Now that the 2016 presidential election is essentially over, it is a good time for libertarians to reflect on what can be learned. Donald Trump stole the spotlight with a surprise win, but there are other stories. Mainly, I want to focus on the Libertarian Party.
Gary Johnson was the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee for the second time in a row. While there could still be a few votes left out there to be counted, he ended up with around 4.3 million votes nationally. This is about 3.3% of the national vote. In his home state of New Mexico where he was governor, Johnson received over 9% of the vote.
This is by far the best showing of any Libertarian Party nominee in its relatively short history. It was by far the highest vote total in any election, and the highest percentage.
So the Libertarian ticket was a relative success this year then, right?
I will present my case here that it was not only not successful, but also actually slightly harmful. And unfortunately, we can’t conclude that the country is moving in a more libertarian direction based on this outcome, although there are other reasons that we can come to this conclusion.
Every four years, we hear from both major parties that this is the most important election of our lifetime. And every election is filled with divisiveness. But this election really was unique in that both candidates were widely hated. We all know how the establishment media portrayed Trump, and many people within his own party opposed him. Meanwhile, nearly half the country thinks that Hillary Clinton belongs in jail.
There were many people who really did not like either candidate and were looking for another option. Therefore, it is no surprise that some voters sought a write-in or third-party option. In this sense, it is almost surprising that Johnson didn’t get even more votes.
The Libertarian Party really had no chance of actually winning the presidential election, no matter who was at the top of the ticket. For this reason, some Libertarians think the party should not even run a presidential candidate. I disagree with this for two reasons.
First, the presidential nominee has opportunities for speaking platforms that aren’t typically there. The nominee has many opportunities to appear on talk shows and news stations that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. It is an opportunity to explain the libertarian message and its benefits.
The second reason is that it is an opportunity to grow the party. It is a way to recruit future libertarians for future outreach and elections.
It is safe to say that Gary Johnson failed miserably on these two fronts. I don’t know if he actually had any expectations of winning when going into this, but he certainly didn’t seem to have aspirations of growing the party or explaining a libertarian message.
In terms of explaining the message, Johnson just helped in confusing people about what libertarianism actually is. If anything, this was slightly harmful to libertarians.
Johnson is not a libertarian. He has libertarian leanings on some issues, but he lacks any principles overall. When he was asked what a libertarian is, he continually replied that it is someone who is fiscally conservative and socially tolerant. And while this might describe him and some libertarians, this really isn’t a proper definition by any standard. There are many Republicans who are fiscally conservative and socially tolerant.
If he wanted to give a simple reply to this question, he could have said that a libertarian believes that you should be able to live your life as you want to live it, so long as you don’t harm others.
In terms of growing the party, it is likely that Johnson failed here too. If it did grow in any significant way, it was likely with disaffected Republicans who don’t like Trump. That would be ok if they came to realize the principles of the libertarian message, but I fear that many of these anti-Trump people aren’t quite as bothered by Romney, McCain, and Bush.
Johnson seems like a likeable guy, but you’d think he would have learned something from 2012. I am not sure what he did between November 2012 and 2016, but it sure wasn’t reading up on libertarian principles.
When Johnson was on MSNBC and asked about Aleppo, Syria, he didn’t know what Aleppo was. The media mocked him for this. He should have just responded that most Americans couldn’t find Aleppo on a map and that he doesn’t need to know either because he would pull all troops out of the Middle East. If the U.S. had a non-interventionist foreign policy, then Syria probably wouldn’t be a mess right now and nobody would care about Aleppo except for the people in Syria.
But even on foreign policy, Johnson showed weakness. He could not take a hard principled stand. If Johnson actually had somehow managed to win the presidency, I wouldn’t have trusted him any more than Donald Trump. Perhaps there is actually slightly more hope for less intervention under Trump.
In terms of carrying through a more peaceful foreign policy, for the major presidential candidates, I would rank Jill Stein first, Donald Trump second, Gary Johnson third, and Hillary Clinton fourth. If you include Darrell Castle of the Constitution Party, he would go up there with Jill Stein and bump Johnson to fourth.
Johnson and Weld actually mentioned a possible cabinet position for Mitt Romney if they won, which included the possibility of Secretary of State. In other words, Bill Weld and his establishment friends would have quickly taken over a Johnson administration.
And Bill Weld had to have been the biggest disaster out of everything for Johnson and the Libertarian Party. While the party has to nominate the vice presidential candidate, Weld was Johnson’s pick. Weld is a member of the establishment (he is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations) and has few positions that can be confused for libertarianism.
As the election got closer, Weld essentially endorsed Hillary Clinton. I really wonder how Gary Johnson felt about that. Johnson threw a little temper tantrum at the convention when people opposed his pick for running mate. I wonder if he realizes what a stooge of the establishment he really was. I wonder if the Libertarians who voted for Weld – even if hesitatingly – realize how much they were fooled.
The relatively high vote total does not mean much for Johnson now that it is over. He failed at educating people, and he failed to grow the party with actual libertarians.
There have been missed opportunities in the last 3 presidential elections. The Libertarian Party has not put up a principled candidate since Michael Badnarik in 2004. And it certainly hasn’t been the same since the late Harry Browne ran educational campaigns in 1996 and 2000.
The Libertarian Party nominated Bob Barr in 2008, and then Johnson in 2012 and 2016. In other words, there have been no significant figures to run on a libertarian platform in the last three general elections. The Constitution Party’s nominees have been more libertarian than the Libertarian Party’s nominees, but they generally receive little attention.
However, things have changed considerably since 2007 when Ron Paul ran his first presidential campaign within the Republican Party. The number of libertarians has grown by leaps and bounds within the last 10 years due to the Ron Paul campaigns and the Internet. We don’t know how many hardcore libertarians there are right now, but a lot of them didn’t vote for Johnson.
There was a chance this year for a radical libertarian and anti-establishment message. Rand Paul was supposed to be the anti-establishment candidate in the Republican Party, but Trump took that mantle from the beginning. While Rand Paul started out the first debate by complaining that Trump would not vow to support the eventual nominee, Trump immediately took the lead position as an advocate for the struggling middle class.
Rand Paul tried to play both sides of the fence and not take too hard of a stand either way. Instead of bringing together libertarian factions and establishment factions, he just turned both groups off. While this may not have been smart politics, we should not take it as a repudiation of libertarianism, since Rand Paul never adopted the libertarian message.
We have no idea what Trump will do as president. If he does stand up to the establishment, then it will be positive. But we should not expect him to be a libertarian in office, especially since he did not campaign as one. And if Trump cannot overcome the establishment for whatever reason, it should just be more assurance to libertarians that politics is not our answer to more liberty.
Either way, this makes it important to have a good libertarian candidate in 2020 who can rally support and bring a libertarian message to the general populace. It will be an opportunity to further educate people on the benefits of liberty, just as Ron Paul did in his campaigns.
Ultimately, it is not about getting the right people into office. It is about having public opinion on our side. We will only get a more libertarian society when more people understand the moral and economic benefits of libertarianism.