essays

Dec 1, 1978

The Breakthrough Election

“1978 has…been the breakthrough year, the year in which the libertarian movement has suddenly [developed into] a genuine mass movement. We have arrived.”

FOR SEVERAL years I have been a prophet of libertarian optimism, preaching to all who would hear the good news of impending success for the libertarian cause. My predictions stemmed from an analysis of the permanent crisis of statism—across all areas of American life—which struck America during the 1973-75 period, and which has continued ever since, generating an accelerated libertarian upsurge. The reaction to my analysis has been mixed, ranging from elation to amused skepticism to the curious suggestion that optimism, for libertarians, is somehow a deeply immoral position to hold. But skepticism and disbelief was surely the modal response, from friend and foe alike.

It is therefore especially joyous for me to report that 1978 has definitely been the breakthrough year, the year in which the libertarian movement has suddenly accelerated from an interesting and permanent part of the American scene to the status of a genuine mass movement. We have arrived.

The breakthrough this year was in two parts, both—sad to say for our anti-election “purists”—at the ballot box. Phase I, of course, was the glorious victory on June 6 of California’s sharply tax-cutting Proposition 13, which has generated a growing tax rebellion throughout the country. Once again, California showed itself to be the pace-setting state for the rest of the country. Prop. 13 and the tax revolt have been thoroughly covered in these pages; here I would just reiterate that the voters of California reacted, for the first time, with proper scorn against the standard left-liberal wail that any tax cuts would slash vital government services. It was that scare campaign which pushed the voters of California into massive support for Prop. 13; their reaction was a fascinating blend of “We don’t believe you” and “So what?”

Now Phase II has arrived. Election Day in November was a mammoth break-through, for libertarianism in general and for the Libertarian Party in particular. To assess the massive dimensions of the Libertarian Party upsurge, we must realize that new parties usually do better in presidential years, when there is widespread interest generated in the election. But consider: in 1976, Roger MacBride garnered 173,000 votes in 32 states (including the District of Columbia), for 0.33% of the total vote in those states. Of the other LP candidates, the typical one received somewhere between 0.1% and 1% of the vote in his or her district.

In 1978, the Libertarian Party fielded some 200 candidates across the country. The modal percentage for each candidate in this election was about 2 to 3%, and in many cases ranged up to 5 to 7% of the total vote. A multiple leap forward in LP support!

The outstanding LP victory was in Alaska, where Dick Randolph, a 42-year old Fairbanks insurance man, won a seat in the Alaska House of Representatives as one of the six at-large representatives from his city. This is the LP’s first victory in a state-level election. The city of Fairbanks presaged this victory by giving MacBride 12% of its votes two years ago, by far the largest pocket of MacBride support in the country. Randolph is state chairman of the Alaska LP, and a member of the national committee of the party. We have a state legislator!

In Arizona, a half-dozen candidates running state-wide picked up from 5 to 7% of the vote, a remarkable figure considering that these were state-wide races and that almost no money was spent on the Libertarian campaigns. In two of the races, the LP candidate achieved a balance of power status, receiving more votes than the difference between the Republican and the Democrat. In Nevada, long-time LP activist James Burns came in second in a three-way race for state legislature. Also in Nevada, Florence Fields took 6% of the vote for Lieutenant Governor, while in Hawaii Mike Rossell amassed 49,000 votes, or 22%, in his race for a seat on the State Board of Education. In Colorado, National Vice-Chair Mary Louise Hanson received over 5% of the vote for State Treasurer, and in such areas as Aspen where she campaigned particularly heavily, she received 10% of the vote. In California, National Chairman Dave Bergland gained 6% for the balance of power in a State Senate race in Orange county. And across the country, several candidates received 15 to 20% of the vote in races for state legislature or Congress: specifically, in Arizona, Idaho, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maryland.

A fascinating phenomenon was reported by several of the LP candidates. Appearing in three-way TV debates with the Democratic and Republican candidates, the Libertarians found that the other two would begin the programs trying desperately to differentiate themselves from each other, but with little success. Then, as the debate continued, the Democrat and the Republican, with little to say on any issue and possessing no firm ideology, found themselves moving perceptibly in the direction of the LP candidate, who was enunciating a clear and firm position on all the issues—a position, moreover, which resonated of much of the traditional American heritage. By firmly maintaining our positions, it seems, we can start defining the issues for all of the candidates, and pull the other parties toward our program.

In New York, Gary Greenberg ran a heroic race for governor, running as he did for a party that has been racked with dissensions and has almost disappeared in New York City, fading from its splendid start of only five years ago. With very little money or support, however, Greenberg corralled almost 20,000 votes in the state, far more than the New York party has ever achieved, and far more than Jerome Tuccille achieved four years ago with considerably more money and support. In short, even in New York, the Libertarian Party did extra-ordinarily well at the polls.

