Election 2016

Is This Where Libertarians Say Goodbye to Conservatives?

To right-wingers, Gary Johnson's embrace of "social liberalism" negates his pledge to "sign off on any reduction in the federal government."


Gary Johnson
Nick del Castillo, Flickr

Way back in the day (in the early years of the Cold War), libertarians and conservatives formed an unstable but decades-long coalition against actual, Soviet-style communism (in this, they were of course joined by most liberals as well) and many domestic increases in government power. This was, broadly speaking, "fusionism," and it allowed two political ideologies with very different beliefs and ideas to coexist not simply in the pages of National Review but also more broadly on the post-war right. As Ronald Reagan told Reason in a 1975 interview, "the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism."

That interview, conducted shortly after Reagan had left his second term as governor of California and was gearing up to challenge Gerarld Ford for the 1976 GOP presidential nomination, highlights the tensions that continue between libertarians and conservatives. Even as Dutch explained, "I don't believe in a government that protects us from ourselves," he stressed that "I cannot go along with the libertarian philosophy that says that all of the sin laws can be ruled out as simply trying to protect us from ourselves." In fact, from its earliest days, the libertarian-conservative alliance was wracked with all sorts of problems over religion, foreign policy, and lifestyle. Founded in 1968, Reason had from its earliest issues pushed for an end to the draft and the legalization of abortion, drugs, and sexual contact among consenting adults. The LP, launched in 1971, has always done the same.

Fast-forward many years—after the Reagan presidency, which saw a massive centralization of power in Washington and the launching of a national anti-porn action headed up be Attorney General Ed Meese; the end of the Cold War; the massive expansion of spending, debt, war, and surveillance under George W. Bush and a Republican Congress; and more—and the libertarian-conservative relationship is mostly in tatters.

But the final straw in the #NeverTrump era may be, according to a number of influential conservatives, that the Libertarian Party failed to appeal to social conservatives with the selection of its presidential ticket.

Instead of, say, choosing a well-spoken young candidate with absolutely no experience in elected office who is anti-abortion (Austin Petersen), the LP delegates chose instead the pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, pro-pot, pro-immigration Gary Johnson. Worse still, the LP went along when Johnson, a former two-term Republican governor of New Mexico who was also the party's 2012 nominee, insisted that his running mate be William Weld, another liberal, Republican, two-term governor (of Massachusetts). "Libertarians could appeal to social conservatives," reads the headline to a piece at The Federalist by David Harsanyi. "They just don't want to." When Govs. Gary Johnson and William Weld had the temerity to appear on MSNBC shortly after winning the party's backing, the Washington Examiner's Tim Carney divined the occult message being sent: "The message was clear: We don't need those backward Christian Right bozos as much we need as you MSNBCers." What does it mean, I wonder, that Johnson was grilled this weekend by the crew at Fox News Sunday?

And here's The Weekly Standard's Mark Hemingway, who recalled his interview of Johnson back in 2012, when the governor was on his way to bagging a record 1.2 million votes for the LP in the general election:

Johnson was pro-choice, which is a nonstarter for social conservatives.

This year, Johnson seems to be doubling down on alienating social conservatives at a time when, more than ever, they might be inclined to give the Libertarian party a shot. Johnson has quite inexplicably rejected the notion of religious liberty protections, arguing that Christians who object should be forced to bake cakes and the like for gay weddings.

(I should pause to note that Harsanyi, Carney, and Hemingway have all appeared in the print and web pages of Reason; if nothing else, this gives a sense of how fusionism has not fully disappeared, even in an age of proliferating media outlets through which we can more perfectly sort ourselves via ideology.)

Hemingway's scan of Johnson is perhaps the clearest indication that what conservatives are responding to is not Johnson and the LP per se but the crackup of their own Republican party. Given the choice of voting for Donald Trump, an objectively unacceptable candidate not simply to many conservatives but a majority of Americans; Hillary Clinton, another unacceptable candidate, though for reasons different than Trump; or Gary Johnson, who told Fox News this weekend that he would get rid of the Department of Education and many other parts of the federal government, conservatives still see themselves as homeless.

