In the private party room of a Mexican restaurant with streamers dangling from the ceiling tiles, a group of regulars gets together for dinner.
Ken Morgan is a theatrical producer. Andrew Goebel is an archeology student at Carthage College. Matt Sama is a recent graduate and wardrobe consultant at Men’s Wearhouse. They say they all have a common goal: to be free.
On the last Wednesday of every month, the Libertarian Party of Milwaukee County meets at Los Mariachis in Greenfield.
At the pre-election September meeting, they aren’t in their usual spot up by the bar.
Margaritas and Coronas are all around the table. Later, enchiladas. Right away, the conversation goes to the status of Gary Johnson’s campaign, and the opinion is varied. Most express support for him, some only because he is the chosen nominee for the party. But there are more elections to worry about.
They run through updates on the other campaigns. Seven candidates from the Libertarian Party of Wisconsin are running for office. Andy Craig is running for U.S Congress in the 4th District, covering all of the city of Milwaukee. Across the table sits Matthew Bughman, running for Congress in the 7th district– Miller Park, Greenfield, and West Milwaukee. Phil Anderson is running for U.S. Senate.
Anderson speaks to the group with optimism for libertarianism, and a firm belief in the message.
“We are telling the truth,” he says.
The meeting wraps up after a couple hours. Before leaving, the candidates distribute campaign yard signs and door hangers to the group. They urge everyone to take extra signs for friends. After all, it is better for them to be out in yards than in a garage, says Anderson. Libertarians need all the exposure they can get.
2016 has been called “the Libertarian Moment,” and there are more self-identifying libertarians than ever before, with membership of the Libertarian Party increasing by 500 percent from April 2015 to 2016. This was undoubtedly an important election year for the liberty movement. One in four Americans had an unfavorable opinion of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, more than double number who disliked both candidates in 2012. Quadruple the rate in 2008. This opened the door for third parties, especially the Libertarian Party, to appeal to dissatisfied voters. But there was widespread doubt that the right candidate for the “moment” was nominated.
For the second presidential election in a row, the Libertarian Party nominated Gary Johnson, an entrepreneur and former Republican governor of New Mexico. He won just over 4 million votes in the election, a jump from only 1.2 million votes in 2012. This year he earned just over 3 percent of the vote. Five percent would have made the Libertarian Party eligible for matching funds, and the federal government would then match whatever money they raised– a huge missed opportunity to grow. But libertarianism as an ideology is still growing despite political roadblocks. During the primaries, Johnson failed to reach 15 percent in the polls and was left out of the debates, yet after each debate the Google searches for “Libertarian” and “Gary Johnson” and other related terms skyrocketed.
Phil Anderson is the general manager of Green Cab company in Madison, and a real estate broker. He’s been a member of the Libertarian Party for a little over two years and ran for State Assembly in 2014. Like many Libertarians, he saw how Ron Paul was treated in 2012 and was disgusted by how the election played out. He thinks the Republican Party has drifted from conservative small government principles. They are driven by money. There is no money in Libertarian politics because they are a bad investment– against big money and pro individual rights. Because of this, Anderson became a Libertarian.
He finds there are different points of emphasis in each state Libertarian Party: Wisconsin has economic issues and social issues like legalizing marijuana. People usually are open to voting Libertarian, after an initial reaction of wasting their vote. When he talks about core beliefs like the non-aggression principle and government transparency, everyone agrees with it. They are receptive to the principles and issues, but it’s a question of getting the critical mass of people to the polls so people don’t feel like they’re wasting their vote.
Libertarianism is not just a set of principles. Anderson believes the future of the Libertarian Party will be bright if they continue to run candidates. Local politics like zoning and school boards can be good for communities and neighborhoods. Local, state and national candidates can expose people to what Libertarians do once elected. But getting elected is hard in a divided movement.
There is tension between principle and pragmatism among libertarians. There are three caucuses of libertarianism: radical, pragmatic and paleo. The radical caucus is the Libertarian Party wing and the pragmatic caucus is focused on real world solutions.
