I’ve long been skeptical of the notion that libertarians are gaining ground in the United States. And the policy positions of both presumptive nominees — on trade, free expression, size of government, free association, and pretty much everything else — tell us that the bulk of the electorate is rejecting traditional liberalism.
That doesn’t mean the Libertarian Party doesn’t have any space to make a difference. In this peculiar populist year, it’s not completely far-fetched to imagine a small, spoiler-sized block of erstwhile GOPer and independent voters organizing around some energetic, idealistic, and well-funded third party candidate. Right now, 63 percent of Americans don’t believe Donald Trump will unite the GOP. Libertarians are on the ballot in all 50 states and have the infrastructure to reach a lot of voters.
Here’s how Ben lays it out in The Transom this week:
If there was any year when there should be plenty of opportunity for a protest vote for the Libertarian Party, it’s this year, when both candidates for both major parties are disliked on a history-making level. All one would need in order to make the case for the Libertarian candidate as a protest vote is a slight bit of moderation or seriousness on a few points – namely, on social issues – in order to appeal to the vast swathe of people who care about abortion and religious liberty looking at two candidates who don’t care about those issues at all. In other words: just nominate someone who looks more like Rand Paul, and you’ve got a fighting shot at a double digit percentage.
Are Gary Johnson and Bill Weld the guys to do it?
Vote Gary Johnson/Bill Weld! Because nothing says “libertarian” quite like “Massachusetts Republican.”
For most people, a libertarian is just someone who is fiscally conservative and socially liberal. It far more complicated, of course. And to entice anti-Trump social conservatives, libertarians will need to cast themselves as a party of federalism — one that protects individual rights, expands school choice, and preserves freedom of association, religious liberty and so on.
And that’s a tough sell, already. So it doesn’t help that Gary Johnson, the languid former New Mexico governor and frontrunner, has some perplexing — no, atrocious — ideas about the First Amendment. As it stands, I’m not sure how any conservative could give him a protest vote.
During a Libertarian Party debate a few weeks back, candidate Austin Petersen claimed that Johnson had once argued in favor of forcing bakeries to participate in gay weddings against their conscience. Johnson agreed that he had. If we allow people to “discriminate” on the basis of religion, he argued, we are creating a “black hole.” So should Jewish bakers be forced to bake wedding cakes for Nazi customers, Petersen asked. Yes, “that would be my contention,” Johnson answered.
Now, I’m no Robert Nozick, but this seems to clash with the notion of free exchange among consenting adults. As a political matter, it’s one thing to ask social conservatives to come to terms with polices that allow others to engage in activities that they find morally disagreeable, and it is quite another to ask them to support policies that force them to do things they find morally disagreeable.
Gary Johnson 2016: ‘Not only will I legalize crack, I’ll force you to cater a trans couple’s BDSM-themed wedding!’
Anyway, let’s set aside Johnson’s ideological confusion and talk about Bill Weld. If you’re under 40, Weld probably means nothing to you. He hasn’t held office since 1997. He’s on the ticket to lend his gravitas to the campaign. As Johnson put it to the Associated Press, Weld “brings an enormous amount of credibility to what it is I’m doing.” Weld explained that he has lent his name to the campaign to legitimize it.
With whom, exactly?
As Reason’s Brian Doherty notes:
It’s not immediately clear how another Republican governor adds that much to Johnson’s existing credibility as a former major party executive. Nor is Weld necessarily Libertarian Party strength in his libertarianism, from past reporting — though both in his planned embrace of the L.P. back in 2006 and other anecdotes I’ve heard from libertarians who have dealt with him, Weld seems to like to think of himself as libertarian.
This is an important point. How many people call themselves libertarian? Weld is a liberal on social issues and (supposedly) an economic conservative, but not a Libertarian or even libertarian. He’s an appealing and smart guy, a moderate Republican with low name ID and a questionable record on everything from guns to taxes and government growth. If you’re going to compromise ideals, then why not compromise for someone who entices new voters? Moderate and nominal Republicans like Weld have always been the most-likely Trump voter. And Weld would be a fine GOP nominee.
Legitimacy would be found with someone like Rand Paul or maybe Peter Thiel (too late) or some other known gifted orator who could demand media attention. The Libertarian Party, endlessly factional and self-destructive, has always been a sort anti-consensus party driven by a narrow ideological focus that often stands apart even from mainstream libertarianism. But, despite its best efforts, there is an opportunity here. And the only chance for it to work — a slim one — is for some charismatic candidate to make a compelling case to disgruntled conservatives. These are not them.