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If Libertarians Want To Be Relevant, Maybe They Should Focus On Promoting Liberty


Earlier this week, I published a piece about my disappointment at the Libertarian Party candidates Gary Johnson and Bill Weld over two major gaffes in which they failed to stand up for liberty on key issues. Refusing to stand up for liberty struck me as a pretty major failing for libertarians.

Reason‘s Nick Gillespie quickly produced a response, not just to me, but to all of those pesky conservative “concern trolls” who have the temerity to want to vote Libertarian this year. No, really. He starts by complaining about the “#NeverTrump conservatives and Republicans who really, really, really want to vote Libertarian this one time.” I think the key thing that set him off is “this one time.”

When I read his reasons for wanting to be rid of these conservative suitors, I thought Festivus must have come early this year, because it’s a pretty epic Airing of Grievances. He’s got a lot of problems with you people, and now you’re going to hear about it.

For decades after World War II, pre-Woodstock libertarians were barely tolerated by movement conservatives and establishment Republicans (the two categories became synonymous at some point during the 1980s)….

The libertarian movement grew in size and influence and, well, there seemed to be less and less in common with conservatives who were fixated on foreign policy adventurism abroad and culture-war issues at home (obscenity, “the homosexual agenda,” the war on drugs, abortion rights, and the like). In the post-Cold War world, conservatives started turning against free trade and immigration as well, turning to instead toward “National Greatness” as articulated in the pages of The Weekly Standard and nativism as pronounced without pause during the 1990s and 2000s at National Review. During the Bush years, conservative Republicans exhorted George W. Bush to nation-build in the Middle East while torturing suspected terrorists wherever he found them. Surveil Americans? Of course: We were at war, don’t you know? Didn’t Bush and his Republican Congress expand domestic spending and regulation at a clip not seen since Lyndon Johnson kicked off the Great Society? Well, OK, maybe, but you could always bank on the right to defend Republicans on the grounds that whatever they did was less awful than whatever the Democrats would do.

Now in 2016, the Republican Party, the conservatives’ own party, has an absolutely incompetent, inexperienced idiot as its presidential nominee. Sucks to be them.

There you have the essence of the conservative-libertarian discussion in 2016. “We’re desperately looking to your party for an alternative.” “Yeah? Well, sucks to be you.”

Meanwhile, Gillespie dismisses my arguments as mere niggling over “Johnson’s support for antidiscrimination laws against sexual orientation and Weld’s uninformed ramblings on gun rights.”

Well, it’s a little more than that. Johnson actually dismissed the entire concept of religious liberty as meaningless, which strikes me as kind of a big deal for supposed libertarians. Weld called the AR-15 a weapon of mass destruction. Those are two issues that are of direct practical import and at the center of today’s political debate. I’m a lot more interested in that than in Johnson’s promise to submit a balanced budget, which in the current context is frankly unrealistic.

When the top two guys on your ticket badly mess up two core issues that are actual, current political battlegrounds, respect for the voters requires that they do some damage control and try to reassure prospective voters on these issues. Instead, Gillespie is just deflecting the criticism by directing a lot of hostility back at anyone who complains.

The hostility is doubly misdirected because Gillespie assumes that I and anyone else who agrees with me—I know a lot of people who feel the same way—must fit into his pre-established mold as religious conservatives. Wrong on both counts: I am not religious, and I don’t think of myself as a “conservative.” The most exact description is that I am an Objectivist, but in terms of the usual political categories, I can sum up my position as: too atheist to be a conservative and too hawkish to be a libertarian. So my article can’t be so easily dismissed as mere “concern trolling.” (For those who don’t know, a “concern troll” is someone who is actually ideologically hostile but pretends to be sympathetic but “concerned” about your position on some issue.)