“That tension is healthy,” said Anderson. “Libertarians can ask, are we holding to our principles and are we viable?”
Gary Johnson is exciting to Anderson, though he isn’t suited to 10 second soundbites. He likes that about Johnson, and thinks it makes him more sincere and viable.
He thinks the mainstream media latches on to things Johnson says to take him down. Asking “What’s Aleppo?” may not have been as big of deal as they made it out to be.
Going forward, Anderson believes they just need to keep identifying people and keep them connected. Libertarian politics are not always welcome, but a group of like-minded people makes a safe place to express political beliefs.
“We’re building a culture of liberty.”
A 22-year old could do a lot of things with $1,300.
Jordan Hansen decided to invest it in a campaign for State Assembly. A recent graduate from UW- Oshkosh, Hansen is a Libertarian running against a Democrat with no Republican in the race.
His target demographics are college students and young people, and Republicans who don’t have a candidate in the race. Voters have been very open to voting for a 22-year old, the opposite of what he expected. Surprisingly, younger voters are brushing him off as inexperienced, but older people are liking him.
At first, he thought he had a shot at winning, but how he is sure he will lose badly. Despite his expectations, no more money has come in after his own investment. During the summer, he would spend around 50 hours a week knocking on doors.
If he wins, he will carry out his duties, but then will be done working in government.
“Campaigning has shown me the ugly side of politics,” said Hansen. “It’s hurt my hope for reversing the growth of government.”
He thinks the future of libertarianism is in philosophy and activism versus the Libertarian Party. The value of the party is to promote the message, but breaking the two party system is hard.
He supported Gary Johnson’s nomination, though he thinks he is not the best libertarian but has credentials and can bring positive attention to the party.
Like Anderson, he said the media has dragged Johnson’s gaffes out of proportion for the sake of their parties.
When Hansen first joined the liberty movement, he thought the Republican Party could be taken over by libertarians. But when Rand Paul lost in the primaries, he lost hope for it.
He doesn’t know if there is a future for Libertarian Parties anywhere. States like Utah, Nevada, Alaska, and New Hampshire have a future for Libertarian Party because of libertarian and 3rd party voting tendencies.
Wisconsin should have built a strong Libertarian Party in 1972, when the memory of the Progressive Party was still alive– when people had voted for parties that weren’t Republican or Democrat. Now, he’s afraid the third party spirit may be dead.
“I’m not optimistic that the Libertarian Party has a big future in Wisconsin,” he said. “I hope I’m wrong.”
Andrew Goebel first got involved with libertarianism through Ron Paul his freshman year at Carthage College. Then, he joined his campus’ Young Americans for Liberty chapter.
Young Americans for Liberty is non-profit organization that seeks to “identify, educate, train and mobilize youth activists committed to winning on principle.” They have over 800 chapters nationwide and growing. Because of their nonprofit tax status, they can’t endorse candidates. In order to work more closely with the party, Goebel changed his group’s name to Carthage College Libertarians.
Goebel is also a Campus Coordinator for Students for Liberty (SFL), another non-partisan organization in the liberty movement. These groups, popular on campuses across the country, are spreading the message of liberty, but not advancing the party or working with candidates.
He got involved with the Libertarian Party “through his own volition” when he volunteered for the Johnson campaign. It wasn’t due to any outreach by the party to college students.
Student activism is a major part of the liberty movement. It has its place, but the activism is often confined to college campuses.
Goebel thinks Libertarians need to tap into the Democrats. They’ve already tapped into Republicans heavily.
In the primaries, like many “conservatarian” millennials, Goebel voted for Rand Paul. During this time, he was also part of the #NeverTrump movement. Now he sees a libertarian case for Trump, as pragmatically he would be better than Clinton.
