How does a small group of people change politics? The Free State Project wants libertarians to concentrate themselves in New Hampshire and promote libertarian causes. Thousands have already moved, and thousands more are on the way. But not everyone is happy to see them coming.Download episode
Rebecca Sheir has been a host and reporter on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, Here and Now, The Splendid Table, and the Alaska Public Radio Network. Follow her on Twitter.
Kevin Townsend is a journalist based in Washington, D.C., whose work has appeared on BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post.
Jason Sorens is a lecturer at Dartmouth College. He created the Free State Project while completing his Ph.D. in political science at Yale.
Rebecca Sheir: So, as I’m recording this, it’s a couple of days after the 2016 presidential election, and the country is going through what, I think, can fairly be called, political shock. In an upset that almost no pollsters saw coming, Republican nominee Donald Trump has been elected president of the United States.
The postmortems as to why, and how, will no doubt go on for years. But our Electoral College results do show one thing, something they’ve been suggesting for years: States that go Democratic, are largely on the coasts—West and East. And this year, with the exception of Minnesota, Colorado, and New Mexico, the middle of the country went Republican.
Now, Placemakers is not a politics podcast. But, we are a show about place—and in the case of the U.S. electoral map, there’s a clear connection between place and politics. Democrats and Republicans seem to be sorting themselves not just by what they believe, but by where they are.
Into this rift, though, comes a third group: one that identifies as neither Democrat nor Republican. And some of its members are on the move, to a place that scholars and pundits say can make, break, or even bring a political candidate back from the brink:
Jason Sorens: “Welcome to New Hampshire. Welcome to PorcFest. Welcome home.”
Sheir: I’m Rebecca Sheir, and from Slate magazine, this is Placemakers: stories about the spaces we inhabit, and the people who shape them. If you drive to the rural New Hampshire town of Lancaster, in June, you’ll come across a gathering of thousands.
The Porcupine Freedom Festival, or PorcFest, as it’s called, is this pop-up tent city complete with bitcoin trading, and plenty of yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, with porcupines on them. Porcupines are dangerous animals, but purely defensive. And they’re the mascot for people who feel they’re defending themselves against what they see as a bullying government: libertarians.
Most libertarians believe people should own the firearms they want, consume the substances they want, marry the person they want, and educate kids however they want—all without government regulation or funding.
In the recent presidential election, the Libertarian candidate for president was Gary Johnson, whom you might remember for certain gaffes during the campaign.
Mike Barnicle: What would you do, if you were elected, about Aleppo?
Johnson: About … ?
Johnson: And what is Aleppo?
Barnicle: You’re kidding.
Barnicle: Aleppo is in Syria. It’s the epicenter of the refugee crisis.
Johnson: OK, got it. Got it.
Sheir: In the end, Johnson garnered a little over 3 percent of the national vote, enough for some people to call him a spoiler. But in terms of national viability, 3 percent is not a whole lot.
So, going back to what we were saying about politics and place, to overcome their relatively weak national standing as a party, some libertarians are intentionally concentrating in one location: New Hampshire.
And going back to PorcFest, for many libertarians, the event is their first introduction to their new home. It’s part of a quasi-utopian endeavor known as the Free State Project. And as reporter Kevin Townsend tells us, that project has triggered what many libertarians hope will be a mass migration to the Granite State.
Townsend: The dream of a libertarian utopia isn’t a new one. There have been attempts to colonize uninhabited islands in the Pacific, to carve free-market zones out of Honduras, PayPal founder Peter Thiel, himself an ardent libertarian, bankrolled an idea to build floating cities on the open ocean. Here’s Glenn Beck on CNN describing the concept back in 2008.
Glenn Beck: It’s called seasteading. And the basic idea is to set up a floating platform in international waters and try out different kinds of political and social systems. It’s kind of like a little floating city-state.
Townsend: Building a new nation on the high seas turned out to be a real challenge, but clearly there are people out there who want to break away from the government—any government.
It’s tricky to find two libertarians who agree on everything. After all, it’s an ideology about personal freedom. But traveling around talking with libertarians for this story, I found a core feeling that every libertarian seems to share: that the government is a bully demanding taxes at gunpoint, that it’s spying on them, policing them, regulating them, and coercing them into things against their will.
Because libertarians want to cut government budgets and deregulate industries, they’re often identified with Republicans and the Tea Party. But they also want to legalize marijuana, end foreign wars, and grant same-sex marriage licenses.
Sorens: Well, the end goal is really more freedom.