Especially if you are anti-abortion, which has always made Johnson "a nonstarter for social conservatives." That was true in 2012 and it's still true in 2016. The difference today is that if you are a #NeverTrump, #PleaseNotTrump, #ReallyNoNotTrumpUnlessIHaveTo, #FuckItIWillVoteForTrumpOverHillaryIJustWontTalkAboutIt conservative, you don't have a candidate for whom you can vote. Sure, Trump is very anti-abortion these days, even making the mistake of saying that if and when it is finally banned (something that Reagan and two Bushes did absolutely nothing to effect), women getting abortions will need to be punished (oddly, that logical position was attacked mostly by anti-abortion activists, who paternistically argue that any woman undergoing the procedure is "the second victim" of abortion).

So Gary Johnson was unacceptable to conservatives four years ago and now that conservatives are floundering between a rock (Trump) and Hillary (a hard place), Johnson is even more unacceptable, even though he is opposed to late-term abortions, public funding for abortions, and forcing insurance companies to cover any particular procedure. It's a good thing that Barry Goldwater isn't running in today's Republican Party. As a pro-abortion conservative, he wouldn't make it past a primary.

This is not to say that Johnson, who is pulling 16 percent in Utah against Trump and Clinton, is a perfect candidate for anyone, even many libertarians.

It's true that during an LP presidential debate on Fox Business's Stossel show, Johnson didn't just say he would force Christian bakers to make cakes for Sodomites, he grudgingly admitted when pressed that he would even force Jewish bakers to make "Nazi wedding cakes!" To be fair, it's not clear exactly what a Nazi wedding cake—I assume it's swastika-shaped and probably has a German-chocolate filling, but really who knows?—but Gott im Himmel, it sounds dreadful. In the Stossel debate, Johnson said that a business should be free to discriminate against "stink" (body odor) and lack of shoes and shirt but that it's a "black hole" when you allow vendors to refuse service based on religious beliefs. In effect, what he's arguing—I think—is that the same sort of antidiscrimination laws that cover race and gender should be extended to sexual orientation and gender identity. Under current law, goes this line of thinking, just as you can't refuse to do business with a black person or a woman out of religious conviction, you shouldn't be allowed to refuse service to a gay or trans person. In a recent column, the Examiner's Carney goes so far as to invoke the old "First they came for the communists…" poem, writing, "Today they come after the Humanae Vitae types, the pro-lifers, the Bible-thumpers, the Kosher types. Tomorrow they come after the other conscientious objectors." Yeah, not so much.

Having lost every single culture-war battle in the post-war era—racial integration, pornography, feminism, gay rights, raunchy music, you name it—today's conservatives have transformed the local bakery into Stalingrad, an embattled position that will not yield no matter what. Most importantly, they have not called for a thoroughgoing repeal of the Civil Rights-era legislation redefining private businesses such as hotels, theaters, and restaurants as "public accommodations" and thus subject to government interference, they are simply saying that gays, lesbian, and trans people should not be covered by those same laws. It's even more exquisitely nuanced than that, because most conservatives point out that the Christian or Muslim or whatever bakers (and the occasional photographer or pizza shop owner) in question willingly serve gay customers, they just don't want to "participate" in same-sex weddings by inscribing "Congrats, Adam & Steve" rather than "Congrats, Adam & Eve," on a cake. This is an unacceptable abridgement of religious liberty, they say, even when it involves a non-religious, profit-making enterprise such as a bakery. Not a bakery run by Little Sisters of the Poor, mind you.

In this particular instance, I'm quick to say that I am closer to the conservative outcome (which is held also by many libertarians) that businesses shouldn't be forced to serve customers they don't want to. Though I wouldn't limit the justification to some vague religious grounds (plenty of Christians have no problem with same-sex marriage, for instance) but to whatever a business owner believes. I say this even though I, like my colleague Ronald Bailey, who grew up in the segregated South, believe that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a proper and necessary law. During the days of racial segregation (an era that also kept women as a class from participating fully in commercial life), there were many state and local ordinances and customs that carried the force of law that made it impossible for blacks to get service anywhere. Thank god we changed that; we are a genuinely better country for accepting more and more types of people, communities, and individuals. 

In today's world, there are virtually no places that are not accommodating to all sorts of racial, ethnic, sexual, and other minorities. In the handful of cases of where bakers have been fined for not providing services, there is no doubt that another nearby business would have happily served them and there is something extremely disturbing about the state fining owners or sending them to counseling and therapy. I also think that in a world of Yelp and other reputational systems, it's easy enough to publicize not simply establishments that give bad service but refuse to serve certain types of people. The amount of redress available to everyone these days (such as conservatives vainly trying to force Target into changing its bathroom policies) is a great and wonderful thing (though even this can go wrong).

