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Taking our message to the streets
Kendra Okonski 2001
Written for Liberty Magazine (unpublished to date)


Lately the pages of Liberty have been filled with reflections as to how libertarians, classical liberals, and free market advocates can "win." Some libertarians believe that it's a hopeless and futile cause: our ideas are doomed to disappear, failing to impact public policy and society. Some libertarians believe that we ought to reject politics, and "shrug" off the rest of the world; and some believe that the best way to achieve our desired world is to do it gradually, to demonstrate incrementally the positive effects that libertarian ideas can have on the world. And some libertarians believe that we should focus our efforts on electing libertarians to public office.

If we really care about libertarian ideas evolving out of books and into the world, however, we should focus on developing a rhetoric to go along with those ideas. Of particular importance is the need to imitate the tactics of our opponents (environmentalists, human and civil rights groups, anti-globalization groups), both in the short run and the long run. Strategizing, networking, organizing and communicating all play critical roles in these groups' efforts, mostly with great success. Libertarians should be willing to "take to the streets" with their ideas, and this article is an attempt to explain why this is the case.

The anti-globalization movement

The case for a new approach to marketing libertarian ideas is of particular relevance, due to the development of the anti-globalization movement as a credible, effective, and above all, active, political force.

The anti-globalization movement has long been in the making. It is the culmination of the technology and information revolution, the fall of communism in most of the world, the opening of global markets to capital and technology flows, the accumulation of wealth by guilty-feeling individuals who give their money to causes which undermine the very system that allowed them to create it, and the establishment of international agencies (the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and a host of United Nations programs) that wield increasing amounts of power in national politics.

Puzzling to the outsider, the anti-globalization movement is a strange coalition of groups who might, in other forums, be opposed to each other: labor unions, womens' rights groups, human rights groups, environmentalists, anarchists, Buchanan-like trade protectionists, and religious fundamentalists. They argue on a number of issues which appeal to wealthy Europeans and North Americans - biodiversity, environmental protection, labor standards, overpopulation, technophobia, ethnic and cultural diversity. The anti-globalization movement uses "developing world" spokespeople such as Vandana Shiva, a privileged Indian anti-biotechnology activist and academic, and a variety of "indigenous" individuals to oppose technological progress, free trade, and change itself. This is a direct appeal to the guilt complexes of the wealthy. But ask the Indian earthquake victims of this past January if they oppose modern construction, electricity, communications technology, or medicine, and the picture is no longer so clear.

These activists have turned protesting into an art form. Why do something constructive when you can protest, especially if you are a college student who is looking for a "cause" to embrace? These activists have given protests credibility once again; in some ways, the protest movement is a replay of the 1960s Vietnam War protesters. Merritt College and New College (in California, which is no surprise) offer classes in activism. The Ruckus Society, funded by media mogul Ted Turner, trains young people in how to engage in "civil disobedience." Among the skills they emphasize are teach-ins, sit-ins, puppet-making, hanging banners off bridges and buildings, avoiding arrest, how to talk to the media and many others.

Anti-globalization activism is in large part facilitated by non-governmental organizations - a broad array of public (special) interest groups now known as NGOs. In recent years, NGOs have become intimately involved in the international political arena. They participate at United Nations meetings and international treaty negotiations as "observers", but they lobby and influence country delegates to vote in favor of their agenda. NGO observers often outnumber the small number of delegates who represent developing countries. They come mostly from wealthy developed nations who support such "philanthropic" work, while developing countries can hardly afford to send any delegates at all.

NGOs have also entered the corporate world, and not as groups who produce something of value. They start by attacking international corporations as violators of environmental quality, labor standards, and human rights. Then they threaten corporations to "pay up" for their "misdeeds"; corporations are sometimes required to pay a settlement which in turn funds the groups that attacked them to begin with.

The global NGO movement is largely funded by American foundations, European governments and some wealthy individuals. It can mobilize its resources (both human and financial) to wherever they are needed around the world - whether it is at an international treaty negotiation, a meeting of Fortune500 businesspeople, or in order to blockade a shipment of genetically modified seeds. By no means do the members of these groups reject the technologies they oppose for everyone else in organizing and their publicity campaigns: their websites are designed by top-notch designers, they use cellular phones, they (gasp!) wear Nike tennis shoes and drink (gasp!) Starbucks coffee.