Townsend: Jason Sorens grew up in a conservative family in Texas and attended Washington and Lee University in Virginia. It’s one of the most conservative campuses in the country. Sorens’ fellow students were ultra-conservative and often clashed with the more liberal faculty. But Sorens says he didn’t really fit in with either side. He formed a campus libertarian group and put up posters that said, “Democrats are Socialist. Republicans are Fascist.”
Sorens went on to pursue a Ph.D. in political science at Yale. By then he was an ardent libertarian, but national politics were disappointing for his party. In 1996 the libertarian presidential candidate won only half a percent of the vote. In 2000, it was barely a third of a percent. Sorens’ dissertation was on secessionist groups like the Basques in Spain or the Québécois in Canada.
He wondered: What if libertarians could build their own power base by concentrating themselves into one state? Sorens wrote an essay and published it online. He proposed that libertarians agree on the state and then sign a pledge saying they’d move there once the number of pledges hit 20,000.
Sorens: It was set up as an “I will if you will” kind of idea. I think that was part of the key to its success. People were more willing to sign up if they knew that lots of other people would be participating as well, so it wouldn’t be a wasted effort.
Townsend: Hundreds of people emailed him asking to join. Spread out around the country, libertarians are used to organizing online. Back in 2001, they set up a Yahoo Group and named themselves the Free State Project. They started debating which state they’d move to. They agreed it would have to be a small one. Twenty thousand libertarians wouldn’t make a dent in giant states like Texas or California. They considered North Dakota, Alaska, Delaware, Vermont, Wyoming. Ultimately the Granite state won out. It’s small, with barely a million people, but its “live free or die” culture already made it fertile ground for libertarian ideas. New Hampshire has no sales tax. No income tax. It’s easy to buy and carry a gun. You don’t have to wear a helmet on a motorcycle. And if you’re ever pulled over, you don’t have to show proof of insurance or even wear a seat belt. New Hampshire looked so attractive, in fact, that even before the Free State Project hit its magic number, many libertarians decided to make the move.
Audio montage: I moved from Massachusetts in 2009, we were living in Cedar City, Utah. I’m originally from California and Colorado, where I spent most of my life. I was born and raised in Michigan. Southern California, New York City. Las Vegas. I am originally from New Hampshire, and moved back for the Free State Project. Nevada; Marion, Arkansas, which is just across the river from Memphis, Tennessee.
Townsend: Some Free Stater families even packed up and came to New Hampshire without ever once visiting the state. Jason Sorens himself made the move in 2013. He’d finished his Ph.D. at Yale about a decade earlier.
Sorens: All that time I was looking for an academic job that would be in or near New Hampshire. I finally did find a one-year appointment at Dartmouth, and I took that. A bit of a risk, but since then I’ve been able to stay on, on yearly appointments, both teaching and doing some administrative work.
Townsend: With his wife and 5-year-old daughter, Sorens lives year to year in a rental home.
Sorens: It’s a little bit of a precarious professional existence, but it’s worth it for us to be here in New Hampshire. We were glad just to finally be able to live the dream so to speak.
Townsend: So what about that dream? Have they had the impact he’d hoped for?Well, dozens of Free Staters have been elected to the New Hampshire House of Representatives. It’s basically a volunteer job. Maybe that seems ironic—anti-government activists serving in state government. But Sorens and others say the ease of getting elected to New Hampshire’s state House was one of the attractions of the state in the first place. Free Staters have helped pass laws here to reduce restrictions on knives, guns, and drugs.
Right now, about 1 in 5 New Hampshire state representatives are in the libertarian caucus. But it’s not just at the state level. Many Free Staters are working in city and local government. Jody Underwood has served for years on the school board in Croydon, New Hampshire. She bought a farm there with her husband and another couple from Philadelphia in 2007.
Jody Underwood: I have a Ph.D. in education, a master’s in computer science with a focus in artificial intelligence, and my undergrad was also in computer science, My original interest was in developing intelligent tutoring systems—help people learn as they need to learn—so it’s still the same thing, right? Individualized schooling.
Townsend: Underwood’s been working to promote school choice in this rural town. The local school doesn’t serve all grades and she’s been fighting the state to allow students to use their taxpayer tuition at nearby private schools. Her home has become a landing spot for many Free Staters. I met families that had arrived as strangers and camped out at the Underwoods’ farm while looking for a place to rent. It wasn’t what Jody thought farm life would be like, but more people just kept moving. And why not? She loves New Hampshire.