Election night finally arrives. In the shadow of the Wisconsin State Capitol, the Libertarians meet at Brocach Irish Pub to watch the returns. The party has a relaxed vibe, lacking the tension that might have been down the street at Republican or Democrat get togethers.
It was a record-breaking night across the board. Andy Craig earned 11.3 percent in his Congressional race, the highest percentage that a Libertarian has ever had for Congress in Wisconsin.
Phil Anderson won 3 percent of the vote in the senate race with 87,291 votes. Jordan Hansen reeled in 30 percent of the vote in his assembly race.
Anderson’s returns were in the expected range, between 2 and 10 percent. What was more exciting for him was the Presidential race.
More people voted Libertarian for president in 2016 than have voted for every other Libertarian presidential nominee not named “Johnson” combined. All of the candidates from 1972 to 2008 added together had fewer votes than Gary Johnson got this year.
Jordan Hansen was disappointed in his race.
He was disappointed that they couldn’t do more. If he had volunteers knocking on doors, distributing literature and if he had enough money to get something in the hands of every voter, even just one thing, he thinks they could have done a lot better.
However, $1,300 dollars to 30 percent is a good vote to dollar ratio.
As a LPWI record breaker, Hansen isn’t sure about what the next election will hold for the state party. It depends on a lot of variables if they will break the records– the recipe of hating Trump and Clinton won’t be there next time.
Trump will drive liberals to libertarians. Conservatives will be driven to the alt-right.
“A lot of liberals are realizing their own brand of liberalism isn’t working anymore,” said Hansen. “They’re looking for a new ideological home.”
He’s pulling for Trump, but the worse he does the better it will be for libertarianism.
As for 2020, he thinks things should be done a little differently.
“Pragmatism didn’t work. It was Libertarian-light, and people saw through it.”
His pick for president is Austin Petersen, founder of The Libertarian Republic and a favorite early competitor with Johnson. Also running is Adam Kokesh, an abolitionist running on the platform of dismantling the federal government within four years.
Because of the nature of libertarians generally disapproving of government, being a politician is hard for some of them.
“For anyone considering running for office, don’t do it,” said Hansen.
But it wasn’t an entirely bad experience.
“I was able to look people in the eye and see them to see somebody else, a different option. Somebody that actually represented them,” he said.
“I can’t tell you how many times I heard people say to me, ‘You’re the first politician that I’ve ever felt actually represents my views.’ Those moments made my day. Knowing the next door I knock on, I’m gonna get a door slammed in my face. I’m gonna get yelled and have people harassing me. You gotta be really thick skinned to get through it all. And I was doing everything alone. I was the only person motivating me to get out and knock on doors in 90-degree heat in a shirt and tie.”
Back by the Los Mariachis bar in their usual spot, a couple tables of new and familiar libertarians come together for an unusual Thursday night meeting.
It’s December 1st, and the Milwaukee Libertarians haven’t met officially since the election. Because of the last-minute date change, seven members surround the table.
They already have their eyes on the midterm election, with seats up for State Assembly, U.S Senate, U.S Congress and governor.
“We are committed to being more organized this time around as a party,” said Anderson. “County fairs, all the places we need to be to connect with the voters.”
Anderson believes the records set in the state this year will be beat in next election.
“The demographics are in our favor,” he said. “The secondary goal of my campaign was to find libertarians and bring them into the party, and we’ve done that.”
He is hoping for some positive things in foreign and economic policy from Trump. He predicted that with a Hillary win, Republicans would have gone back to being a little more libertarian and capture Gary Johnson and Bernie Sanders voters on foreign and social policy. But now, a lot is unknown.
“We have to wait and see what Trump does,” he said.
Trump might go in a libertarian direction, but if he doesn’t, Anderson thinks the nation may see a more of an exodus of people to the Libertarian Party.
“People really believe and feel, regardless of how they identify themselves now, that they should live their lives as they choose,” he said. “If we just stick to our message, the government will do the bad things that it does and it will continue to make our case. The message is powerful, and it’s timeless.”