Robert’s, the Political Weapon of Mass Destruction

Originally published on Independent Political Report on Wednesday June 7, 2023

Edited to remove an extraneous duplicate block of text in the original article.

Let me take you back to the day I was first introduced to the weapon of political destruction, Robert’s Rules of Order.

Some 30 years ago,  back when I was foolishly trying to affect change within the GOP, I attended one of my first county conventions. I don’t remember exactly what year it was, but it was in the early 1990s. I had been active in politics for a few years, but I had not gotten involved in the actual party infrastructure until recently.

The convention, attended by many hundreds of delegates, was a one-day event. It was about the size of an off-presidential year Libertarian national convention. Somehow I ended up sitting in one of the front rows, off to the side near the exit.

I had not really had much interaction with formal rules, so I was quite interested in the little cheat sheet that was handed out at the door. The convention progressed, with nominations and seconds, followed by elections and votes with seemingly endless debate of stupid things. Election of a temporary this and that, followed by a permanent this and that.  I understand it now, but back then, the process required under South Carolina Election Law seemed very strange.  Eventually, it started to wind down, until they got to “resolutions.”

Anyone who has attended a Libertarian Party convention knows about resolutions. That is the part of the convention where people stand up and spew out sometimes sane and sometimes insane things to vote on as resolutions. Sometimes they pass, but they are frequently shouted down.

As I was sitting in the room, I began to notice that a lot of people appeared to have left. Then it happened. The convention chair, a prominent local politician, who years later became Lieutenant Governor, and with whom I once had a very heated debate over the merits of mustard-based vs vinegar-based barbeque sauce, was gleefully taking a resolution from the floor. It was in support of the Confederate flag and secession. Where the bleep was I sitting? What was this stuff?  I mentioned to the person sitting next to me that the room seemed to not have enough people in it. He suggested that I call for a quorum check. I raised my hand. The chair kept going, so the person next to me nudged me and said to shout it out, which I promptly did: quorum call!

Everything stopped.  Looking stern and solemn, the chair checked the room. He quickly determined that there was not a quorum present and the convention promptly adjourned.

This was my first experience in the use of Robert’s as a weapon of political destruction.  I received a few upset looks and comments while leaving from some of the supporters of the resolution, but a few others looked relieved that some kid (I was in my early 30s) had done something they were afraid to do.

Robert’s is complex. It is huge. But it can be used to defend yourself in a knife attack and might stop a slow bullet if you have it in your jacket pocket covering your heart. Of course, it better be a really loose-fitting jacket to be able to hold that book.  Other than that, it is primarily a tool of obstruction.

Robert’s can be used to run effective meetings and conventions. But it can also be used at those events to obstruct and interfere with the process.  I have seen it used at LNC meetings to delay and obstruct motions or prevent people from speaking by causing delays until time expires and not everyone gets to speak.  Endless dilatory amendments that have to be discussed before they can be voted down.  People losing track of what the actual motion is because it has been amended so many times. Secretaries frustrated by trying to track who has spoken and what the motion currently is being voted on.  But I have also used it and seen others use it to run effective and efficient meetings.

It is also used quite frequently at the microphone at national conventions to waste everyone’s time.  We all know who these people are.

Another former Libertarian Party member recently commented that he and others in his state party were prevented from actually accomplishing anything through the use of Robert’s. When I called it a weapon of mass destruction, he likened it more to a weapon of pipe obstruction.  He said it packs the pipe with bull [deleted] so nothing can move through the pipe.

Obviously, I am not alone in my opinion of Robert’s.

Something better needs to be used. Rules of Order are needed, otherwise you simply have chaos. But they need to be simpler and easier to manage and understand. I understand Robert’s. I studied enough to be able to pass the test.  It was recommended a number of times that I take it. I somehow avoided it and I’m glad that I did.

In my opinion, and in the opinion of quite a number of others, a Classical Liberal party needs to find something better to use. Better rules of order, and better ByLaws.

In my last commentary, I mentioned the embarrassment of South Carolina being the home of people like Strom Thurmond, Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott.  I have just learned it was also the birthplace of Henry Martyn Robert.  Yup.  The guy who wrote Robert’s.  Can it get worse?


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