In this election, they won’t matter.
Most people didn’t even watch it.
But that event was the most mainstream attention the Libertarian Party has received in decades. It was a chance for Johnson and running mate William Weld to show whether they can be good representatives for libertarianism.
I hope—I pray—they rise to the occasion.
Because for the next five months, Johnson and Weld will be what the public will see when they think of libertarians. The Libertarian Party will be on the ballot in all 50 states as the most significant third party option. Johnson polls between 9 and 12 percent. The 2012 Republican nominee has said he’s looking at the Libertarian ticket. 18 percent of Bernie Sanders supporters say they will vote for Johnson.
Most importantly, Gary Johnson is not the record-breakingly unpopular Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. It’s his greatest asset and has absolutely nothing to do with him in particular.
We know that this unusual election could be a good opportunity for libertarians.
But what will libertarians do with it?
Olivia Nuzzi asked recently at The Daily Beast, Can the Libertarians Get Anything Right? It’s a good question.
Nuzzi wonders if libertarians’ characteristic infighting will prevent them from rallying to support and promote the Johnson-Weld ticket in an election where potentially historic numbers of voters will be looking for an alternative.
I wrote last month that traditionally the Libertarian Party has been a place where members “can feel good about being more-libertarian-than-thou, regardless of whether it actually changes minds or is relatable to the larger world.”
“Many Libertarians have expressed that moderating their message in any form undermines the purpose of even having a Libertarian Party,” I added.
Nuzzi observes of the LP, “It’s the same infighting and obsession with purity that paralyzed the liberty movement, thwarting Rand Paul’s chances of finding success as a candidate and now from being a even halfway decent option for disaffected Republicans.”
What ultimately thwarted Rand Paul’s chances—and Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz’s chances—was Donald Trump. Still, Nuzzi is not wrong that obsessing over purity has long been a handicap for libertarians seeking political success.
Again, I share many of the criticisms of Johnson other libertarians have. They are significant. Being a pro-life libertarian, abortion is the biggest one for me (there are also no pro-life candidates in 2016, though Johnson, but not Weld, is arguably the most pro-life friendly among them).
But at the macro level—in the grand scheme of this election and toward the ultimate goal of trying to advance libertarian ideas—my misgivings simply won’t matter. To the millions of people who will vote on November 8th, whether Johnson is “libertarian enough” certainly won’t matter.
But do libertarians want to matter in this presidential race?
I didn’t agree with Ron Paul on every issue in 2008 or 2012. I didn’t agree with Rand Paul on everything in this election (perhaps ironically, from a purist perspective, I did agree with these two libertarian Republicans far more than I agree with Johnson-Weld. Ron Paul himself is more comfortable with the Libertarian Party itself than this particular ticket).
Still, in the last three presidential elections it was clear that both Pauls were the most serious—and only—libertarian presidential candidates in each race. “Serious” primarily meaning people other than libertarians were paying attention to them and they stood to make some sort of impact.
There are people outside of politics know who Ron and Rand Paul are and generally know what they represent (and often confuse them, as I’ve learned over the years). Today both men remain the most prominent political purveyors of libertarianism in the United States. That’s priceless.
Now America is going to learn more about libertarianism through Gary Johnson.
Some libertarians think Johnson doesn’t adequately represent them. Fair enough. I’m even in that camp.
But it will not matter to the average voter. They will see what they consider a Libertarian candidate, and combined with their disgust with Trump or Clinton or both, vote for policies and positions that are definitively libertarian.
That’s a big deal.
If the vote ends up being double what Libertarians got in 2012—going from 1 to 2 percent—that would be beneficial for libertarians. If Johnson got 3, 5 or amazingly, even hit double digits, it could be something more revolutionary for libertarian politics in the United States.
Any of this happening would be good for libertarian principles and ideas overall.
So what are Gary Johnson’s principles?
My threshold for liberty candidates is simple: They have to be generally and significantly libertarian. “Generally” meaning they should be libertarian on most things, if not all. “Significantly” meaning that their liberty principles regarding those things should be applied thoroughly and be more than just rhetoric.
Being generally and significantly libertarian is also a higher bar than it might sound, when you consider that the overwhelming majority of candidates in any election, great or small, anywhere, don’t qualify as either.
Johnson is a serious 2016 presidential candidate who is also generally and significantly libertarian. Just look at a few key libertarian issues.
You will be hard pressed to find an interview where Johnson doesn’t mention the high cost of fighting mindless wars and how American foreign policy needs a drastically different course.
Reason’s Ed Krayweski writes, “Johnson, who has called himself a ‘skeptic’ of intervention, and whom Woodruff called a ‘non-interventionist but not an isolationist,’ is poised to enable Congress to reassert its role in foreign policy decision making, and specifically the decisions to go to war.”
Johnson is more interventionist than Ron Paul and even Rand Paul (Johnson’s advice on how to deal with ISIS isn’t unlike Sen. Paul’s, saying that we should leave nothing off the table).
But Johnson, despite his foreign policy flaws, is still firmly in the libertarian camp on an important issue both major parties get horribly wrong precisely because they’re so similar.
Donald Trump’s greatest arguable value from a libertarian perspective is that he rightly calls the Iraq War a complete disaster and has assailed the 2011 U.S.-led regime change in Libya—until he reversed course recently, saying he would have overthrown Qaddafi too.
You just never know what Trump is going to do. He can be hawkish or dovish depending on the time of day, his mood and who’s he’s most interested in insulting.
Johnson will likely come across as a consistent voice for a more restrained and prudent foreign policy. It will be good for Americans to know that’s what libertarians stand for.