I am actually part of the target audience that ought to be extremely receptive to the agenda of a Johnson candidacy. And I haven’t actually ruled out such a vote. Though given the latest Virginia polls, it seems unlikely my personal vote will make any kind of difference—not even in my congressional race where, I should note, I will be voting for someone from the libertarian wing of the Republican Party.

Ah, but Gillespie might still be able to dismiss me because I’m one of those hawkish warmongers. Foreign policy was something I only mentioned briefly in passing, and not as a fatal objection. But it looms pretty large in the Gillespie’s piece, including in his headline (which asserts that “Conservatives Are from Mars”), and it’s one of his leading grievances with the rest of the right. So in his mind I guess that still makes me irreconcilably hostile to libertarianism.

I think you can begin to see the problem here.

Gillespie’s version of libertarianism is fundamentally defined by its hostility to the ideas and concerns of everybody else on the right. So how dare anyone suggest that the Libertarian Party candidates try to reach out to those people and appeal to them on their core issues? They don’t need to change to appeal to us, we need to change to accommodate them.

I find this grimly amusing because I come from the Ayn Rand wing of the right, and the big libertarian argument that I remember from long, long ago is that we Objectivists were too rigid and ideologically demanding. Libertarians were supposed to be better because they would have an ideological big tent. They could talk to anyone from any ideology and system of values and try to convince them that liberty is best system in which to pursue those values. Now here comes a perfect opportunity to demonstrate that, for libertarians to reach out to disgruntled conservatives and persuade them—and they’re the ones who are being ideologically rigid and exclusionary.

The bigger picture here is that organizations, movements, and the individuals who rise up within them tend to get very good at performing certain functions and emphasizing certain issues. But they are also susceptible to getting stuck in those functions and not adjusting to new facts and new contexts. For example, a whole wing of the right has spent the past quarter century fulminating about how bad Hillary Clinton is, and with good reason. So I’m not too surprised to see a lot of them lining up behind Donald Trump, swallowing hard and accepting every awful thing he says, because—well, we just can’t have Hillary, can we? That’s a fundamental truth they are familiar with, while evaluating Donald Trump on his own merits is relatively new and confusing.

Nick Gillespie is doing something similar. Libertarians are used to regarding conservatives as their ideological competition, and the usual rule in these things is that the closer a competitor is to you ideologically, the fiercer the rivalry. He’s the People’s Front of Judea, and we’re the Judean People’s Front.

He has spent so many years fulminating against the mainstream right that when we come knocking on the door wanting to make common cause, he basically tells us to go away. Sucks to be us. Nursing the old political and ideological grievances is more important that the positive opportunity presented to the Libertarian Party by the Trump candidacy. The past eight years have seen a kind of rapprochement between conservatives and libertarians, symbolized by the migration of politicians like Ron Paul and Rand Paul into the Republican Party. The nomination of Donald Trump could be seen as a kind of rejection of this openness to the libertarians on the part of an old guard of populist paleoconservatives. Which is a great opportunity for libertarians to continue the rapprochement by encourage Republicans to migrate over to their party. But so far, they haven’t been able to bring themselves to do it.

I would sum it up this way: the Gary Johnson campaign is a test of whether the Libertarians love the votes of the mainstream right more than they hate the conservatives.

I’ll admit I was never expecting libertarians to be able to take advantage of this moment, because that’s not what the Libertarian Party was built for. It was never constructed to be a broad coalition party, appealing to the wide ideological spectrum needed to assemble a governing majority. Despite its rhetoric, the Libertarian Party was always designed as a splinter party that appeals to the already converted, without fussing too much about whether it can actually get anybody elected. The Libertarian Party exists to provide a permanent ideological protest vote.

That’s fine. That’s their prerogative. It’s just that in this year, faced with the worst pair of mainstream candidates in my lifetime, I’ve been really hoping that somebody would step forward and save the nation by providing a credible alternative. That’s what I meant when I referred to the political opportunity of the century, and it’s a real disappointment that everyone seems ready to let it pass them by.

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