Underwood: We came up and we looked and fell in love with this place. When we found it, it was like the first time even when we scouted around for anything. We didn’t do the smart thing like everybody else does and go rent free, no we went and bought this property, although I don’t think we ever looked back.
Townsend: Underwood and the others that arrived at her farm were all early movers who came here before the project hit 20,000 pledges. But that vanguard is now getting lots of company. In February 2016, a few days before the state’s presidential primary, Jason Sorens took the stage at a Manchester ballroom to make an announcement. Fifteen years after he’d written that founding essay, the Free State Project hit its target and officially triggered the move. Video of the announcement spread through libertarian circles online.
Sorens: This is a great day in the history of human freedom. It sounds grandiose, but I really believe it’s true. We are firing the starting gun on a mass migration of freedom lovers to New Hampshire.
Townsend: And, according to Jody Underwood, the move is really on now.
Underwood: My God, five people moved in today. You know, normally it’s one a week, which is already a lot.
Townsend: So many people are moving that a company here, Porcupine Real Estate, is doing almost all its business helping Free Staters find homes. When they do arrive, they’re greeted with what’s called a “move-in party.” Other porcupines come over to help unload boxes and welcome people to the state. There were six move-in parties the day I visited New Hampshire’s Lakes Region.
Althea and Jared Dubravsky moved here from Maine. They ended up finding a house on the aptly named Liberty Hill Road. When the Dubravskys pull up in a 26-foot U-Haul, other porcupines living nearby gather to help them unload. Tony and Jaime Jankowski showed up with their 6-month-old son Osiris.
Tony Jankowski: Usually these things are done in a half-hour. I don’t know if I have the time yet, but I’ve been keeping track. It’s sort of a competition, they compete to see how quickly they can get everything out of the vehicle.
Townsend: The boxes and furniture go into an old country home with shingle siding, brand-new wood floors, and big bay windows. And lots of room outside for the Dubravsky kids to play.
Althea Dubravsky: It’s a total of two acres, but a lot of it is grassy and open, interspersed with some maple trees. Lot of nice colors out there right now.
Townsend: Free Staters do more than just help each other move in. It’s grown into a tightknit community that functions like an extended family. When Jaime Jankowski ran into health issues with her pregnancy and her husband was out of work.
Jaime Jankowski: People I’d never met came up to the house, dropped off food, so we didn’t have to worry about it. Which lasted us a long time since there was so much food. And then, I had some complications after the pregnancy, and they did a fundraiser for us to help with expenses and stuff. People that we hadn’t met and people we did were just like, “You need help, here you go.” So it’s definitely one huge family, even though it’s all around the state.
Townsend: Most of us have political beliefs, but probably not to the extent that we’d follow them to a new state and a family of strangers. These libertarians say they’re already used to relying on the internet to find others like themselves, so there’s a novelty and a trust in just meeting one another in person. For most, this is the first time they’ve ever had libertarian neighbors. Making a political impact is important, but for Jaime Jankowski and other Free Staters, getting to live in a community of like-minded people is huge.
Jankowski: Feeling like you weren’t the oddball out with your thoughts. And then from there we can go into more the political stuff. But just having people that are more like you that you have more in common with is a really nice thing.
Jessica Paxton: It’s nice to have a group of people who understand your philosophy and don’t think you’re the crazy one cause we’re all crazy, together!
Townsend: That’s Jessica Paxton, who moved here with her husband, Rodger, from Arkansas. They home-school their kids, but since it wasn’t for religious reasons, that made them oddballs in the South, she says. Not here.
Paxton: I can’t think of anyone here at least in the Freecoast—which is what we call the Seacoast here in New Hampshire—the Freecoast, I can’t think of anyone who does not home-school their kids.
Townsend: Home schooling and move-in parties were not at the top of Jason Sorens’ mind when he wrote his original Free State essay in 2001. He was thinking more about a small group of strong believers finally having an impact on elections. And then seeing their ideas put into law.
Sorens: I am desperate to see actual policy change on the ground that makes people’s lives better. That’s what I really want to see, and what the point of all this is. I would say the community is what maybe sold it to our family, and made it easy for us to make the move even before we triggered the move. I think that’s what will make the project succeed in the long run.
Sheir: And those policy changes Jason Sorens was talking about are starting to happen in New Hampshire, as we heard, with many Porcupines seeking, and serving in, public office. Like Jared Dubravsky, who ran to be a state representative. The guy who owns Jared’s house on Liberty Hill Road? He’s a Free Stater that used to be a state representative. And the contractor who put in that new wood floor? Yet another Free Stater, who’s serving as a state representative now. But how does the rest of New Hampshire feel about this influx of newcomers? Short answer: Some are pretty alarmed. We’ll hear why, after the break.