What is perhaps most impressive to the uninformed viewer is that these activists are young people - young people who ostensibly "care" about the plight of the planet and, to a lesser extent, its people. A large group of students participated in the United Nations' COP-6 global warming meeting in the Hague this past November. No matter which international agency is meeting, activists in their late teens and early to mid twenties are sure to engage in protest festivities. Groups like Students United Against Sweatshops, Students for a Free Tibet, and cooltheplanet.org all make use of young, impressionable minds to further their political agendas. Environmental groups distribute flashy, image-oriented, emotionally compelling marketing materials on college campuses around the world, to attract a generation whose attention span has been shortened by MTV and CNN.

This April will mark the first anniversary of the protests against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Washington, DC, where I live and work. It is clear from speaking with these protesters, and those at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, that they barely understand the acronyms "IMF" and "WTO," much less the function of these organizations. Hypocrisy runs rampant among these young people. They engage in a form of imperialism by opposing the freedom of people in developing countries to improve their living conditions and lifestyles while excoriating free trade and business for purportedly doing the same. Many of these kids haven't experienced poverty firsthand, but they romanticize about the meager lifestyles of the world's poor.

Liberty Institute founder Barun Mitra, an Indian colleague and friend, attended the Seattle protests as a free market observer, noted that one of the most ironic scenes of the protests was a young kid wearing Nike tennis shoes, smashing in the window of the Nike store. Like Seattle's protests, Washington, DC's, London's, Melbourne's, and Prague's brought much media attention to these protesters and to their ideas.

In a September 28 editorial entitled "Bricks and Bombs", the Wall Street Journal Europe said of the violent protests against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Prague: "Today's protesters want to fight 'globalization,' whatever that is in their minds�Though the demonstrators insist on being taken seriously, they have nothing to say. They want to 'Smash the IMF!' but can't say why�The real victims here are the Czechs. They wanted everything to go smoothly�Now the worst has happened. Prague police had to contain violent demonstrators and the city's reputation has been besmirched. In a few days the protesters will fly home, while city residents clean up the damage and wonder why so many well-to-do Western youths are so angry at global capitalism."

Of course, libertarians might well agree with some premises of their arguments against the IMF, World Bank, and WTO. But not one of those is based on a hatred of free trade, technology, and affluence, especially for those people in the world who most need wealth creation to escape their lives of drudgery.

Why our opponents succeed

The intellectual divide between libertarians of all disciplines and others is a very wide one. Most individuals who do not call themselves libertarians believe that the political mechanism can be used to control people and society to achieve a better world, something which might be called the "fatal conceit" as Hayek termed it. Competing philosophical understandings of man, society, and the "good" life, which help to widen that divide.

Yet the fact that the ideas of classical liberalism have yet to be widely accepted in mainstream politics, culture and society, suggests that we have failed to communicate the message that we deliver or it has failed to strike a chord with the average citizen. We pride ourselves on our consistency, and our lack of compromise, but we fail to reach people with our message because we have not given it a broad appeal. We have not found creative ways to express our ideas in unconventional ways, in forums where they might not otherwise be heard. We often suffer by "preaching to the choir", and sometimes the choir's disagreements on our approach to broadening our appeal means that we do not focus on bringing our ideas to a bigger group of people.

We can learn from our opponents

During the April protests in Washington, DC, I began to think seriously about ways to expand libertarian ideas. Our challenge is to make our views prevalent in politics, economics, society, and popular culture. But how do we get attention in the media? What should be the broader strategy, so the ideas of libertarianism really take off?

Our intellectual differences with our opponents should not mean that we should despise all of their tactics. As Randall O'Toole mentioned in these pages, libertarianism and environmentalism started out as fringe beliefs, at about the same time (1970). From the very beginning, libertarians lost, and environmentalists won, because environmentalists used a variety of means to personalize their message (to make politics personal): lobbying, street campaigning, advertising, anecdotal victims, street theater, protesting, teach-ins, witty sloganeering, sitting in trees, public interest litigation, coalitions.

