A Party by Any Other Name

The Libertarians gathered in Las Vegas—and sounded a lot like Republicans

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First off, Libertarians do not provide free coffee at their presidential convention. Why should they? Fend for yourself! This produces a long line at the Starbucks, which is two floors down in the Red Rock Resort. See? Free-market capitalism works without the coddling hand of Big Government, or of Big Political Party Convention Planners. You want something free at the Libertarian Party National Convention? Well it’s your birthright, be free!

Otherwise, there are urns of iced tap water placed around the hall. Ice water. Man up. This is America. Live free or die. Of caffeine withdrawal.

From May 3-6, hundreds of Libertarians from across the nation gathered in Las Vegas, a good-enough symbolic home of the mind-your-own-business streak, to select their presidential candidate and wear T-shirts that said, “Happy, Free, Alive” and “Socially tolerant, fiscally conservative.” At least one man wore a powdered wig. Another wore hot pants and a halter top—because he could!

But mostly, the nation’s third-largest political party, on its 40th anniversary, vowed to stave off mainstream government while dancing ever closer to it. Such is the homogenizing hole of American politics.

Kickoff speaker and author Michael Cloud trashed Republicans and Democrats for being bureaucratic, wasteful and incompetent in a speech titled, “Big Government Is the Disease—and Libertarians Have the Only Cure.” But he was an hour late delivering the speech because the morning’s parliamentarian business dragged on; there was a lot of debate about who the real Oregon delegation was, and many votes were taken to resolve the matter—some by voice, some by a show of hands, some by standing, some challenged by points of order and repeated. By the time Cloud took the stage, the fog of administration had forced me to trek downstairs for coffee.

Outside the main ballroom, a suited young man at an exhibitor table roped me in to explain how the Young Libertarian National Alliance differed from the College Libertarians and the Students for Liberty, which each had neighboring tables. But, he assured me, all of them espouse less bureaucracy and fewer government programs.

The next anti-government conventioneer I met told me he once ran for president “but didn’t win,” and explained the ins and outs of a new government system called the “U.S. Parliament.” He whispered something about “pure proportional representation” and “three prime ministers,” and my heart fluttered at the promise of a deeply ironic three-headed anti-government rebellion. However, upon reading the info folder later, I learned with some dismay that the U.S. Parliament movement “is not actually connected to real politics, although we are coordinating with real people and real candidates.”

So goes American political life, it seems—ever suffering from a disconnect caused by the very system that makes it possible. Even here, where I was hoping to embed in the bare knuckles, anti-government party, the familiar afflictions of bureaucracy and partisan grandstanding were taking over.

I returned to the ballroom clutching my self-bought, free-enterprise coffee. Self reliance! Freedom! Practicality! Inside, Cloud was comparing Big Government to Jim Jones’ Kool-Aid, noting that Jones was a liberal from San Francisco. Sigh.

The Libertarians went on to select former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who was a Republican until last December, as their candidate; while in Reno, the vast majority of Nevada Republican convention delegates went to former Libertarian Ron Paul. (But the parties are nothing—nothing—alike. Libs are pro pot.)

The conventioneers knew that this probably isn’t the year they’ll take over Big Washington. But, Cloud told them, when they do, their job is clear: “Dismantle government programs and give the money back to the taxpayers!

“We want a government so small, it starts with a picture on the side of a milk carton saying, ‘Have you seen these guys?’”

Yep. We’ve seen them. They were in Las Vegas. But they looked a teensy bit like everybody else.