Today’s newsletter is a guest dispatch from Dan Barry, who wrote in The New York Times on Sunday about how the surprise victory of a hardcore libertarian movement in a small New Hampshire town led to swift backlash — and a harsh lesson in the importance of showing up to vote. Here, Dan explains the group behind the clash.
For nearly two decades now, and without much national attention, restless libertarians everywhere have been relocating to New Hampshire. They are drawn less by the spectacular fall foliage than by a literal interpretation of a state motto more often stamped on license plates than uttered in conversation: “Live Free Or Die.”
Much of this migration has been driven by a nonprofit organization called the Free State Project. Its adherents believe that by moving en masse to a small state with an inordinately large legislature — 400 representatives and 24 senators for 1.38 million people — they can effect change to their liking. That is: limited government, self-reliance, limited government, free markets and limited government.
“By concentrating our numbers in a single state, we are maximizing our impact as activists, entrepreneurs, community builders and thought leaders,” the group’s website says. “Free Staters are neighborly, productive folks from all walks of life, of all ages, creeds and colors, who are on a mission to prove that more liberty leads to more prosperity for everyone.”
After all, who’s against liberty?
But it remains an open question whether the movement’s interpretation of liberty — emphasizing individual rights over the common good — has gained significant traction.
In 2016, for example, the Free State Project announced with fanfare that 20,000 people had signed a pledge to move to New Hampshire within the next five years and to help create a society in which the “maximum role” of government would be to protect individual rights. People supporting gun rights, gay marriage and fiscal conservatism are welcome; racists, bigots and those promoting violence are not.
“Are you tired of the government always getting bigger?” the Free State Project’s website asks. “Do you feel like the only person around who just wants to Live Free? You are not alone!”
Six years later, the group says the number of Free Staters in New Hampshire stands at 6,232.
“It seems to have been easy to get the pledges,” said Wayne Lesperance, a political science professor at New England College in Henniker, N.H., who has studied the Free State movement. “Certainly the 20,000 haven’t materialized. There’s no data to support they’ve come closer than 6,000, and even that sounds high.”
Lesperance said that the Free State Project — which, like New Hampshire, is overwhelmingly white — “appeals to disaffected white folks who may not want to deal with the complexities of race relations.”
He emphasized that he saw no links whatsoever to white supremacist ideology. Rather, there is “a pining for a time when life was much simpler,” he said. “A time when people were left alone.”
Having failed so far to achieve a bloc of 20,000 “liberty activists” in New Hampshire, Free Staters have nevertheless made their presence known in ways beyond their annual PorcFest, a weeklong Woodstock-like event for liberty lovers that features pancake socials, Bitcoin poker nights, movies (“Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life”) and many, many lectures (“Can You Still Get Rich With Crypto?” “Eliminate Your Income Tax Liability — It’s Simple!”).
The group claims that 45 of its Free Staters have been elected to the State Legislature since 2008 — more of them identifying with Republicans than with Democrats. It says that 20 Free Staters are in the Legislature at the moment, with about 100 “liberty-minded individuals” not affiliated with the project in state government.
Free Staters have, according to New Hampshire Public Radio, “led the charge in creating lower-fee nano-brewery laws, repealed the state’s knife codes, and passed a bill that grants immunity to users who report a drug overdose to the police.”
But even in a state known for its mind-your-own-beeswax vibe, many have found the Free State philosophy — initially rooted in an embrace of secession — to be alarming. There’s even a website dedicated to monitoring the movement and helping communities explore ways to “handle Free State Project members and activities.”
A classic example of the movement’s purposeful disruption unfolded last March in the small New Hampshire community of Croydon, population 800. At a sparsely attended annual town meeting, a Free Stater and town select board member named Ian Underwood made a surprise motion to cut the school budget by more than half. He argued that spending had risen while student achievement had not, and he questioned the worth of school activities like sports and music instruction.
The motion passed by a low-turnout vote of 20 to 14, sending Croydon into paroxysms of anger and guilt and leading to the creation of a grass-roots organization now called We Stand Up for Croydon. The group succeeded in forcing another public meeting in May, when a motion to restore the budget passed 377 to 2 — a good day for participatory democracy.
But it was a less-than-stellar day for Underwood and his fellow Free Staters. Some who might have agreed with his arguments were put off by the somewhat underhanded manner in which he tried to bring about change.
Even his wife, Jody Underwood, a Free Stater and a member of the Croydon school board who supported the radical budget cut, thought that her husband’s motion, delivered without giving townspeople time to digest the particulars, was unwise.
“I don’t like how this was just forced on people,” she said. “That’s never a good way to do things.”
Even though they ultimately lost their battle in Croydon, she said, “Free Staters thought it was great” — in part, presumably, because it brought more attention to their cause.
But more attention does not always work in a cause’s favor. Hope Damon, a Croydon resident who joined the fight against the budget cut, is planning to retire from her job as a nutritionist and run for a seat in the State Legislature. She was motivated in part to stop the Free State movement from growing.
“I’m being quite straightforward,” said Damon, who considers herself a moderate Democrat. “We don’t trust them.”
Democrats and activists who oppose cutting school budgets are now planning events in other towns; one rally against the Free State movement was held in Keene, N.H., last Saturday. And the anti-Free State group We Stand Up for Croydon is planning a community picnic next month at the Croydon fire station. Billed as a “thank you” to residents who stood up against the budget cuts, it is also a reminder that the political fight is far from over.
Damon said that the Free State influence in the State Legislature is much more powerful than many might realize.
“This is not a fringe group anymore,” she said. “And this means that we have to work vigorously for people who value democracy for the common good.”
What to read tonight
Capturing a war hero’s send-off
On Politics regularly features work by Times photographers. Here’s what Haiyun Jiang told us about capturing the image above:
Inside the Capitol Rotunda, four pool photographers, including myself, were stationed around the room to cover an event honoring Hershel Williams, the last living Medal of Honor recipient from World War II, who died recently at 98.
During the public viewing part of the event, I noticed the reflection on the floor of the Rotunda, the historic paintings displayed in the background, Army personnel on guard — and everything, including light, centered on Williams’s coffin.
I got lower and waited for someone wearing dark clothes to walk by to match the mood and the colors of other elements in the photo. I wanted to show the busy pace of the public viewing.
Finally, I slowed down the shutter speed and made the frame. I wanted to convey the significance of the event and the farewell of a brave service member.
I think the colors in this photo worked well together, guiding the audience’s attention to Williams’s coffin and the sense of place and movement surrounding it.
Thanks for reading. We’ll see you on Monday.
Is there anything you think we’re missing? Anything you want to see more of? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at [email protected].