But the jewel in the Libertarian Party crown this year, the biggest single confirmation of the case for optimism, was the race of Ed Clark for governor of the trend-setting state of California. Clark, a highly intelligent and articulate antitrust lawyer in Los Angeles, ran a campaign which, in the slightly wondering words of the San Francisco Examiner; “captivated the media.” His media coverage was astounding, including long and favorable articles from top newspapers in every part of the state. In debates with other parties on television, Clark’s intelligence and soft-spoken, reasonable manner were able to stimulate remarkable interst in consistently radical positions. Moreover, as the campaign progressed, Clark was able to set forth both ultimate libertarian programs and intermediate demands which seemed perfectly reasonable to the media and the voters—and yet were thoroughly consistent with libertarian principle. To address concrete issues and yet not abandon principle—this is the great task of a libertarian candidate, and Clark proved himself able to accomplish that task in superb fashion.

For example: as part of his call for ever greater tax cuts, Clark answered the typical question “where would you cut?” by focusing on that huge but previously sacrosanct consumer of the tax dollar, the public school. Clark made it very clear that he favored, as his basic solution, the privatization of the public schools. But, short of that goal, he advocated as an intermediate demand an income tax credit of $800 for tuition to private schools. Thus, Clark endorsed the tax-cutting credit plan rather than the tax-supported school voucher scheme. But then in a highly imaginative twist, to answer the “what-about-the-poor-who-can’t-send-their-children-to-private-school” argument, Clark urged the equivalent income tax credit for individuals or corporations who contribute scholarships to other kids’ private school tuition: in short, a tax credit for tuition scholarships to private schools.

Clark’s major stress in the campaign was on both economic and “social” issues: specifically drastic tax cuts, and opposition to victimless crime laws. On the latter, Clark opposed Proposition 6, which would have ousted teachers who “encourage or advocate” homosexuality in the public schools. He also called for the legalization of marijuana. When tackling the vexing question of abortion, Clark took the consistent libertarian position, which can draw votes from both sides of the controversy: that every woman has the right to have an abortion, but that taxpayers should not be forced to finance an action which they consider to be murder.

Libertarians can always outflank everyone else on the tax revolt, and, as in the case of private school tuition, we can checkmate the liberals on the “what-about-the-poor” argument as well. Thus, Clark called during his campaign for abolition of the state’s hefty sales tax, which hits the poor most heavily. And as soon as the election was over he announced his sponsorship of a state ballot initiative next year to repeal the tax.

For Clark to get on the statewide ballot in California was extraordinarily difficult: he had to collect 100,000valid petition signatures. By late summer, the Clark workers had come in with 183,000 signatures, a record number. It was the first time any candidate for governor had gotten on the ballot by petition. Still, that might have proved little, since most of the petition-gatherers, as is common in politics, were paid by the signature.

But then the Clark campaign took off, and interest began to snowball remarkably. Finally, shortly before the election, the Bakersfield Californian, the daily newspaper (circulation 60,000) for a metropolitan area of 200,000 Californians, endorsed Clark for Governor! A strange and wondrous phenomenon began to take place before the eyes of all of us veteran libertarians: bumperstickers on unknown cars proclaimed “Clark for Governor”; San Francisco cab drivers announced that they were voting for Clark; people at non-political cocktail parties said the same thing. Favorable interest in Clark caromed across the state. Indeed, on election day, the CBS-TV analysts picked up the Bakersfield Californian phrase that Clark and the Libertarian Party might well be the “wave of the future.”

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Dick Randolph, first Libertarian to win a state legislative seat

As the election neared, Clark began to show up in the polls: first it was 2%, then 3%. The Clark campaign had set for itself at the outset what seemed to be an almost “impossible goal”: 5% of the votes. I doubt whether anyone in the campaign expected that impossible dream to be achieved.

Then the votes were tallied: Ed Clark had received the phenomenal total of 374,000 votes, more than any Libertarian candidate had ever achieved, 5.5% of the total in the nation’s largest state. Even I, the prophet of optimism, had been outflanked; for I had guessed about 50% less than Clark actually received. Think of it: Clark received 7 times the California total gained by MacBride, and 5.5% of the total vote compared to Mac-Bride’s 0.7%. Looked at another way, Clark’s total was no less than 15% of the votes of Republican candidate Evelle Younger, and in the San Francisco Bay Area the Clark proportion of the Younger vote totalled 25%.

Possibly it was premature when, after the 1976 election, the prestigious Congressional Quarterly listed the Libertarian Party as the “third major party” in the United States. Certainly it is premature no longer. We are now the third major party. We are now an authentic mass movement. We are the wave of the future. Libertarianism is an idea and a party whose time has come. We have arrived, and we are going to win.