Harry Browne is a normal guy. He’s got a dog, a nice wife, and a respectable job. He doesn’t smoke marijuana. He doesn’t own a semi-automatic weapon or plant bombs. He’s not a maladjusted computer geek with a bunch of antisocial neuroses.
Browne lives down Hillsboro Road, in Franklin. From there, he is launching a campaign for the presidency of the United States. Browne is the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee.
If anybody thinks of the Libertarian Party as a bunch of outcasts and loners who have jumped into politics because of their psychological deficiencies and emotional problems, Browne hopes that he can prove them wrong.
When it comes to Tennessee politics, Browne is a virtual unknown. That situation can be explained, in part, by the fact that he just moved to Franklin from California last year. But he clearly has an impressive résumé, and, while many still figure the Libertarian Party is just one step removed from the Montana Freemen, the national press is being much more receptive to Browne and his colleagues during this election cycle.
Browne is the author of nine books on the investment market and the economy and one book on an individualist’s way of life; three of his books have reached the New York Times bestseller list. The titles of his works offer some clue into Browne’s prophet-of-doom outlook on the world’s economy: They include How You Can Profit From the Coming Devaluation, You Can Profit From a Monetary Crisis, and How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World.
When he is not writing books, the 63-year-old Browne is a financial advisor and newsletter writer. He also goes about the daily business of campaigning for the White House.
In recent months Browne has appeared on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer, on CNN, and on C-SPAN. Last week, his campaign brought him a highly laudatory column by the respected Washington Post writer David Broder, who speculated that the Libertarians may play a more significant role in this election-year debate.
Meanwhile, Browne hasn’t even posted a campaign sign in his own front yard in Franklin. He says his next-door neighbor just found out three weeks ago that he was, in fact, pursuing the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination. When the party’s 550 delegates met in Washington, D.C., a little more than a week ago to nominate their candidate, however, Browne got the nod.
His achievement didn’t just happen overnight. Browne has been running for the nomination since 1994, and he has raised $800,000 in the process. He is now the chief spokesman for the party’s platform, which is solidly grounded in the belief that in all circumstances, real or imagined, less government is preferable to more government.
As a result of its ideology, the Libertarian Party sometimes is in line with the furthest extremes of Democratic Party liberalism; at other times it resembles the most conservative branches of the GOP. On the one hand, Libertarians favor legalization of drugs. At the same time, they advocate an end to the personal income tax. They favor no border control, yet argue against mandatory health care coverage for U.S. citizens.
The Libertarian Party has adopted a platform that includes proposals to eliminate the Education Department, to abolish the Internal Revenue Service, to deregulate health care, and to privatize Medicare and Medicaid.
“You can sum up Libertarianism by saying we favor individual liberty, personal responsibility, and freedom from government on all issues at all times,” says Browne. “Force is the least efficient way of solving social problems, and government is force.
“If there’s a problem, we don’t say, ‘How can government solve this problem?’ We say, ‘How did government cause this problem?’ ”
This year is an historic one for the Libertarian Party in Tennessee. Not only does the party’s presidential nominee live here, but the party has also recruited candidates to run in all nine of the state’s U.S. congressional districts and in the U.S. Senate race against incumbent Republican Fred Thompson.
It’s the first time in Tennessee history that any third party has fielded qualified candidates in all of the state’s congressional races. The Tennessee party’s most successful year, previously, had been 1976, when four Libertarian candidates ran for Congress.
The Libertarians on this year’s slate are “all pretty good candidates. It’s just the funding that’s the problem. We’re not big enough,” says Scott Benson, state chairman of the Libertarian Party and a Northwest Airlines pilot. He estimates that the party’s official membership in Tennessee is approximately 500. Benson made an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 1992, running against incumbent Democrat Bart Gordon. Benson is not on the ballot this year.
The Libertarian Party is something of an enigma. It has a reputation for attracting an eclectic mix of economic conservatives and social liberals, many of whom are misfits and rebels and many of whom share a tendency to oppose almost all restrictions on gun ownership. But Browne says the party’s membership is broadening and that it has grown 50 percent over the last couple of years. The formal membership roster is about 15,000 names long, and there are several hundred thousand more people who aren’t members but who embrace the party’s ideology, Browne says.
