Our Platform: The Essential Link Between Principles and People

in Vanguard Viewpoint

The Libertarian Party has been developing and publishing platforms from the beginning. There was a temporary platform even before the first national convention, and subsequent versions of the national platform were for several decades all incremental derivations of that. And while there have been some more dramatic shifts in content and style in the past two decades, the platform remains one of our most important governing documents.

Cover of 1982 LP Platform
Image: 1983 Platform

In spite of this long history, some Libertarians question why we even need a platform. We have our Statement of Principles – that should be enough, they say, to define what we are about. Or they say that it should be up to our candidates to address specific issues in more detail, because that’s how the other parties do things.

However, the Libertarian Party was intended from the beginning to not be like other parties in this respect. We are not supposed to be merely a group of politicians with the common goal of being elected. Nor are we supposed to be a party with a loose and ever-shifting brand. The founders of our party envisioned it as an institution that would be much more consistent, both in terms of the positions taken by candidates at a given time and in terms of the stability of those positions over time, than either of the existing major parties.

Let’s review why a platform is still important in fulfilling the vision of our type of party.

The Functions of a Platform

First of all, even though our Statement of Principles (SoP) serves an essential function in anchoring our positions on issues, the appropriate application of those principles to specific issues is far from obvious. This should be clear to anyone who has participated in platform debates during conventions. While some of that debate is more about how we express our positions than the positions themselves, there are a number of areas where there simply is not a consensus, among our members and delegates, about what the proper “libertarian position” should be.

And even when there is consensus, that still doesn’t make the platform redundant, because that consensus can’t necessarily be found in the Statement of Principles itself. Several of the positions for which the LP is most well known are not mentioned directly in the Statement of Principles. There is no mention, for example, of taxation, or the War on Drugs, or anything at all about foreign policy. We may see strong connections between language in the SoP and what are now considered standard Libertarian positions, but the positions themselves are not stated there. In addition, we can’t rely on the fixed language of the SoP to adequately express our positions to average voters because the popular meaning of various terms changes with time. Consider, for example, that the SoP contains the phrase “right to life”, which is currently associated in most people’s minds with a set of positions which very clearly does not correspond with a consensus view within the LP.

However, despite continuing disagreement about a few issues, there is in fact a consensus on a great many issues within the LP. It’s useful to be able to document that fact, but we need something more than the SoP to do that job. These positions need to be recorded somewhere, using specific language. A platform is the way we do that.

The Importance of Having Documented Positions

Why, exactly, is it so important, even essential, to document these consensus positions? There are many reasons, all relating to another key feature of a political party – that it is as much about people as it is about ideas. Principles and positions can’t implement themselves.

So the most basic way that a platform is useful is as a mechanism for maintaining the link between membership and ideas. We can’t expect advocacy and implementation of our ideas from people who don’t agree with them. Everything we do as a party depends on achieving and maintaining a consensus about our goals. That doesn’t mean we all have to agree on absolutely everything, but since the whole point of creating a new party was to be an alternative to the overly broad and continually drifting coalitions that the Republicans and Democrats had become, with their consequent lack of commitment to the principles of liberty across the board, it is absolutely vital that we be able to maintain an ideological commitment among our membership, one that is both much more focused and much more persistent than is the case with those other parties. The platform helps us do that in three distinct ways.

First, it is the basis for recruitment, by allowing people whose views are already largely in line with our goals to see that the LP is the party for them. This does not mean, as some critics of the platform are fond of posing as a straw man argument, that sticking the text of the platform in front of prospective members is the best way to actually recruit them. Although doing exactly that will be effective for some prospective members, most new members will be brought in using other tools and processes, ranging from issue brochures, to campaign videos, to personal conversations with existing members. But the ideological consistency of the membership brought in through all of those mechanisms in turn depends on the consistency of the messages being delivered through them, for which the platform is the essential, underlying foundation.

Second, it is the basis for internal education. Most people who join us, even after they have formally become members and started contributing financially or as volunteers, will not have views fully consistent with our goals. In some cases they may have been attracted to the LP by our positions on only a few issues, or possibly even just one. But most of them will be able, if they are given the opportunity, to learn why our positions on other issues are the right ones. As with recruitment, while giving new members a copy of the platform itself and telling them to study it like a catechism may not be the ideal approach to internal education, the platform plays an essential part in maintaining the consistency of the message that new members will be getting in every other way.

