lark is so tense and tedious I felt like I was watching a horror film through outstretched fingers with Lark explaining over and over that he must have permission from a majority of the body to entertain this man’s sentence. After a lengthy debate, they put it to a vocal vote, it’s impossible to tell a majority and the man is promptly denied his suggestion. As I’m watching this, all I can think of is how does a party allegedly built on the ethics and idealism of free will and thought get so caught up on parliamentary procedure and alleged professional respectability?

After the prolonged and completely unnecessary expression of outrage from martini sipping bald bankers from New York who donated ‘tens of thousands to this party’ have commenced, a beaten looking Mr. Sarwark steps up to the microphone and meekly asks the membership if they could “move on with the business of the Libertarian Party”? For this, he receives a standing ovation like a returning King. I pinch myself but it’s all too real. If Kubrick staged the moon landing then this surely was the work of Tony Scott.

Somewhere in all of this there is the speech by Alicia Dearn who could barely catch her breath throughout a plodding and strange pitch for former republican Bill Weld to pledge his allegiance to the LP. She explains that she has ‘bled yellow’ for the past 4 years but her words ring hollow and empty. She calls for party unity, citing that “this is our year to break through” while she suggests the membership vote for 2 former republican governors. There’s a whole show of it with Dearn selling the members on how ‘excited’ Johnson was backstage and how we needed Weld because ‘Johnson is polling 10% in a new Fox News poll.” The suggestion here being that Weld would legitimize the party. Dearn then calls for Weld to come on stage and “swear that he won’t betray us and that he’s not a republican!’ If you listen, you’ll hear a smattering of boos and jeers. For as dull as the membership can be, I must credit them in that they sniffed out the inherent mistruth here; Johnson would end up with only 4% of the vote, less than 60% what Dearn had promoted and Weld turned Benedict Arnold against the LP on national tv in the final days leading up to the election. In essence, none of what Dearn promised came true and the LP membership effectively sold their ideological soul.

At its best moments, the convention was funky, corny and totally unsanitary. It’s exciting to watch the rebellious feel of Austin Petersen’s youthful campaign who had clearly come to fight. The late Marc Allen Feldman remains a favorite, with his fiery “I’m that Libertarian” speech and his off the cuff rebuttals providing an impassioned and honest representation of the party viewpoints. McAfee is like a crocodile ripped on acid swimming in a pool of guppies. He is totally cerebral but loose and easy with his demeanor. For McAfee, this is the game he has always played and his figure as a cool and calculated tech outsider with a proclivity for the extremes of liberty is a rare but sorely needed brand inside the current LP hierarchy. Johnson bumbles through his soft L presentation of Libertarianism and although the crowd shows displeasure throughout several of his more centrist answers, his paleness and directness in comparison to the flamboyant and beguiling radicalness of his peers, like hardcore candidate Darryl Perry, is glaring. Though Johnson clearly was the professional choice, it’s easy to see why the party isn’t expanding at near the pace it should be; in the audience there are absolutely no minorities or women and everyone in the building appears to be sitting on pins and needles bracing for impact without a bull in sight to break it all up.

I came away with the sense that there is a real disconnect between those in power positions and the ideological core of the party. It’s obvious the leadership has been successful in targeting and eliminating firebrands and total liberty seekers within their membership. Meanwhile they pour money into races they can’t win and make no concerted effort to engage with the very people in this country who are in desperate need of protection the most; the poor. What we are reduced to are often soft spoken, overtly polite ‘gentleman’ with little resolve or interest in overhauling the failed modernization project of left leaning libertarianism that has grappled and diluted the party. From their intimidating positions of power, leadership is successful in creating such a beleaguered and boorish environment that anything better than awful seems incredible. “This was the year our message would be heard” they said. As with every major election the LP has participated in, they would finish a distant 3rd and fail to register a pulse on the national political scene.

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