However, whether these are pure instances of "religious liberty" being undermined is not really clear to me, especially when conservatives refuse to engage in good-faith arguments about either the larger issue of antidiscrimination laws or the clear-cut violations of law by government actors in discriminating against gays and lesbians. Yes, it is surely wrong that bakers and photographers have been fined or even run out of business for not being pro-gay marriage, but what do you say about the state discriminating against individuals for decades? When Kim Davis, a clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples because of her religious beliefs, she was hailed by the likes of Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz as a martyr for religious liberty and became perhaps the only public-sector worker ever cheered by right-wingers for doing nothing while drawing a taxpayer-funded paycheck. In fact, she was patently discriminating against individuals as an agent of the state, which is utterly unacceptable. Not only that, for a while, she didn't let anyone else in her office issue licenses, either. 

More recently, conservatives, such as The Heritage Foundation's Ryan T. Anderson, are attacking the libertarian-leaning Michigan congressman, Justin Amash, for his support of the Maloney amendment, which bars "'discrimination' on the basis of 'sexual orientation and gender identity' in the private employment policies of federal contractors." The proliferation of scare quotes in such a short sentence is one clue that Anderson's argument is more about emotions rather than rule of law. As Amash makes clear in one of his characteristically encyclopedic Facebook explanations of his votes, the vote he cast simply creates "consistency between the nondiscrimination policies that apply in federal employment and those that apply in employment by federal contractors. This consistency reflects the principle that an agent of the federal government—being paid with taxpayer funds—must follow the rules that apply to the government in interactions with third parties. The Maloney amendment affirms this important principle." Amash's full explanation of this issue and his vote is well worth reading—perhaps especially by the Johnson campaign, as it eloquently mounts a critique and embrace of antidiscrimination law and a defense of religious freedom at the same time.

To bring this back to conservatives, libertarians, and the 2016 election: For the past several decades, it has simply been unacceptable to Republicans and conservatives more broadly to be pro-choice. So, as Mark Hemingway notes, Johnson was already totally unacceptable to conservatives four years ago. Maybe he is now even more so because he also embraces gay marriage, trans identity, and a host of other social issues that drive conservatives nuts. But nothing has changed then, right? He was "a nonstarter" going back to his first term in office in New Mexico. 

Here is what is different between today and four years ago, though: The Johnson/Weld ticket is, in the words of the Wall Street Journal, an "honorable alternative" to both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. He is in favor of sharply reducing the size, scope, and spending of the federal government, and his basic vision of a more-limited government should appeal to conservatives who have nowhere else to turn this time around (David French, we hardly knew ye!). It is up to conservatives, of course, to figure out what their core beliefs are and what sorts of compromises they can make when it comes to distilling philosophy into partisan politics. But if in fact the rock upon which they build their future is being anti-abortion, anti-same-sex marriage, and anti-trans, well good luck with that. The world will not be turning back to those positions any time soon. You can gussy up objections to any or all that in the name of religious liberty, or by speaking not for yourself but for a vanishing population of "social conservatives," or whatever, but you're no longer standing athwart history yelling Stop! You're straddling the corpse of the very movement that birthed Donald Trump. The billionaire developer didn't hijack the conservative movement, he's its last gasp. The same is true in politics as in Hollywood: You end up as the gargoyle version of yourself. At National Review, they scream that Trump's real sin is that he isn't anti-immigrant enough! At The Weekly Standard, that he isn't hawkish enough! And for those "social conservatives," he isn't anti-abortion enough. Maybe, maybe not, but who will conjure up in 2020 that will be any better and—more important—will appeal to the majorities of Americans who are pro-choice, anti-war, and totally fine with gay marriage?

For decades, libertarians who wanted to vote for a major party mostly voted Republican and mostly brushed aside many important considerations to be able to pull the lever for the likes of H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. Some did them even did the same for Barack Obama in 2008. I can't imagine it was easy for those who chose to do it, but we all calculate "things indifferent" on our own moral abacuses. In 2016, it is Trump-hating conservatives and Bernie-loving progressives who will wrestle with such things. And whatever else you can say about Gary Johnson, you can at least admit he is well worth a long look.