Today, environmental NGOs and all of their anti-globalization counterparts continue to use these methods to communicate with the public. They also use the Internet to their advantage, by creating slick-looking websites and corresponding advertisements in the popular media. They are also intimately involved in the international political arena as NGOs, at United Nations meetings and treaty negotiations, in corporate shareholder meetings. They have coalesced with the clergy and religious groups, human rights groups, labor unions, and anarchists. This multi-level approach means that today's environmental movement is a highly salient political force.

But being intellectuals does not mean that libertarians are devoid of finding ways to creatively market their message. For instance, no wide-scale effort (to my knowledge) has ever been funded to bring the libertarian message to all college campuses. Some efforts have been made -- my previous publication, Restoration Magazine, which was based at Hillsdale College from 1997 to 2000, developed a network of college libertarians during the past three years. The Libertarian party and some individual students are doing well at individual campuses, but no broad-scale effort has been sought to take the classical liberal message to college-age audiences.

It is unfortunate that our opponents often win because they have proper marketing materials, and can attract big-name speakers to interest students. They make their politics personal by utilizing emotions to motivate people into joining their cause. At the University of Florida in October, Libertarian candidate for Vice-President Art Olivier attracted a good-size group of college students one evening. But he delivered a memorized campaign speech, and had a difficult time fielding questions that weren't part of his memorized rhetoric. As a libertarian politician, he failed to deliver on the promise of his ideas because he simply could not talk about them in a way that convinced the audience that he understood them and their concerns.

Meanwhile, the Green Party succeeded in its endeavor to impress young people. I attended a Green Party rally here in the nation's capital before the election, where 12,000 people (most of whom were under the age of 30) gathered in support of Ralph Nader. The Green Party made extensive use of its college groups and young election volunteers. It took the stuffiness out of politics,and gave it a "hip" new image. It was stylish for young people to sport a "Nader/La Duke" green and white campaign button or bumper sticker.

The damning failure of libertarians is that, in many ways, these kids have libertarian intuitions. In their minds Republicans and Democrats are members of the same party. They equally despise corporate welfare and the War on Drugs.

While we may be appalled by many of the Green Party's ideas, one thing that it does successfully is to cultivate support amongst young people. Free-market and libertarian activists haven't discovered the potential offered by campaigns that get youth on their side. In the long run, the Green Party may indeed prove to be a powerful political force, and a threat to the furthering of libertarian ideas.

College-age people are often quite ideological. Perhaps it is because they have only recently been exposed to ideas that purport to explain how the world works, and they have little to lose from taking an ideological stance. Libertarians should take advantage of these leanings in the same way that the Green Party has, otherwise we risk losing a powerful constituency.

Experience: Counterprotest.Net

Some young libertarians, including myself, have worked to put these ideas into practice since last June. We have copied the tactics of our green and anti-globalization counterparts, only changing the message. Taking to the streets, we have protested the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, against the protesters in Philadelphia at the Republican National Convention, the environmentalists at the US Capitol who support the Conservation and Reinvestment Act, and most recently against the Department of Justice. In the process, we are learning how to reach out and talk to our peers.

Initially, we have been accused of being "corporate shills", funded by industries who stand to gain from free trade even though we have self-"funded" all of our activities [homemade signs, copying fliers and press releases, and relying on lots of creativity]. Others accuse us of not caring about the poor and not caring for the environment, presuming that by virtue of being libertarian, we do not care about such things.

Our first task, therefore, is to demonstrate that free trade is fair trade. While this will be no easy task, we must emphasize that enabling poor people to take advantage of the gains created by exchange is the only way to help them lift themselves out of poverty in the long run and to promote a clean environment. The point should be, "wealthier is healthier and cleaner." We should point out that the policies that anti-globalization activists promote will actually have the opposite effect they intend. Preventing trade with onerous regulations will condemn the poor to poverty. The environment will suffer too if the world's people are prevented from using technologies that will help them save and protect resources.