“The only way we’re going to turn [the nation] around is if people stand up for what they believe,” Browne says. “It isn’t that people are afraid to stand up. It’s simply that they think it’s an exercise in futility. That’s a long, slow process to overcome. We’ve been working on it for 25 years, and I think we’re finally scoring.”
Browne’s appearances on radio talk shows and political roundtables and his interviews published in newspapers across the country certainly aren’t hurting the effort. He left for New York this week and was even scheduled to tape a segment for MTV.
He predicts that he’ll begin to start showing up on polls in the next few weeks and that as many as 10 percent of American voters will support him. He hopes that, if that happens, he’ll be able to raise $10 million over the next four months.
“If I don’t show up on the radar screen, we’ll just keep working and keep talking to voters. Then we’ll try a poll again next month and see where we are.”
Compared to likely reality, Browne’s predictions seem, of course, wildly optimistic. Nevertheless, the Libertarian Party, in terms of candidate numbers, is the third largest political party in the United States. According to party literature, the Libertarian Party was founded in 1971 in the Colorado home of David Nolan. The party’s first national convention was held there in 1972, when John Hospers, a philosophy professor at the University of Southern California, was nominated for the presidency. Hospers’ running mate, Tonie Nathan, became the first woman in U.S. history to receive a popular vote on a presidential ticket. Still, the duo was only on the ballot in two states and received just 3,671 votes.
In 1978, Dick Randolph of Alaska became the first elected Libertarian state legislator. In 1980, 1 million voters cast their ballots for the party’s presidential ticket; 1980 remains the best year ever in Libertarian Party history.
Today the party claims that 170 Libertarians hold state or local offices, a sharp contrast to Ross Perot’s Reform Party, which claims many fewer incumbents, if any. It is expected that more than 218 Libertarian candidates across the country will run for the U.S. House this year, three times the number who ran in 1994. Another 800 will run for other state and local offices this year, party officials say.
Just like Democrats and Republicans who have sought star power to add to their visibility, Libertarians point to Clint Eastwood, Tom Selleck, Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry, and radio talk show host Howard Stern as supporters. Federal Express Chairman Fred Smith of Memphis and many other corporate executives are also said to be among the party’s ideological and financial backers.
By the party’s own account, the average Libertarian is about 40 years old. The party membership includes more men than women, more whites than blacks, and an unusually large number of computer users.
“People who are interested in computers tend to be individualisticpeople who trust themselves and don’t trust others to do what’s right for them,” Browne says. “So they gravitate to the Libertarian Party.”
It is the Libertarian/computer angle that has piqued the interest of a number of political theorists. As the Washington Post’s Broder speculated last week, “I left the [Libertarian] convention thinking that these folks, easily dismissed as computer geeks and nerds, may be the advance guard of a more significant movement in decades to comeas more Americans join them in that personalized, almost isolated world of computer communicationso different from the town meeting and its offshoot, representative government.”
If computer addicts are also political animals, their political party of choice may turn out to be the Libertarian Party, where, Broder notes, they seem to have founded a community on the Internet. As more and more people plug into the Internet, they may also plug into the Libertarian Party.
Demographically, there is also a larger percentage of homosexuals in the Libertarian Party than in the population at large. As well, a larger percentage of atheists belong to the Libertarian Party than belong to the other political parties.
“I’d say, though, that atheists are still a minority in the party,” Browne says. “An overwhelming majority of the people who call themselves Libertarians are religious, and there are movements to convert Christians [to the party] on the basis that Christianity is really a Libertarian religion. It says that you must persuade people through words and not through force and so on.”
Many people, Browne says, gravitate to the party because of a single issue.
“There are an unusually large percentage of people who are concerned about gun rights, for example,” Browne says. “People very often come to the Libertarian Party with a single issue like that, but when they get into the party, their respect for liberty tends to broaden. They realize no one’s going to listen to them on just their concerns about guns.”
Browne has no illusions about his chances for winning the presidency. He is expected to be on the ballot in all 50 states and has qualified for federal matching campaign funds, but the party’s position is that he must decline to accept them.
“We don’t believe in welfare for individuals or corporations and certainly not for politicians,” he says. “That makes it tough for us.”
He calls his and the party’s effort a long shot but says, “I wouldn’t be running if I thought there were no chance of winning.”
“Most people are on our side. The challenge isn’t so much to persuade them that our alternative is right as it is to let them know our alternative exists.”
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