The night before the 2008 Nevada Republican convention, the Ron Paul delegates all met at a Reno high school. Although I’d called myself a libertarian for almost my entire adult life, it was my first exposure to the wider movement.
And boy, was it a circus. Many members of the group were obsessed with the gold standard, the Kennedy assassination and the Fed. Although Libertarians believe government is incompetent, many of them subscribe to the most fringe conspiracy theories imaginable. Airplanes are poisoning America with chemicals (chemtrails) or the moon landings were faked. Nothing was too far out. A great many of them really think that 9-11 was an inside job. Even while basking in the electoral mainstream, the movement was overflowing with obvious hokum.
During the meeting, a Ron Paul staffer, a smart and charismatic young woman, gave a tip to the group for the upcoming convention.
“Dress normal,” she said. “Wear suits, and don’t bring signs or flags. Don’t talk about conspiracy theories. Just fit in.” Her advice was the kind you might hear given to an insane uncle at Thanksgiving.
Then next day, I ran into that same operative at the convention, and I complimented her because Ron Paul delegates were being accepted into the crowd. I added, “We‘re going to win this thing.”
“Bring in the clowns,” she said, and smiled before I lost her in the mass of people.
I will never forget that moment: Bring in the clowns. At the time, I considered myself a thoughtful person, yet I could hardly claim to be one if you judged me by the company I kept. The young lady knew something I had not yet learned: Most of our supporters were totally nuts.
I came by my own libertarian sensibilities honestly. I grew up in a mining town that produced gold, silver and copper; but above all, Battle Mountain, Nev., made libertarians. Raised on 40-acre square of brown sage brush and dead earth, we burned our own garbage and fired guns in the backyard.
After leaving my small-town upbringing, I learned that libertarians are made for lots of reasons, like reading the bad fiction of Ayn Rand or perhaps the passable writing of Robert Heinlein. In my experience, most seemed to be poor, white and undereducated. They were contortionists, justifying the excesses of the capitalist elite, despite being victims if libertarian politics succeed.
If you think that selfishness and cruelty are fantastic personal traits, you might be a libertarian. In the movement no one will ever call you a jerk, but rather, say you believe in radical individualism.
Yet, I don’t want to gloss over the good things about libertarians. They are generally supportive of the gay community, completely behind marijuana legalization and are often against ill-considered foreign wars, but a few good ideas don’t make up for some spectacularly bad ones. Their saving grace is a complete lack of organizational ability, which is why they are always trying to take over the Republican Party, rather than create a party of their own.
The Ron Paul delegates were able to take over the Nevada convention in 2008, howling, screeching and grinding it to a painful halt. I was part of the mob, and once we took over, we were unable to get anything done. The national delegates were appointed in secret later.
The Republican convention didn’t turn me off of libertarians, but I started losing respect for the movement while watching the financial meltdown. Libertarians were (rightly) furious when our government bailed out the banks, but they fought hardest against help for ordinary Americans. They hated unemployment insurance and reduced school lunches. I used to say similar things, but in such a catastrophic recession isn’t the government supposed to help? Isn’t that the lesson of the Great Depression?
Through all the turmoil, the presidential election went ahead. Although I didn’t vote for him, I wept when Barack Obama took the oath of office in early 2009. They were tears of bewilderment, joy, pride and hope, despite the fact that I did everything within my own limited power to keep the moment from ever happening.
From the ashes of the election rose the movement that pushed me from convinced libertarian into bunny-hugging liberal. The tea party monster forever tainted the words freedom and libertarian for me. The rise of the tea party made me want to puke, and my nausea is now a chronic condition.
There are a lot of libertarians in the tea party, but there are also a lot of religious nuts and intolerant racists. “Birthers” found a comfy home among 9-11 conspiracy people and other crackpots. After only a few months, I had absolutely no desire to ever be linked to this group of people.
As evidence, I offer the most repugnant example of many complaints. I’ve heard the n-word used in casual conversation from people I would never expect. Some people might not believe it or think I’m playing the race card, but I’m not. I’ve heard the word more than I care to admit and more often in the run-up to the 2012 election. Perhaps because I’m a big, fat and bald white guy with a mean goatee, racists think I’m on board with them. I am not, and I’m ashamed to admit that my cowardice at confronting this ugliness makes me complicit.
During Obama’s first term, I also went to graduate school for creative writing at a progressive college, and I settled into my marriage with my wife, a Canadian and “damn liberal.” I can’t point to just one thing that pushed me left, but in Obama’s first term I had a change of heart, moving from a lifelong extreme into the bosom of conventional liberalism.
I began to think about real people, like my neighbors and people less lucky than me. Did I want those people to starve to death? I care about children, even poor ones. I love the National Park system. The best parts of the America I love are our communities. My libertarian friends might call me a commie (they have) or a wimp, but extreme selfishness is just so isolating and cruel. Libertarianism is unnatural, and the size of the federal government is almost irrelevant. The real question is: What does society need and how do we pay for it?
A month before the 2012 election, I changed my party affiliation to Democrat. I am a very late bloomer, that it took me so many decades to develop my own values. I was 39.
I don’t think regular Americans have any idea just how crazy libertarians can be. The only human corollary I can offer is unquestioning religious fervor, and yeah, I used to be a true believer. Libertarians think they own the word “freedom,” but it’s a word that often obfuscates more than enlightens. If you believe the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe quote “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free,” then libertarians live in a prison of their own ideology.
Edgar Lyngar is writer who lives in Reno.