And the process of platform development, the way we go about making changes to our platform, also plays a significant role in internal education. When members attend a convention and participate in debating and voting on platform amendments, they get an opportunity to consider libertarian perspectives on a wide variety of issues, some of which they may have never thought about before. Both the arguments presented and the way they get resolved can help these members increase their understanding of, and ultimately agreement with, the evolving consensus libertarian positions on those issues.

This sort of “learning by doing” is almost always more effective in imparting knowledge than mere study of a static text. Some members will of course be even more deeply involved in the process, by becoming members of a platform committee, which will give them an even stronger understanding of why we take the positions we do, which they can then use to help spread that understanding to other members outside the formal platform process.

Third, the platform helps preserve the ideological consistency of our membership by letting some people know that the LP is not for them, at least not yet. Of course we want to grow our membership, but that’s only useful in the long run to the degree that people join us for the right reasons, because they agree with our principles and goals. To the degree that they don’t, they will be less helpful in promoting and supporting what we are trying to do. And to the degree that they actually disagree with us they can hinder our progress. Helping people who actually disagree with us, either on a fundamental level or on a large number of specific issues, recognize that fact by comparing their own views, directly or indirectly, to what we say in our platform, even though it may hinder our effort to grow our numbers in the short term, helps our overall membership development process in the long run, through a process of self-selection.

Beyond those effects, the platform has special significance when members take on other roles. The most important example is that of candidates for public office. Like members generally, members who run for office are often motivated by, and are most familiar with, relatively few issues. But unlike members generally, it’s often necessary for candidates to take public positions on other issues with which they are less familiar. It’s an expected part of their role. And our members expect our candidates to take positions that are consistent with our principles, with our ideological “brand”, and with the positions of other Libertarians running for office. A detailed platform is very helpful both for candidates who are trying to fulfill this important role and for members in deciding whom to support. The larger the number of issues on which a candidate or potential candidate agrees with the position stated in our platform, the more likely that person will support the views of most of our members, both currently and in the future.

But it’s not just candidates. In many cases our party officers also play a role in presenting our ideas to the public, and our platform provides similar types of guidance to them. Other volunteer and paid staff may also serve officially or unofficially in this role. Tonie Nathan, our first candidate for Vice President who then went on to serve for many decades in various kinds of publicity and press relations positions within the party, often commented on the value of the platform in her work. When something came up in the news or she was asked a question by a reporter, even if it was something about which she personally knew very little, she almost always could come up with a statement that would be supported by party leaders and most members by checking the platform. She did not need to attempt to derive an appropriate position from first principles or wait for some committee to deliberate on the issue. In most cases something was already in the platform that she could quote directly, and when there wasn’t then there were at least enough points in there about related issues that she could by interpolation come up with something that would make sense. Without a platform with that level of detail, it would not have been possible for her to do that kind of job.

Objections to a Detailed Platform

In spite of all of these reasons that make a clear and comprehensive platform essential, there are still some who object, saying we don’t need one, or that if we have one it should be very different in form. Most of these arguments relate to the length of the document.

They say it is too long to read – that nobody will want to read it. That’s not even true. Some people will want to read it. But it misses the critical point that it is not necessary for anybody to read the whole thing for it to serve the important functions outlined above. It can serve all of those functions even if people only refer to it part by part.

They say most people aren’t interested even in reading small parts of it, because most people aren’t interested in reading at all. They point out that most voters today, especially younger voters, get their information about politics from media that are not structured as plain text. That misses the critical point that the platform is not intended to stand alone as our only tool for marketing our positions. Of course we should be making use of many other kinds of tools, from live and recorded formal speeches to bumper stickers to podcasts to music videos to “meme” graphics to personal one-on-one conversations.

But we need a way to consistently represent, compare, and amend the positions on which all of those other styles of communication are based, and with which they must be consistent. Short of adopting some even more formal language, something akin to mathematical notation or a computer programming language, which even fewer people would be interested in reading, written English text remains the most effective tool for these kinds of tasks.

Finally, they say that spelling out detailed positions on a large number of specific topics has the effect of scaring people away, because it gives almost everyone some reason to not want to join us. As explained above, this is missing the big picture. We want people to join us who agree generally with our goals. Almost nobody agrees with every position of the other parties or any particular individual politician for that matter – and yet millions of people support them. The answer is not to make our ideas and their implications for specific laws and government programs harder to see. If we grow our numbers that way we will only be fooling ourselves. The only way we can make actual progress toward “a world set free in our lifetime” is by figuring out ways to get people to understand that it is the entire package that we offer, a package of more individual choice and less government control, that is better than the packages presented by other parties.

The Role of State Platforms

Some activists accept the usefulness of a platform, but question why we need more than just a national platform. Since our ideas are supposed to be universal, isn’t one statement for the whole country enough? The answer is no, for many of the same reasons why we need a platform in the first place, and for at least one additional reason.

Issues can come up in a particular state – or even a particular city – that are not addressed in the national platform, and all the same advantages of being able to document our positions apply. Having a clear statement of our positions helps in recruiting new members at the state and local level. It helps develop the understanding of those new members about issues with which they may not be familiar. And it helps keep us on track by discouraging people who might agree with us on just one issue, but disagree on fundamentals, from becoming formal, voting members.

Even more important is the role of a state platform process in integrating new members. Not everybody who joins or becomes active in their local or state LP organization will attend a national convention and have a chance to participate in the debate and voting that happens there. Not everybody who is interested enough in developing platform amendments can serve on the national Platform Committee.

The process of developing a platform at the state level – typically involving a state-level platform committee and then debate and voting during a state convention – not only creates the opportunity for development of ideas of special relevance to politics in that state, but even more importantly it creates opportunities for a much larger number of people to be involved in that kind of process. Members who are seriously interested in platform development can much more easily volunteer to serve on a state platform committee than the one at the national level, and the rest of the members who are interested enough to attend their state convention also become part of the process, giving them exposure both to libertarian approaches to issues and appropriate ways to express them.

These activities at the state level also indirectly provide support for the platform development process at the national level, both in terms of ideas and people. Many of the people who start out attending a state convention will go on to be delegates at the national convention. Some of the members of a state platform committee may go on to be members of the national Platform Committee. And if they do, their experiences at the state level will help prepare them for those roles. They may also, through work on a state platform, help develop ideas and language that eventually finds its way into the national platform.

Finally, maintaining platforms and a process for developing them at the state level provides a kind of distributed safeguard against possible failures at the national level. While the process at the national level includes fairly strong mechanisms to keep the national platform aligned with both the Statement of Principles and the views of members on particular issues, it is not impossible to imagine cases where these mechanisms could be overwhelmed by circumstances, resulting in a platform that becomes seriously disconnected from the views of a large portion of our membership, at least for a time.

For example, while we generally attempt to recruit a presidential candidate who is already largely in agreement with our platform, and expect him or her to run a campaign consistent with it, or at the very least to acknowledge any significant deviations, we can’t be sure that will always be the case. If a candidate came along who had a significant disagreement with the existing libertarian consensus on important issues but was able to recruit a large enough number of people as delegates to the national convention, specifically because of its role in making the nomination, it’s possible that those same delegates would also amend the national platform to match that candidate’s views. There are several planks in the current national platform that seem particularly vulnerable to modification or deletion under such circumstances. State platforms provide a “backup” mechanism, allowing the larger portion of our membership and our other candidates that year to still have a platform that reflects the broader and longer-term consensus libertarian positions.

To some extent, platforms developed and published by caucuses, and similar sets of written statements by other groups with a particular focus within the party, can also serve some of these same functions. Because their membership, practically by definition, is limited to only a portion of the entire party, their ability to provide the benefit of “learning by doing” is correspondingly limited, and so their usefulness is more skewed to the idea side than the people side. But to the degree that they encourage their own members to participate in the development of their platforms they can help create additional opportunities for members to learn, and as long as they base their ideas on our common Statement of Principles they can help in developing, supporting, and maintaining a consensus message.

The Essential Link

In summary, a platform is an important tool for defining and maintaining our purpose as a party, and a set of mutually reinforcing national, state, and possibly additional platforms is even better. These platforms are important both because of the way they document our positions and because of the role they play in the development of our membership. A political party is not just a set of ideas, nor is it just a collection of people – it is a combination of both, and for an ideologically-focused party like ours, our platform is the essential link between the two.