Election 2012

The Libertarian Case for Gary Johnson

He's not going to win the election. But a strong showing by him may just win the future.

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This is one of three related articles, each making a specifically libertarian argument for the Democratic, Republican, or Libertarian presidential contender.

The libertarian case in favor of voting for Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson is pretty self-evident and exceptionally strong. 

Johnson, a former two-term Republican governor of the overwhelmingly Democratic state of New Mexico, is not just the single-most qualified candidate the LP has yet to field for president. At this stage in his life, he's got more experience in managing actual political reality and bureaucratic state operations than the one-term former governor Mitt Romney has or the wet-behind-the-ears senator Barack Obama had when he moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Or for that matter, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) had when the good Dr. No ran for the LP in 1988.

As a bonus as big as the Mt. Everest that he actually climbed (on a recently busted leg, for god's sake!), Johnson actually happens to be a full-throated champion of strictly limited government and maximally empowered individuals, of free minds and free markets, of marriage equality, engagement with the world through trade not aid (or drones or boots on the ground), of open borders, of social tolerance, and more. (Go here for Johnson's platform.) When he was running the show in the Land of Enchantment, he held the line on spending and taxes and vetoed hundreds of bills while pushing school choice, prison reform, competitive outsourcing, and many other good things. He never once threatened to invade Texas or Arizona or Colorado, or even Mexico.

Lord knows that finding experienced and comitted-to-the-cause candidates hasn't always been easy for the LP. Four years ago, the party nominated former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) a notorious social conservative, war hawk, and drug warrior who embraced libertarian values only after being bounced from the House due to redistricting shenanigans. Even as the LP's standard bearer, Barr was not fully at ease with the non-interventionist foreign policy that's deep in the party's roots as an emanation of right-of-center dissent from Vietnam. When LP is not putting forward recent and sometimes-ambivalent converts, it has a knack for anointing folks who may not quite be ready for their day in the sun. In 2004, the LP put forward Michael Badnarik, a nice and smart guy who nonetheless became best known for refusing to acquire a Texas driver's license. Badnarik finished with just 0.32 percent of the vote, one of the worst performances among the generally desultory performances of LP candidates.

This isn't to say Johnson is all things to all libertarians (broadly defined as believers in fiscal responsibility and social tolerance). He's said some odd things on the campaign trail, most notably about U.S. military support for capturing Joseph Kony, the leader of the Ugandan cult, the Lord's Resistance Army. In a Daily Caller interview earlier this year, Johnson unconvincingly called the LRA "possibly the worst terrorist group that's been on the planet for the last 20 years." Um, no. It took Johnson a while to find his voice in explaining what he calls the "fair tax," or a consumption-based tax that would replace all existing personal and business income taxes. I personally find the widely circulated video of him crowd-surfing to be one of the greatest moments of the 2012 campaign (right up there with Clint Eastwood's Empty Chair improv), but I understand why latter-day Hobbesians find it unsettling to see a potential ruler literally put his life in the hands of the rabble.

But geez-louise, this guy Gary Johnson is everything any party could hope for in a presidential candidate: He's accomplished in private and public life, he's vibrant and energetic, and especially since kicking free of the final parts of his Republicanoid past like a butterfly leaving the cocoon for good, he's genuinely charismatic when stumping on the differences between his own views and those of Obama and Romney. A few weeks back, I saw him bring about 500 people to their feet at a University of Cincinnati rally by forcefully detailing the ways in which he and he alone is talking about government spending and debt, ruinous foreign policy, and federal buttinskys dead-set on policing the boardroom and the bedroom. He's the best of both worlds: A leader who can move an audience but who always stresses that you and your choices—as opposed to some nutty coercive agenda—come first. He's the perfect candidate for a post-best-and-the-brightest DIY world. We don't need a maximum leader, we need someone who will set and enforce simple rules for a complex world.

So if you vote and think your vote should express your political beliefs, there's nowhere else for libertarians (and Libertarians) to look.

But of course, Gary Johnson is not going to win the election. Indeed, if past is prologue, he will likely finish with less than 1 percent of all votes cast. So the real case for Gary Johnson—a tougher case to make—is arguing for why you should think about pulling the lever, tapping the screen, or punching the butterfly ballot for the guy knowing that he's a bigger lost cause than the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series, the Gilmore Girls movie getting made, and the release of Dr. Dre's Detox put together.

As it happens, Johnson has addressed this very question in his forthright manner. "A wasted vote," he says, "is a vote for someone you don't believe in." He's even exhorting people to "waste" their vote, telling an audience at New York University, "We can make a difference in this election. Waste your vote!" How will pushing Johnson's total above the 1 percent mark—and ideally, higher than the spread of votes separating Obama and Romney on November 7—make a difference?

In several ways, but let me emphasize just one. Going large on Johnson will send the unmistakable message that the surprisingly large and consistent 10 to 15 percent of the electorate comprising the "libertarian vote" can no longer be taken for granted. Voters are leaving the Democrats and Republicans in record numbers at exactly the same moment that they are saying that the government is too big, too expensive, and too involved in all aspects of our lives. Is it so hard to recognize that these two things are related?

