Over the weekend, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson was nominated to be the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee at the party’s convention in Orlando, Florida (because nothing says drug legalization and abolishing the Federal Reserve like Mouse Ears and Space Mountain).
This election cycle, voters are likely to give the Libertarian Party a second look amid recent calls — on both the Republican and Democratic sides — for a third option. Indeed it is an understatement to say there is some distaste for both the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, and the likely Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton.
Recent polling shows Johnson faring better than any third-party effort at this stage in the game since Ross Perot’s 1992 run, amassing double-digit percentages in two national polls where he is head-to-head-to-head against Clinton and Trump.
Should Johnson want to make the debate stage, he’ll have to do a little bit better and get up to 15 percent of the vote nationally. But that’s not completely out of reach for the Libertarians, given the vulnerabilities of the two major-party presidential candidates.
So with this need for a third candidate, is the Libertarian Party ready for prime time?
Johnson makes the case that the Libertarian Party embodies the best of the Republican and Democratic parties and is worthy of consideration this November.
“Well really, Libertarians kind of represent the best of both parties, at least what the parties are supposed to be about,” Johnson said in an interview after winning the nomination. “Are Republicans supposed to be about small government? Aren’t Democrats supposed to be about civil liberties — people being able to make choices in their own lives as long as those choices don’t affect others?”
Johnson has some work to do to prove today’s Libertarian Party isn’t too far outside of the mainstream. For example, take the remarks of Austin Petersen, a candidate for the Libertarian Party nod, at the party convention’s presidential debate:
“I believe in a world where gay married couples can defend their marijuana fields with submachine guns,” Petersen said.
In our modern politics, the Libertarian effort has been nothing but an intellectual exercise. Petersen’s statement demonstrates that.
It’s great to be for letting your freak flag fly, but it seems to be devoid of acknowledgment that is just not how American society functions. There is a lot of interdependence within the United States, and for better or worse, the libertarian philosophy of governance doesn’t necessarily allow for that.
For example, take the U.S. economy. Roughly 33 percent of its gross domestic product, which is the value of all the finished goods and services produced within the country, consists of government spending. Libertarians would argue that’s way too much and would look to immediately knock that down as much as possible. The theory is that spending is better done by private individuals than the government.
In practice, however, you likely need government to spend money on roads and bridges, military, law enforcement, delivering the mail, etc. You don’t just need to better the bottom line of the GDP, you need all these things to make society function properly. Libertarian presidential candidates have struggled to find the right balance to win over a significant portion of the electorate.
Take the last two presidential runs of former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). If Paul had been elected president, his first week in office would have been very ambitious. On Monday, he would have eliminated the Department of Energy. On Tuesday, the Federal Reserve would be no more. On Wednesday, all U.S. troops in foreign territories would be withdrawn. Thursday, the Department of Education would go. On Friday, since it was such a busy week, government funding for NPR would be eliminated before calling it weekend.
While many adored Paul for his rigid, principles-based governing philosophy, in practice it would have sent the country into immediate turmoil. It took 240 years for the country to get to this point. U.S. society can’t immediately hit the reset button to go back to a purely Founding Fathers-ish system.
That is why the key for Libertarian Party is to preach incrementalism, but there’s just no indication it is a party or movement that is willing to take the slow, methodical approach in politics.
For now, the Libertarians probably aren’t the alternative to Trump and Hillary many are seeking. Mostly the problems with those two have more to do with questions about their character, as in Trump’s temperament and Hillary’s honesty and trustworthiness.
Johnson doesn’t bring anything to the table that presents an in-demand alternative. A campaign that places marijuana legalization toward the top of its “to-do list” will not necessarily woo voters who desire candidates with better personality traits than the GOP and Democratic options.
The former New Mexico governor likely will get more attention than any other Libertarian Party nominee in recent history. But the answer is, no, he is not the one you were waiting for.