The “give me liberty or give me death,” Patrick Henry proclaimed in 1775 in a Richmond church still echoes around Martinsville, and not just because Henry lived several years of his life in the Henry County.
Although their group is not an official affiliate of the Virginia Libertarian Party, the Martinsville Libertarians certainly don’t let their informal status hold them back from sharing the party’s ideals with people in the community. Maybe you've seen their meetings listed among community events.
“The party knows of us, but I guess we’re unofficial. But they support us, and they help us out,” said Eric Bowling, a founder of the local group.
Because the group lacks official affiliation, its members don't elect or nominate members into leadership roles. Instead, the associates work as a team to promote Libertarian principles.
Libertarianism champions the rights of the individual with overarching hopes of bringing about peace and protecting freedom.
“Generally, Libertarianism would be less, smaller government and more individual freedom,” Bowling said. “That’s kind of broad brushing things a little bit.”
The local group organized on Sept. 10, 2016, at Mountain Jax, a restaurant in Martinsville.
“The presidential candidate Gary Johnson had a nice little speech that was being streamed. We broadcasted that on one of the TVs in there,” Bowling said. “A group of us came and watched and talked about it.”
Since the group’s first meeting three years ago, their membership has doubled from about half a dozen to approximately a dozen – though sometimes more people come to the meetings, Bowling noted.
“It’s really just kind of a group of local people, and we’re trying to present a different option for people other than just the two main parties,” Bowling said.
In the local group’s near-3-year history, the Martinsville party’s core beliefs haven’t changed, but their fervor for spreading the word has.
“I don’t know if the people who attend and who are active, if their views have changed as much in terms of what we believe, philosophically,” Bowling said. “Our goal, by organizing and participating and being involved in these meetings and with the community, is to try to effect some type of change, whether it be in situations locally, in statewide races or potentially in national races.”
This year, the Martinsville Libertarians are rooting for Dustin Evans, a Martinsville man vying for a spot in the House of Delegates.
“To my knowledge, I think that’s the first time in our area that a Libertarian has run for a state office, like for a local district. We’ve had statewide races, but not necessarily like local districts, so that’s exciting,” Bowling said. “We’re giving people in that race an option – otherwise it would have been the incumbent running unopposed.”
Although many people view politics as Republicans versus Democrats, the Libertarians have been growing in size for almost 50 years.
“It baffles me that some people have never heard of the Libertarian party,” Bowling said. “It’s been around since 1971, and it’s one of the fastest-growing political parties.”
Last year, the Libertarian National Committee, Inc. reported a 92% Libertarian party registration surge over a 10-year period, from 2008 to 2018. The same study showed an 8% decrease in voters pulling for Democrats and a 5% decline in Republican voters.
“Another thing that’s going on right now when you talk about the two main parties, they’re going so far to the extremes that it’s leaving this big opening in the middle, where people are having a hard time,” Bowling said. “That was my motivation personally, where I felt like I was voting against someone, rather than voting for someone. I hated picking between a moldy ham sandwich and a moldy turkey sandwich. I’d rather have a fresh BLT or something like that.”
Promoting Libertarian leaders and ideals, the group's members don't sit around and wait for election season to start. They’re already out canvassing neighborhoods, meeting community members and listening to and responding to concerns.
“We’re out getting involved, doing community events – Smith River Fest, Oktoberfest, we did the Fieldale festival this year,” Bowling said. “Right now, we’re out canvassing. There were four of us that were canvassing Martinsville for Dustin [on Wednesday], and I think we probably handed out somewhere between 500 and 1,000 postcards with his political information – we’re talking about in one day.”
Taking their political party seriously, the Martinsville Libertarians have an email list and a social media presence. The local group invites others who may be interested in the party’s viewpoints to visit Hugo’s Restaurant and Sports Bar every third Thursday of the month at 7 p.m.
“I would suggest it to anyone, regardless of any of their leanings,” Bowling said. “We welcome debate and healthy dialogue, as long as it’s constructive.”