Monday, November 22, 2010

Remembering David Nolan

It's eerie and it's sad.

On Friday, sometime between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., David Nolan added me as a friend on Facebook.

By Saturday evening, David Nolan had passed away.

The founder of the Libertarian Party and the creator of the paradigm-shifting Nolan Chart was killed in a car crash in Arizona, apparently caused by Nolan's suffering a stroke while behind the wheel.  He was 66 years old.  Tomorrow would have been his 67th birthday.

Although I only met Nolan a few times during my years as a Libertarian Party activist in the early and mid-1990s, his influence on me (and others) was strong.  Dave Weigel explains that Nolan played a moderating and conciliatory role at sometimes raucous LP gatherings, including the contentious 2008 presidential nominating convention:
I met Nolan in 2008, while covering the Libertarian Party convention for Reason -- in Denver, again -- and liked him instantly. He was a center of calm in the middle of an rough and media-grabbing battle for the heart of the party. He calmed the occasional (okay, frequent) sense that the nomination of one candidate or another would destroy the LP by praising all of the candidates and telling the losers to suck it up. He did not seem like a man who was retiring from politics, so I wasn't surprised to see him make one last hopeless run for office as a Libertarian, campaigning against John McCain in this year's U.S. Senate race.
I won't repeat the oft-told tale of how the Libertarian Party was started in David Nolan's living room in Denver in 1971, a reaction to the Nixon administration's decision to impose wage and price controls on the American economy.

I wasn't there, but it's amazing that a then-27-year-old political activist could almost singlehandedly establish a political party that would later have tens of thousands of members (and ex-members), lead to the election of hundreds of public officials across the country, and spread the message of libertarianism during political campaigns, when voters tend to be paying closer attention to issues.

During the 1996 LP convention in Washington, there was a commemoration of the founding of the party, which that year was celebrating its 25th anniversary.  In one of the meeting halls of the Washington Convention Center, a recreation of Nolan's Denver living room served as a stage for early LP members to reminisce about the founding.  Nolan participated, as did 1972 vice-presidential candidate Tonie Nathan (the first woman ever to receive a vote in the Electoral College), and Pennsylvania LP activist Don Ernsberger, who recalled that he used a mailing list of about 50 people to recruit members to the new party, and at the time he thought the list included every libertarian in the United States.

An underestimate, to be sure.

Unfortunately, nobody had thought to record the recollections of the early LP leaders, either on video or on audio.  An opportunity for a lasting oral history of the founding was lost, except in the memories of the hundreds of LP members who were there that day.

Even if Nolan had not been one of the founders of the Libertarian Party, his legacy would be secure simply in his creation of what is now universally known as the "Nolan Chart."  He helped us break out of the constraints of a paradigm that insisted upon a two-dimensional, right/left political spectrum and demonstrated that the way people really think about politics is three-dimensional -- not just right/left, but also up/down.

I have used the Nolan Chart, and the accompanying World's Smallest Political Quiz (developed by the late Marshall Fritz), when I lecture to college classes about libertarianism.  It's a good way to break the ice and also to explain how libertarians do not fit into a two-sizes-fit-all liberal/conservative mold.

I have also used the Nolan Chart and the WSPQ in an Operation Politically Homeless display at county fairs (with the LP), at Republican gatherings (with the Republican Liberty Caucus), and at gay pride festivals (with Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty).  The chart and the quiz are both effective conversation-starters and also good recruiting tools.  It's always amusing to see some Republican finding out he's not conservative, or some Democrat finding out she's not liberal.  On more than one occasion, I've observed (metaphorical) steam coming out of someone's ears when he discovers he's a statist or -- far more often -- a satisfied smile upon learning that he's a libertarian.

Countless members of the Libertarian Party and other libertarian -- small-L -- groups have joined the movement upon taking the quiz and seeing their dot on the Nolan Chart.

In a note sent late last night (or quite early this morning) to members of the Libertarian Party of Virginia, longtime LPVA activist Marc Montoni wrote:
There is not a person who has been involved in our organization who wasn't touched by the life of David Nolan. He helped build our political home and devoted decades of his life to its guidance and service. Nolan's work has influenced the lives of millions of people through the thousands of small and large successes that the Libertarian Party has had in its four decades of existence. If Libertarians hit the streets to protest a tax increase, it was Nolan's creation that brought them together. If a Libertarian is among the nearly 1,000 people who have won election to public office, it was Nolan's creation that helped staff the campaign team.
Other tributes to David Nolan have been posted on the Libertarian Party's blog.

Nolan's final act of political activism took place on Facebook shortly before he died. He expressed a wish that, to celebrate his birthday on November 23, friends and acquaintances should make financial donations to the Advocates for Self-Government.

As one of his friends noted on that Facebook page, what a fitting tribute it would be if that request for contributions turned into a moneybomb for the Advocates.

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