Last night, the Libertarian Party ticket, Gary Johnson and Bill Weld, took to CNN for what was generally a successful town hall conversation — certainly a vast improvement over a similar event in June. (The most quotable line of that night was Johnson calling Hillary Clinton a “wonderful public servant.”)
This time, the candidates did a solid job of explaining where they differ from the two major party options, and their message seems to be making headway. In polls taken before the town hall, Johnson was at about 10 percent nationally, though he hits 15 percent in the Midwest, home to several important swing states. With numbers like that, the LP stands a real chance of getting into the general election debates, especially since debate organizers have indicated they might be willing to allow a little leeway to the 15 percent national minimum requirement.
Now, before I go any further, let me be clear: I would love to see Gary Johnson debate Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Though Johnson has never been my favorite, especially on foreign policy, with alternatives like these, he would unquestionably provide a voice of reason we desperately need.
That said, what has always troubled me about Johnson—specific policies aside—is that his libertarianism seems to be based more in instinct than principle.
Again, don’t get me wrong: he usually has pretty good instincts. Johnson would be a reliable improvement over Clinton and Trump.
But listening to him talk, I never get the impression that his libertarianism stems from defined foundational convictions. This has long been a contrast between Johnson and Ron Paul, whose speeches and debate performances if anything tended to be too wonky.
Paul could not keep himself from referencing his extensive background knowledge of political philosophy and economics, which informs his measured opinions. Nowhere is this deficit of Johnson’s more obvious than in the recent dust-up over religious liberty, which the town hall did nothing to resolve.
The Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney summarized the early rumblings of this controversy at the beginning of June:
In January, for instance, Johnson said he would make it a federal crime for women to wear the Burqa, the full-body covering worn by women in certain strains of Islam. Johnson recanted a day later, while continuing his warnings about the threat of Sharia — Islamic law — in the U.S.
This spring, Johnson pushed aside freedom of conscience. When asked in an Oregon debate about laws and lawsuits requiring caterers to participate in gay weddings, Johnson took the big-government side — for coerced baking in the name of gay rights. When later asked about this anti-liberty view, Johnson made the standard liberal conflation between selling off-the-shelf cupcakes to a gay customer (which is straight-up discrimination against a person) and refusal to participate in a ceremony (which is a freedom of conscience issue, a freedom of association issue, and often a free speech issue).
Though Carney doesn’t mention it there, Johnson also made clear that his backing for anti-discrimination legislation extended across the board, saying at a debate he would even support legally forcing a Jewish baker to make a cake for a Nazi wedding.
Since then, Johnson has only doubled down on his critique of religious liberty where faith-based discrimination is concerned. Last Thursday, Carney published an interview with Johnson that featured this exchange as part of a longer discussion of the subject (emphasis added):
You think it’s the federal government’s job to prevent—
In all cases?
“Yes, yes, in all cases. Yes. […] I think this is analogous to hate crime. Convict me on the act of throwing a rock through somebody’s window. But if you’re going to convict me on my motivation for doing that, now you’re back to religious freedom. I mean under the guise of religious freedom, anybody can do anything. Back to Mormonism [ed.: Johnson explained this comment later]. Why shouldn’t somebody be able to shoot somebody else because their freedom of religion says that God has spoken to them and that they can shoot somebody dead.”
That doesn’t seem like the distinction that a libertarian typically makes. Shooting is an initiation of force, versus deciding what ceremonies to participate in.
“Well, they bring out this issue, which I realize it has happened. But the objective here is to say that discrimination is not allowed for by business …”
“I just see religious freedom, as a category, as just being a black hole.”
Needless to say that “black hole” comment has not gone over well, even after Johnson clarified his comments about Mormons and published an op-ed in which he defended freedom of religion but also reiterated his support for making it illegal for “everyday businesses”—a category that would include bakeries but not a churches—”to discriminate against gays.”
And finally, there was the town hall, where, as Reason’s Nick Gillespie summarizes, “All at the same time, [Johnson] seemed to say that federal anti-discrimination laws covered sexual orientation, that he was against discrimination, and that he didn’t want to pass any new laws. Got that? I’m not sure I do.”
I know I don’t, and the problem goes back to the nature of Johnson’s convictions.
He has an instinct that free religious practice is a right. (Good.) He has an instinct that discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation is bad. (Cool.) And he has an instinct that government interventions into matters of conscience generally turn out poorly. (Great.)
What he doesn’t have is a clear set of principles that would help him adjudicate between those instincts in a coherent fashion. (Specifically, I believe he doesn’t understand freedom of association, which, as I’ve argued before here at Rare, is a key aspect of the religious discrimination issue that is often poorly addressed or ignored entirely.)
But one group that doesn’t share Johnson’s confusion is social conservatives, who have widely excoriated Johnson on this point. In fact, a recent poll found that conservatives are actually going for Clinton over Johnson, 21 to 8 percent, and I have no doubt that religious liberty is a contributing factor.
That’s a shame, because those are voters who could help Johnson get on that debate stage. For debate prep and voter persuasion alike, Johnson should bolster his good instincts with a more thorough study of the principles he publicly represents.