Sheir: From Slate magazine, it’s Placemakers. I’m Rebecca Sheir. Today, we’re in New Hampshire, the state chosen by libertarians around the country as a place to concentrate their numbers, and start putting their political ideals in action. But, as you probably can imagine, plenty of state office holders aren’t exactly thrilled with this social experiment. Reporter Kevin Townsend spoke with some of them.
Townsend: Like a lot of New Hampshirites, Tim Smith works in tech. Being the lone IT manager at a growing engineering firm, Smith has a very busy job. In what little free time he has, he serves as a Democrat in the state house. That job pays $100 a year: In other words, state reps in New Hampshire are basically volunteers.
Smith sees that work a lot like he sees his IT job: just keeping things running for the people he represents. But the growing libertarian caucus? Smith says they have a very different view of what government is for, and that’s affecting constituent services. He told me about someone who was having trouble getting his driver’s license renewed—because, Smith says, the libertarian rep was of no help.
Smith: He called his state rep to try and get a little bit of help, and was basically told that, “I don’t think the DMV should exist, because I don’t think the state should license drivers. The road should be privately owned, you’re on your own.” I don’t consider that to be an especially productive way to serve your constituents.
Townsend: For Smith, the notion of dismantling government hits him on a personal level.
Smith: I was homeless a number of times before age 10, lived in a couple of cars. My parents moved all over the East Coast from Maine to Florida trying to follow the work during the Reagan recession during the 1980s, tough years. I’ve eaten government cheese that was earmarked as foreign aid for the people of Ghana, that was handed off of the back of a truck in Massachusetts. It was not a pleasant upbringing.
Townsend: Smith’s seen the ugly side of government aid, but he’s also seen the need for it.
Smith: There were a number of times when I was a kid where if the food stamp program didn’t exist, our family would have gone hungry. I would have starved.
Townsend: To many libertarians, this kind of talk makes Smith a quote-unquote “statist”—someone who believes in the state having a say in their economic and social lives. Free Staters have protested his campaign events, even putting on skits.
Smith: The allegory of the state, where they had people dressed up as the evil state man locking people in prison for forbidden plants, trying to protest the prohibition of marijuana. It amused me quite a bit. None of them had bothered to ask me my position on marijuana before they showed up to protest. I went on to vote for full legalization after elected.
Townsend: FYI: Marijuana isn’t fully legal in New Hampshire yet. But with more Free Staters moving in, it might be soon. Now those protests and skits, they’ve prompted Tim Smith to call Free Staters “anarchists.” And there is a vocal side of the Free State Project known for zany protests—smoking pot in police stations, or preventing parking tickets by filling expired meters. Some of those protesters ended up on the front page of the New York Times after they filmed themselves harassingmeter maids. A lot of Free Staters, including Jason Sorens, aren’t exactly fans of those tactics. But state reps like Tim Smith tend to encounter the louder side of the movement.
Smith: Make no mistake, the ones who decide to get involved in state politics are an entirely disruptive influence.
Townsend: He says: this disruption? It’s not just a loud minority of libertarians.
Smith: I would simply point out, the founding document for their group that was penned by Jason Sorens calls for them to and I’m quoting, “Take over the state government.” And then threatens secession.
Townsend: Smith’s right. Sorens’ original essay does propose secession as a form of political leverage. But Sorens told me he now regrets that he ever raised the idea.
Sorens: The Free State Project is not, and has never been, secessionist. Some Free Staters support independence for New Hampshire, others do not. Independence is not my objective.
Townsend: Whatever its ultimate goals, there’s no doubt the Free State Project is in an ideal place to influence national politics. New Hampshire after all, is home to the first primary in the presidential election cycle, and it has a history of making and unmaking presidential candidates.
Bill Clinton: I think we know enough to say with some certainty that New Hampshire tonight has made Bill Clinton the Comeback Kid.
Townsend: Since it’s such a small state, politicians fight for every vote. The electorate here is used to picking candidates based on a handshake.
Katherine Rogers: We are to political activists what Disneyland is to a 5-year-old child, I think. We’re kind of like a political theme park.
Townsend: Katherine Rogers is a fourth generation New Hampshirite who’s worked as a prosecutor, served on the Concord City Council, and is now a Democratic state rep. When we met in the lobby of the legislative offices in Concord, she was getting around with a walker. Like many state reps in New Hampshire, she’s older and retired. One of her pet issues is gun control. Rogers says she’s grown a tough hide from her days as a public prosecutor, but her work around gun control has gotten her threats and even some stalkers. Free Staters, though, can irritate her.
Rogers: They’ve come up here from New York City or wherever they’re coming from, and they’re going to tell me what’s responsible gun legislation. I grew up with a family that hunted, not because it was sport but because they needed the meat, because they needed it to live on. And these people are telling me that I’m a gun grabber, and I don’t understand. I’ve been told to go back to where I came from in the big city. And my response has been: well I came from here, where do you want me to go to?
Townsend: Rogers says New Hampshire is more than a libertarian Petri dish. It’s its own place with its own way of doing things and the newcomers need to realize that.
Rogers: If people want to move to my state, that’s great. I don’t have a problem with it. What I have a problem with is people coming up here and then telling me what I’ve been doing wrong for all these years, that I don’t understand my state. It’s just rude.
Townsend: At this point, thousands of Free Staters have already settled in New Hampshire, and many more are on the way. Now they’re asking: at what point do they stop being considered invaders and start being considered locals? For his part, Jason Sorens says libertarians are just doing what Democrats and Republicans have been doing for a long time. He points out that the country’s not just getting more politically divided, it’s getting geographically divided with like-minded groups sorting themselves into regions.
Sorens: Now the polls are even showing that most Republicans don’t want their kids to marry a Democrat, and most Democrats don’t want their kids to marry a Republican, and that kind of thing. When you’re outside the binary, you do feel like a bit of an alien in that landscape.
Townsend: Until moving to New Hampshire, many libertarians only had a sense of community online. The more time I spent there, the more fitting it seemed to describe the Free State Project as an online community brought into the real world. A niche group looking for their own kind and looking to have an impact. Of course, each Free Stater moved with their own reasons. I met young couples looking to afford a house and work in tech. I met older couples looking for adventure and excited to live off the grid. I met families looking to escape the place they came from—the economic decline in Flint, Michigan, or a Mormon church that shunned them in Utah. All of them now beginning new lives in New Hampshire. All them now beginning new lives in the Live Free or Die State.
Sorens: I thought it probably wouldn’t work, I thought we’d never get to 20,000 actually. I thought it was worth trying because I was so frustrated and everything else had been tried.
Sheir: As we just heard, libertarians are moving to New Hampshire for more than just politics: they’re drawn by everything from the state’s natural beauty to its economy. But libertarians are already making an impact on politics there.
Take this most recent election: Nov. 8, 2016. A former Free State Project chairman named Aaron Day intentionally ran as a spoiler in the New Hampshire Senate race. Day said the incumbent, Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte wasn’t responding to libertarian issues. And in the end, Day got 17,000 votes—and Ayotte lost. The newest New Hampshire senator is a Democrat, Maggie Hassan, who won by only a few hundred votes.
But Republicans have also benefited from libertarians’ presence in New Hampshire, since Free Staters lean Republican as voters and candidates. They helped elect a Republican governor this year, and they hold GOP majorities in the state Legislature.
So, when it comes to Free State Project founder Jason Sorens’ dream to disrupt the two-party system by concentrating libertarians in one place? Keep an eye on the “Live Free or Die” state these next four years to see how it’s turning out.
Placemakers is a production of Slate magazine and is produced by Mia Lobel, Dianna Douglas, and Michael Vuolo, and edited by Julia Barton. Our researcher is Matthew Schwartz. Eric Shimelonis does our mixing and musical scoring. Our theme was composed by Robin Hilton. Steve Lickteig is our executive producer. I’m Rebecca Sheir.
For more information about today’s show and other episodes of Placemakers, go to Slate.com/placemakers. You can drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow us on Twitter; our handle is @SlatePlacemaker. And if you like what you’re hearing, please give us a review or rating on iTunes. It really does help.
Coming up next time on Placemakers:
When a big-city police chief finds himself facing families of people shot, by his officers, he takes an unusual approach.
David Brown: You don’t say much. You listen a lot. They want to be heard, they don’t want to be talked to as much. And sometimes they’re shouting at you.
Sheir: How David Brown used a combination of better training, more accountability, and empathy to reform the Dallas Police Department. That’s on the next episode of Placemakers.
Woman: That line that divides Massachusetts and New Hampshire, you know, might as well sort of be a wall.
Man: We’re trying to figure out how to build a wall between New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
Woman: Right. And then have Massachusetts pay for that wall!