Of course, the other protesters often don't understand our point of view. A funny anecdote: at our Philadelphia protest, one of our protesters wore a fuzzy giant pig costume. His sandwich-board sign read on one side, "No more pork for the IMF", and on the other, "Porky loves corporate welfare." The other protesters invited him up onto their float, called Corpzilla (to oppose corporate welfare). When he raised a sign that said "libertarian", the other protesters were utterly confused: at first, they loved him because his ideas coincided with their own. But how could he carry a "libertarian" sign?

Another advantage of our work the past few months is that we have utilized the Internet to organize and network. At the moment, libertarians have a unique opportunity to engage in another form of outreach, through the Internet. Our challenge on the Internet is to create visually appealing, image-oriented sites that strategically use the marketing tools that make our opponents effective. Again, this is an area where we can learn from the other side. Instead of lagging behind in our technology, we need to use the democratic advantages of the internet to our own advantage.

Media appeal

Our experience so far is that, while libertarian groups may not have instant credibility with the media, we usually receive a substantial amount of coverage when we show up to "counter-protest." We intrigue the media by being "counter" protesters-though sometimes they get it wrong. (Our facetious chant "more good, less evil" was interpreted by a Houston Chronicle reporter to be "more guns, less people"). Despite this particular misunderstanding, slogans such as "up with people, down with government!" illustrate our ideas quickly and make other protesters, and reporters, interested in our point of view.

Our media appearances over the past seven months include MTV, local DC news and national networks, a variety of print media citations, and several radio interviews. Protesting, or counter-protesting, not only secures press for our views, but more importantly, steals media attention away from groups we oppose.

While mass media appeal isn't everything, it is important to penetrate this area with free market ideas, to show that a feisty group of young libertarians care about the world too. A cadre of free market protesters will help to put a human face on what might be considered by the rest of the world old and dry ideas.

A suggested strategy

Libertarians must develop a long-term political strategy to promote a rhetoric with which to capture people's hearts. What follows are a few suggestions for doing so:

Develop coalitions and alliances. Too often, we narrow our focus to gain ground on specific issues. On those issues where we can make an impact, we ought to develop relationships with those on the "left" and "right" who care about similar issues as we do - the criminalization of drug usage, immigration, corporate welfare, civil rights issues, religious tolerance, peace, and true justice. We must start somewhere with these people, and these issues offer an opportunity to demonstrate that personal freedom implies economic freedom (and vice versa).

Focus on networking. For too long, our opponents have had an advantage over us because they network well. They are flexible and versatile, and no matter where, they travel to protest. They are able to organize and be effective because they communicate with each other.

Anticipating and organizing. One reason our opponents succeed is because they plan their events well in advance. Instead of being on the defensive all of the time, we should play offensive roles too. Thinking ahead, strategizing, and being organized will allow us to take an offensive lead in our efforts.

Funding creative outreach efforts. Our NGO and activist opponents have a clear financial advantage over us. Their substantial financial resources afford them the opportunity to be constantly engaged in planning their next events, putting up websites, distributing materials and carrying out street campaigns. They are "professional" activists with young leaders (Kevin Danaher of Global Exchange, Adam Werbach of the Sierra Club, etc.). Libertarians should be willing to fund similar efforts and to develop young leaders for the "movement."

Communicate our ideas effectively. This is perhaps most important of all. We must develop a rhetoric for our ideas which gives them a human face, which makes abstract ideas tangible to common people, and which appeals to a younger generation. We must be willing to engage in unconventional creative marketing.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute was one of the first libertarian groups to use a similar strategy: "analysis, educational outreach, coalition development and advocacy," as Fred Smith writes in "Learning the Washington Game: Political Strategy and Tactics," in Steering the Elephant: How Washington Works (New York: Universe Books,1987, pp.39-56). He concludes, "We must not count on the assurances of Mammy Yokum of Li'l Abner that good will win over evil "'cause it's nicer." More will be required. We will have to be smarter, self-critical, and goal-oriented. The fight is clearly worthwhile, but we had best be prepared for a long, long campaign and expect to be bloodied many times before the conflict is over."