Like most libertarians, Johnson opposes encroachments on constitutional rights, from NSA surveillance of citizens to indefinite detention to gun rights.
Johnson is bad on the issue of religious liberty, believing that people of faith should be forced via federal law to engage in acts of commerce that betray their religious beliefs. There’s little denying that’s not the libertarian position.
But that one issue will likely not be what sways the overwhelming majority of voters to choose Trump, Hillary or perhaps something different this year.
Clinton is a nightmare on civil liberties and the recent gun control debate has shown us Democrats are more eager than ever to shred the Bill of Rights. Donald Trump is worried the NSA currently isn’t spying on citizens enough, and particularly Muslim Americans, who he wants to ban from entering the country (he’s flip-flopped on that recently too, maybe he’ll flip again) or put in internment camps.
On civil liberties, there are two unabashed authoritarians and one clear libertarian running in 2016. Hopefully more Americans than ever will note the difference in the libertarian philosophy when it comes to protecting our rights and general governance.
Johnson opposes the drug war strongly and is even pro-marijuana use. In fact, for my conservative tastes, sometimes Johnson is too pro-drug. Not that I disagree with him, just bad optics.
Johnson shouldn’t just be the “weed guy.” A two-term governor probably has more to brag about than that.
In fact, this Johnson-Weld ad is great toward that goal:
Most Americans now believe marijuana should be legalized. Most libertarians do too.
Only the Libertarian presidential candidate represents this position in its most unadulterated form. It’s a good message to the general voter—particularly young voters—about where libertarians stand.
Criminal justice reform
“How is it that the United States, the land of the free, has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world?” asks Johnson’s 2016 website.
“The answer is simple: Over time, the politicians have ‘criminalized’ far too many aspects of people’s personal lives. The failed War on Drugs is, of course, the greatest example. Well over 100 million Americans have, at one time or another, used marijuana. Yet, today, simple possession and use of marijuana remains a crime — despite the fact that a majority of Americans now favor its legalization.”
Hillary could be embarrassed into supporting some sort of criminal justice reform, (she now gives glowing speeches about it), similar to how Rand Paul embarrassed President Obama into moving on this issue.
Trump even thinks Hillary’s relatively mild attitude toward criminal justice reform is too extreme.
On the criminal justice reform front, you have a Democrat with a horrible overall career record and a Republican who seems to think reform is a bad idea, period.
Libertarian Republicans like Ron and Rand Paul have led on this issue for years, changing minds within their own party and across the political spectrum, particularly about what it means to be a Republican.
Johnson could also remind Americans that pursuing criminal justice reform is a significant part of the libertarian agenda.
Reducing the size of government
Johnson wants to shut down entire departments—the NSA, IRS and Department of Education, to name a few—looking at how we can reduce the role of government in as many ways as possible.
Hillary? Small government? LOL.
Reagan famously said, “If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.” Are there any Americans out there who still like Reagan’s limited government philosophy?
If they analyze Gary Johnson, they’ll find a Libertarian who does too.
Part of the liberty message—part of Ron and Rand Paul’s message—has always been that our enemies aren’t racial and religious minorities, gay Americans or immigrants.
Our enemy is the government. Libertarians see people as individuals first.
Hillary Clinton reflects the identity politics that has come to dominate the Democratic Party in recent years, with the ridiculous social justice warriors being the most extreme version of this.
Donald Trump has blamed every group imaginable for America’s woes and is intolerance personified in the minds of millions.
Johnson is the opposite. In fact, though Johnson is wrong on the religious liberty issue, he’s not wrong to try to hammer home the message that libertarians are embracing of minorities of all types (including people of faith, which again, Johnson seems to miss unfortunately).
Clinton and Trump are both authoritarians, but also both are collectivists of different stripes.
There’s a Libertarian individualist in the 2016 race whose message and tone might sound far more appealing than what the Democrats and Republicans have to offer.
“We don’t hate you” is good message for everyone to hear from the Libertarian candidate.
All of the above are important libertarian issues. They are issues that liberty Republicans like Ron and Rand Paul have spent a decade building an enduring liberty movement on, despite differences both might have with Gov. Johnson.
The libertarian similarities simply far outweigh the differences, in substance and potential impact in 2016. The differences will only be of note to libertarians. Shouldn’t the goal be to expand as far as we can beyond our own movement?
Cato’s David Boaz writes that Johnson, “will present a clear alternative to Trump and Clinton: strong and coherent fiscal conservatism, social liberalism, drug-policy reform, criminal-justice reform, reining in mass surveillance, ending executive abuse of power, and a prudent foreign policy that is neither promiscuously interventionist nor erratic and bombastic—all grounded in a philosophical commitment to liberty and limited government.”
This is the package that will be presented to the American voting public as an alternative to the two major parties. It is quintessentially libertarian. It is generally and significantly libertarian.
Will millions of non-libertarians vote for it? And will most actual libertarians be part of that effort?
The most miraculous thing that could happen is a President Gary Johnson. Far more likely could be flexing libertarian muscle for the first time at the ballot box in a presidential election.
If Johnson can get a significant percentage in polls and votes, it could not only give him a place on the debate stage, but better ballot access in the future for his party. If Johnson gets an unprecedented number of votes, future liberty Republicans could remind their party—in 2020 or beyond—that the GOP could use those libertarian votes too.
2016 will probably not be the last presidential election where libertarians will have an impact. But what we accomplish in 2016 could play a significant role in how much libertarianism will continue to impact American politics.
Disclosure: I co-authored Senator Rand Paul’s 2011 book The Tea Party Goes to Washington and worked for Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign.