Mises Caucus Takes Control of Libertarian Party

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A four-year battle for control of the Libertarian Party (L.P.) ended Saturday in Reno with a victory for the Mises Caucus at the party’s national convention. The faction’s chosen candidate for chair of the party’s national committee, Angela McArdle, won on the first round of balloting with 692 votes—more than 69 percent of the voting delegates.

McArdle’s first tweet after winning was characteristic of her caucus’ style: It mocked the L.P.’s recent past, quote-tweeting a March 2020 post that mentioned social distancing. She told the convention Friday she would not allow the party to “humiliate ourselves and alienate everyone” when faced with the next COVID-style crisis.

McArdle, a paralegal and current chair of the Libertarian Party of Los Angeles County, said in her speech to the convention Friday that the government response to COVID has left many working-class Americans thirsty for personal liberty, and “we don’t want to ignore them.” They have, she argued, “low-resolution views of freedom…and we need to bring that vision into focus by communicating our message clearly and by supporting our candidates and affiliates.”

While McArdle was the Mises Caucus candidate, the behind-the-scenes mastermind of its victory was caucus founder and leader Michael Heise. His disapproval of William Weld, Gary Johnson’s running mate in 2016, was an initial inspiration for the caucus’ launch. He found Weld painfully lacking in libertarian orthodoxy, especially when it came to issues such as war and gun regulations.

The caucus’s official platform is plumb-line libertarian, but its foes say that too many Mises Caucus members and fans downplay libertarian positions that might offend the right, are intentionally obnoxious and bullying, and are often racist. For example, the New Hampshire L.P., a powerful vector of Mises Caucus messaging, tweeted on Martin Luther King Day that “America isn’t in debt to black people. If anything it’s the other way around.” (The tweet was later deleted.)

The sense the caucus is soft on or actively encourages racism attracted the attention of the Southern Poverty Law Center just before the convention began, which aired the concerns in a story reported with cooperation from many Libertarian Party members upset with the Mises Caucus.

Both Heise and Mises Caucus stalwart Joshua Smith, who won the vice-chair election Saturday, denied the charges of racism and said in phone interviews prior to the convention that the basic vibe they are seeking is online young men into edgy comedic podcasts, a new counterculture for whom the old L.P. holds little appeal. Heise believes that the current rumored frontrunner for a Mises Caucus–approved presidential nominee in 2024, comedian and podcaster Dave Smith, is so well-connected to the Joe Rogan world that legacy respectable mainstream media will be meaningless for party messaging moving forward.

In his nominating speech for McArdle before the vote, libertarian antiwar author and podcaster Scott Horton insisted that he’s seen thousands of new convention-attending members energized by the Mises Caucus in the last couple of years. (The last non-presidential L.P. convention I covered, in 2006, had only slightly more than 300 delegates and I doubt more than 20 of them were under 30 years old. This convention drew more than 1,000, and while this is only a guess based on pacing around a huge packed room for a couple of days, I’d say one-third of them might have been under 35.)

Meanwhile, during that same period, fierce factional dueling has played out in hundreds of hours of podcasts, hundreds of thousands of words of tweets and Facebook threads, and often on the business listserv of the Libertarian National Committee (LNC) itself. One such fight, summed up at length in Reason in June, involved a faction of non-Mises libertarians in New Hampshire attempting to create a new L.P. affiliate so that the national party could disaffiliate the Mises-dominated one and recognize the new one. The gambit, which ultimately failed, led to the resignation of then-national chair Joe Bishop-Henchman and caused one of the party’s few elected officials, Dekalb, Illinois, City Clerk Sasha Cohen, to quit in protest as well, saying “we are a big tent party, but no tent is big enough to hold racists and people of color, transphobes and trans people, bigots and their victims.”

Despite bad blood, I detected no booing or walkouts today when McArdle’s victory made the caucus’ victory manifest. None of the anti–Mises Caucus delegates or supporters that I have spoken to at the convention—including people from Illinois, Florida, Texas, Massachusetts, and even Mises stronghold New Hampshire—said that this takeover would make them walk.

Two former significant donors to the L.P., Kyle Varner and Michael Chastain, both with decadeslong history in the party, did say in phone interviews that the Mises turn, which they see as importing a level of racist edgelording they have no taste for, has made them stop funding L.P. candidates. Such defections are particularly relevant in this environment: The national L.P. has just had three months in a row of spending exceeding income, and the number of active donors has been falling for seven straight months.

Varner and Chastain see a distinctly right-wing culture and policy bent from the Mises faction. The caucus, whose whipping of its team proved very effective at the convention (combining Discord channels and physical signs waved on the floor featuring Ron Paul saying “yes” and Bill Weld saying “no”), wants to eliminate from the L.P.’s platform a statement that “we condemn bigotry as irrational and repugnant.” (This first entered the platform in 1974, though it has not remained there consistently.)

The caucus also wants to completely eliminate any mention of abortion, replacing a current plank that is effectively pro-choice, though it says in essence that Libertarians can differ in opinion based on when they think a protectable life begins.

A document of internal Mises Caucus strategizing that began circulating before the convention explicitly said—with reference to the plan to eliminate the line about bigotry being irrational and repugnant—that “one of the major goals of the Mises Caucus is to make the LP appealing to the wider liberty movement that is largely not currently here with us. That movement strongly rejects wokeism and the word games associated with it. This along with the deletion of the abortion plank will display that there are serious cultural changes in the party that are more representative of that movement.” (The platform issues had not yet been decided at press time.)

Pennsylvania’s new Mises-affiliated state chair, Rob Cowburn, insisted in a pre-convention interview that despite rumors otherwise he intends to continue his state’s record of winning over 100 local positions in odd-numbered years by hunting for ones in which no other person is likely to be running, generally offices such as auditor and constable. (Disgruntled non–Mises Caucus libertarians in Pennsylvania have left the L.P. and formed the new Keystone Party.)

The L.P.’s most successful electoral project above the local level has been the Frontier Project, which got the L.P. its only currently seated state legislator, Marshall Burt in Wyoming. The project focuses on finding winnable elections, generally with just one major party candidate in opposition, in the West, where libertarian feelings tend to run higher. McArdle, in a May podcast appearance on The System Is Down, while musing about bad financial management and accountability in the L.P., said that while she thinks the Frontier Project is “fantastic,” she worries that is “difficult to understand what that money was spent on, where it went, why it took so much money to get him elected.” She considers the per-vote cost for Burt’s victory overly high, and she wonders about “secrecy” around the funding with no one outside the LNC knowing exactly how the whole project works.

Apollo Pazell, who runs the Frontier Project, said in a phone interview a week before the convention that he was not aware McArdle had concerns about the finances of the project, which gets support from county, state, and national branches of the party as well as from separate funding sources.

The Mises Caucus’ foes have accused the faction of planning to stop running candidates against Republicans they like. Heise denied this in a phone interview before the convention. The Mises-run party will continue to try to run local candidates especially, he said, with a preferred strategy of straight-up localist nullification of federal laws. “Decentralization” is a mantra of Heise’s, and the caucus’s Twitter feed has openly been against the long-held legal principle that the 14th Amendment means that states and localities also have to obey the federal Bill of Rights. Most libertarians might see decentralization as an often useful tool that often can increase liberty, but nonetheless agree that the federal government forcing states and localities to respect rights is perfectly fine. Heise in a phone interview suggested that federal pressure even to honor citizens’ liberty is an unacceptable violation of the decentralization principle.

At least two candidates approved by Mises-controlled state parties—Mindy Robinson, running for state assembly in Nevada, and Karen Bedonie, running for governor in New Mexico—seem far more Trumpist and right-wing than consistently libertarian. Robinson, for example, writes that she is “Pro ICE” and recently posted a picture of herself on Facebook wearing a thin blue line T-shirt and literally has “President Donald J. Trump” listed as one of her “issues” on her campaign issue page; Bedonie’s only two specific issues stressed on her website are border walls and abortion bans.

Christopher Thrasher, who has been senior staff on multiple Libertarian presidential campaigns and ran ballot access for Gary Johnson’s 50-state sweep, worries that the Mises Caucus troops lacks granular knowledge of the terribly complex regulations surrounding ballot access and running campaigns. This, he says, is especially dangerous for the L.P. as inflation hits the cost of collecting signatures for ballot access.

Heise wrote on Facebook Friday night that his faction already controls a majority of the LNC, having swept the votes for regional representatives to the LNC in meetings Friday night. (More LNC member votes are still ahead in the convention, which does not end until Sunday.) Mises Caucus favorite Caryn Ann Harlos, who was booted by the LNC from her elected secretary position over Mises-related faction fights, re-won her elected position Saturday as well.

The Mises Caucus people often dub themselves the revival or continuation of the Ron Paul revolution of libertarian ideas in the GOP’s 2008 and 2012 presidential races. (Paul spoke at a party the caucus hosted Friday night.)

Heise thinks the most important connection between the Ron Paul revolution and his caucus is its interest in uniting excited young activists with a sense of real community, an idea he stressed over and over. His people enjoy hanging out and trying to save/piss off the world together. “If you want to win elections,” Heise says, “you better damn well start getting people to think or care about the principles of liberty. And you have to have a home in order to, from that point of stability, build the culture, build the base. And I think we can build that through the party.” The Mises Caucus has taken control of an estimated 35 state L.P.s and now the national party as well, so that project now rests in its hands.

In those 2008 and 2012 races, however, Paul studiously avoided anything that might be construed as “anti-woke” and generally avoided talking to his campus audiences about abortion and immigration, where he was at odds with many other libertarians. While the Mises Caucus might argue that the threat of progressive woke thought control was less severe then, the podcaster/memelord edgy-offensive-insult-comedy stance they often embrace is entirely opposite to how Ron Paul presented himself and won his huge audience as a presidential candidate.

The general public will generally never know about LNC chairs or internal factions, but many of them will be aware of who the L.P. runs for president. Former Michigan Rep. Justin Amash was the only sitting federal congressman the party has ever had. (He was elected to the House in 2010 as a Republican, but he switched his affiliation to the L.P. in 2020.)

Amash said in an interview Friday that he has not made a decision to seek the L.P. nomination in 2024, but many assume he will. Amash sold himself in his keynote speech to the convention as proof that someone who presented himself ideologically as entirely libertarian can win federal office. He is not a Mises Caucus guy, and in his keynote Friday he trolled them by reading various quotes—including some opposing anarchism and supporting cosmopolitan international cooperation—to a chorus of boos, only to reveal that the quotes were from Ludwig von Mises himself.

“If you say Justin Amash isn’t libertarian enough for you,” Amash told the Mises crowd, “then I’ve got news for you about the rest of the country.” Amash summed up the libertarian message as one of the richness and wonders of peaceful cooperation, in markets and all human relations, and said the L.P. must be the party of “democracy, of diversity, of tolerance, of humility.”

After his keynote speech, Amash said in an interview that different conceptions of party messaging and mission are “healthy for the party.” He has said he does not want to ally with any caucus. That may be the only strategy left for a man who still entertains the possibility of being the presidential nominee of a party now thoroughly dominated by a caucus with which he has documented disagreements about substance, tone, and style. He denied trying to get a rise out of the Mises Caucus with his Mises quotes, saying merely that “it’s important that all of us understand the foundations of libertarianism.”

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