The man at the podium wore a light lime-green, calf-length, flowing toga that matched his foam Statue of Liberty tiara, which barely contained an enormous, straggly fright wig. For good measure, he also sported a "MISS AMERICA" sash and some modest falsies.
"Hello, fellow Libertarians," he said, greeting hundreds of (far more conservatively dressed) delegates to the party's national convention. "I'm Starchild, from San Francisco, Calif."
Needless to say, politics as usual was not on the agenda last weekend, when hundreds of Libertarians gathered in the downtown Hilton Hotel to set a course for one of America's most durable, competitive and radical minor parties (see "Live Free! (or Die Trying)," WW, June 28, 2006).
The activists came to debate platform planks, elect officers and wrangle over internal disputes—just like their Republican and Democratic counterparts. To an outside observer, though, the best thing about the biennial gathering was how far removed it felt from the grim partisan struggle of the two-party national scene.
The Libertarians' wild-card principles—they oppose most government, taxes and regulations, and champion individual freedom above all else—might seem a little eccentric.
But if nothing else, they are optimists and outside-the-box dreamers. And they attack politics with refreshingly free-spirited, unpolished gusto. (One speaker, for instance, approvingly described a candidate for the party's national committee as "a biker and a smoker." Good luck imagining Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Gordon Smith making a similar pitch at their parties' conventions.)
In the trade-show corral outside the Hilton's dimly lit ballroom, I met Varrin Swearingen, president of the Free State Project.
The project aims to persuade 20,000 Libertarians to move to New Hampshire—"probably the most free state in the country," Swearingen said, with an aim to keep it that way.
According to Swearingen, about 7,200 people have already committed to U-Hauling it to New Hampshire to join a few hundred early arrivals in putting the Libertarians' imprint on politics in the Granite State (pop. 1.3 million).
"Seven figures' worth of government spending and taxes have been prevented by people in the project," Swearingen said. "And you can still smoke in bars in New Hampshire because we got together to kill a bill in the Legislature."
Across the room—beyond the folks from Topeka hawking red boxer shorts adorned with Lib slogans, and the lady from Georgia selling a book subtitled 872 Libertarian Talking Points You Can Use Right Now—I found Rob Power. A self-described "San Franciscan living in exile while my husband goes to Harvard," Power is chair of Outright Libertarians, the party's gay-lesbian-bi-transgender caucus. The convention left him a very happy man.
"We got everything we wanted," Power said of platform planks calling for the repeal of anti-gay marriage legislation and endorsement of adoption rights for same-sex couples. "The Libertarians have been very gay-friendly from the beginning, but we now have a 21st-century platform to match. It wouldn't have happened at the Atlanta convention two years ago. Being in Portland, we have a lot more West Coast people here."
Back in the ballroom, a delegate at the microphone mused on the outsider status that is both Libertarians' curse and the blessing that allows them to fly their political freak flag high. "I enjoy being called an extremist," the man said. "Who else would you want guarding your freedom?"