Political Highlights

Here’s Why the Libertarian Party Has a Membership Pledge

One of the more curious quirks of the Libertarian Party is its longstanding membership pledge, which reads, in full:

I hereby certify that I do not believe in or advocate the initiation of force as a means of achieving political or social goals.

Everybody who joins the party is required to check that box and sign it.

The statement was first crafted by one of the party’s primary founders, David Nolan, in 1971. Some argue it carries a complicated bundle of political positions and implications, or that other Libertarians who advocate an incorrect view are “violating” the pledge.

Exactly what the pledge means, and whether the party should keep it or alter it, has been one of the more persistent debates throughout the party’s history.

The Libertarian Party pledge exists to protect against any Nixon-era ‘enemies list’

Prior to his death in 2010, Nolan himself was clear about its purpose. In response to a party activist in who inquired to him about it, Nolan wrote:

Interestingly, most people in the LP do not know why it was originally placed on membership applications. We did it not because we believed that we could keep out “bad” people by asking them to sign–after all, evil people will lie to achieve their ends–but to provide some evidence that the LP was not a group advocating violent overthrow of the government. In the early 70’s, memories of Nixon’s “enemies list” and the McCarthy hearings of the 50’s were still fresh in people’s minds, and we wanted to protect ourselves from future witch-hunts.

That’s it. The party’s political goals and principles were contained elsewhere, in its platform and other documents. The pledge was simply a way to assure the government that the party wasn’t a domestic terrorist organization in the making.

In other words, it wasn’t an ideological litmus test. It was a don’t-be-a-bomb-thrower litmus test.

That is also how the pledge has been invoked before by the party. In 1995, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was referred to in some media coverage as a self-professed libertarian.

A statement from the national party set the record straight, noting that the racist truck-bomber had never been a member of the party, and that the pledge was evidence of the party’s official opposition to his actions.

A membership pledge is an odd thing for an American political party to have, but it made sense in the era of Charles Manson, the Patty Hearst kidnappers, and the Weather Underground. The party’s founders had zero tolerance for shooting at cops and politicians or blowing up buildings.

(Photo of Libertarian Party members at major pro-choice rally in Washington, DC, November 12, 1989 by Carol Moore via Wikipedia.)


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