Communicating

A critical part of libertarianism is to develop a rhetoric through which to "sell" our ideas. I believe that it's important to adapt the images and values of the day to ideas that are certainly tried and true. Libertarianism fails to ring true to a generation of people who do despise politics and politicians on one level, but are convinced that government can "work" if only the right people are in charge. Many of these individuals are victims of a public education system which teaches them to revere the state but never to fear it.

An important part of this rhetoric is how we present ourselves to people. Our intellectual opponents have succeeded in part because they tug at people's heart-strings, using arguments that are emotionally swaying, that compel people to believe "how could I not support this government policy which will make the world a little fairer?" Saving the whales, vaccinating poor children, feeding the starving: who in their right mind could be against these things? Yet our challenge is to show that we do care about these things; we can be humanitarians and libertarians at the same time.

While it may not be the gut instinct of a libertarian to argue our policies this way, we must find a way to do so. Libertarians often act as if "once people have the right information, they will change their minds." But to be truly effective, I believe we must change people's hearts. We need to make our arguments emotionally appealing. Randall O'Toole's observed that environmentalists were successful here; they gave a human face to otherwise sterile subjects.

This egalitarian approach is especially important because, I believe, one does not need to be an intellectual to be a libertarian. To give libertarianism a popular appeal, we must seek out those arguments which clarify why government fails at environmental protection, alleviating starvation, and making society "fairer."

We certainly may believe that freedom and liberty are intrinsically good things. But for those motivated by other beliefs, we must demonstrate that freedom and liberty are instrumental to achieving their ends and upholding their values. We can show them why freedom is a moral imperative, and why our ideas promote better results for the environment, for civil rights, for the disadvantaged of our society, and for all the people of the world.

Part of communicating is determining the best way to undermine our opponents and defuse their arguments. One advantage they have over us is their access to specialized resources. Their cadre of creative and enthused individuals can and create public spectacles and devise slogans. In my experience, though, a group of libertarians can be equally creative when they are put into a position where they need to be. Strategizing is critical to our pursuits, because we often can undermine our opponents' ideas simply by demonstrating the inherent moral hypocrisy of the claims made by those who border on being socialists.

We should also engage in active outreach to those young people who have good instincts about politics and government. They may never encounter libertarian ideas until they no longer have intellectual flexibility. I think that many young people have an inclination to disbelieve and distrust certain intellectual propositions. By focusing on reaching these individuals, libertarians would build a base of committed group of young people who in turn will aid us both in augmenting our creativity, and in showing our ideas to the world. Our challenge is to reach these young people.

Our counter-protests this summer were miniscule and made me realize what we're up against: a lot of well-funded opponents who use emotional messages that resonate with the media. We have only begun to understand how to market our message in the same way, to give our ideas the same sort of compelling emotional appeal that the anti-globalization people are able to utilize so effectively. But if we always allow them to steal the spotlight, then our ideas might as well be doomed.

If we want to win policy debates, if we want ideas to come out of books and into practice, then we must be willing to engage in new ways of communicating our message. We should take our message to the streets. We ought to engage our intellectual opponents on moral grounds. We must demonstrate how their policies are hypocritical and at the same time, why ours are consistent with their values. We should build political alliances and coalitions with those who we might despise otherwise. We need to gain credibility as a broader societal, cultural, and intellectual force - not just an obscure political party known for demanding the legalization of drugs. We should adopt the tactics of our opponents, and adapt our message to our opponents' point of view.

"Taking our message to the streets" is no small feat. It is certainly true that to fully understand the libertarian vision takes time and often comes only through dropping presuppositions about the nature of human interactions in society, to understand what classical liberalism is about. But we should start experimenting, learn from our mistakes, and take advantage of the opportunities we have to influence the world. If our ideas cannot be accepted on a broad scale, or if we aren't going to try to make them so - what is the point in holding them at all?

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Counterprotest.net is a website dedicated to organizing and mobilizing libertarian, free-market activism. Questions, comments, subpoenas? Please contact us at info@counterprotest.net. This page last updated on March 27, 2001.