To be clear, neither the Dems or the Reps are going into receivership any time soon. The U.S. has always been dominated by two parties and for the past 160 or so years, it's been the parties represented this time by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. What can change, however, is the agendas pushed by those parties. It's happened before. Grover Cleveland, the two-term president, wouldn't pass for a Democrat these days and Teddy Roosevelt wouldn't be so bully on today's GOP. Long the party of segregation, the Democrats shifted course when it became clear the votes weren't there anymore. Without suffering a major loss in credibility or support, Ronald Reagan went from denouncing Social Security and Medicare as socialistic abominations in 1964 to embracing them as sacrosanct building blocks of all that was exceptional about America by the time he became president.

The Republicans will move in a libertarian direction when they finally realize that the libertarian ethos of live and let live doesn't represent moral nihilism but a goddamned sustainable future in a globalized, post-mainstream world. Who do you want sitting next to you as Spaceship Earth hurtles through time: Todd Akin or Gary Johnson? The Republicans have failed to wrap their heads around the unmitigated disaster that the Bush presidency was. Forget social issues for the moment. George W. Bush—in total cahoots with a Congress led by John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, who still roam the corridors of power like Tor Johnson roamed the set of Plan 9 From Outer Space—kicked out the jams on spending and cronyism. He was a big-government disaster, the political equivalent of Hurricane Sandy. And he did what he did with the full aid and succour of a GOP majority that signed on for The Patriot Act, Medicare Part D, the invasion of Iraq, the creation of the TSA, and TARP. The fully unconvincing and meager attempts by Mitt Romney to say he's going to rein in spending while "preserving" and "strengthening" Medicare and Social Security and ramping up military spending to a perpetual 4 percent of GDP flatly demonstrate that the Republicans have yet to get the simple message that voters first delivered during the 2006 midterms.

For their part, the Democrats have yet to learn the lesson of 2010, when voters sent exactly the same midterm message: Don't just do something, stand there! In 2010, the party of Thomas Jefferson took a "shellacking" (Obama's term of art) not despite all of the president's highly touted "historic" successes but precisely because of them. Obamacare, stimulus, more bailouts up the ying-yang, stupid interventions everywhere from Detroit to Afghanistan to college football's ranking system—all helped spark a strong and obvious reaction among large swaths of voters. And yet, Obama and Team Blue haven't changed a goddamned jot or tittle in their basic script. If you don't vote for the (liberal) Democrat, this line goes, then mere anarchy will be loosed. All that is decent and civilized about America will forever be destroyed and we will be bombing indiscriminate countries into the Stone Age, women will go barefoot and be forcibly impregnated and shoved back into the kitchen and Paul Lynde will once again be closeted in the center square. The skies will once again be filled with the choking fumes of plutocrats lighting cigars with $1,000 bills featuring the image of Ayn Rand and power plants will once again exclusively be powered by grinding the bones of the poor, the tired, and non-unionized illegal immigrants. It will be the Hunger Games, but without the laughs. The important thing, the Democrats say without blinking, is that government spending can never, ever decline because it's all essential spending and we'll pay for it merely by asking the super-rich to pay just a little bit more. It's like South Park's Gnomes Underpants Profit Plan, only slightly less detailed.

What neither party understands is that the American people—and especially libertarian-minded voters—have moved on into the 21st century. As the recent CNN/ORC International Poll notes, "just four in 10 registered voters believe the government should promote traditional values, down from 53% in 2010 and 57% in 2008." At the same time "six in 10 say the government is doing too much that should be left to individuals and businesses." Can you imagine that? In a world in which voters are evacuating the traditional parties in record numbers, Americans are articulating a basically libertarian message of social tolerance and fiscal responsibility. That is precisely what Gary Johnson is selling as the Libertarian Party's presidential candidate. And he doesn't have to win in order to deliver the message to Democrats and Republicans that they can maintain or consolidate their standing by taking the choke collars off of us all and giving us more space and freedom to figure things out for ourselves. We're not talking about some sort of radical Neal Stephenson-meets-Robert-Nozick-meets-Zardoz anarcho-capitalist scenario. Just a recognition that the federal government doesn't have to be in on every conversation we're having (literally and figuratively), and that it can't keep spending 40 percent more than it takes in or gain the world's trust via military occupation and the semi-regular bombing run or drone deployment. 

That's the message that a vote for Gary Johnson will be sending, especially if he pulls, say, 5 percent and the final spread between Obama and Romney is 2 percent. According to the Reason-Rupe Poll, support for Johnson pulls equally from Democrats and Republicans, so they would have no one to blame but themselves. And the candidates and their parties could start working to resolve the situation by changing what they stand for in time for the next election.

In a memorable campaign slogan, Johnson asks voters to "be Libertarian with me this one time." Who knows? The next time it happens, it might be for Democratic and Republican office seekers.

Related Stories

"The Libertarian Case for Mitt Romney," by Robert Poole

"The Libertarian Case for Barack Obama," by Mike Godwin

"Who's Getting Our Votes?: Reason Writers' 2012 Presidential Picks"