Among the many odd twists and turns of Election 2016 is the non-stop concern trolling of libertarians by #NeverTrump conservatives and Republicans who really, really, really want to vote Libertarian this one time but just can't because Gary Johnson and William Weld are so…damn…awful…from a libertarian point of view.
Sure, Johnson has sworn to present a balanced budget upon entering the White House and he's for individual rights, the Second Amendment, school choice, an end to the prison-industrial complex, Wilsonian interventionism, and a lot of other things that conservatives and Republicans often say they want. But because he's pro-choice and believes that federal antidscrimination laws should cover sexual orientation at businesses open to the public, he's the worst. And Bill Weld—whose confirmation as ambassador to Mexico was skunked by Jesse Helms back in the day because Weld was for gay rights—is a know-nothing on Second Amendment issues. So screw him and all the hippies who trail behind him burning incense and peppermint, too. Really.
The latest variation on this theme is up at The Federalist, where Robert Tracinski moans that "Johnson and Weld are doing their best to drive [conservatives] away—and they're doing it by not even being good at being Libertarians." But then, what did conservatives expect? "Libertarians are basically flower children," explains Tracinski, so "none of this comes out of the blue, and it reflects a basic problem with the libertarian movement going back to the beginning."
When the Libertarian Party was first formed in 1971, [he writes], the free-market firebrand Ayn Rand dismissed them as "hippies of the right," and there was definitely something to that. While some libertarians saw themselves as taking inspiration from Rand's political ideas, there was also a large strain in the movement that saw itself as ideologically and culturally aligned with the Left, as an offshoot of the counterculture. Libertarianism wasn't about reasserting an American tradition of liberty and constitutionally limited government. It was about smashing the system, man.
Well, yes and no. Most libertarians are for smashing the system because it doesn't represent limited government or defend individual liberty. For decades after World War II, pre-Woodstock libertarians were barely tolerated by movement conservatives and establishment Republicans (the two categories became synonmous at some point during the 1980s). As Brian Doherty has noted, the conservative Russell Kirk refused to be listed on National Review's masthead for a time because libertarian-leaning Frank Meyer was involved. And while Ayn Rand may have hated "libertarians," she got little love from National Review, which published Whittaker Chambers' scathing (and stupid) review of Atlas Shrugged. "From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: 'To the gas chambers—go!'" wrote Chambers.
Over time—and especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union—libertarians stopped apologizing for their distinct beliefs in what Reason has long summarized as "Free Minds and Free Markets." 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. Recall that even when criticizing Donald Trump in the strongest terms possible, National Review attacked the billionaire crybaby for not being tough enough on immigration:
Trump says he will put a big door in his beautiful wall, an implicit endorsement of the dismayingly conventional view that current levels of legal immigration are fine….
Trump piles on the absurdity by saying he would re-import many of the illegal immigrants once they had been deported, which makes his policy a poorly disguised amnesty.
You got that? Conservatives attacked the guy who called Mexican immigrants drug-toting, disease-ridden rapists and promised to deport 11 million illegal immigrants for being soft on immigration.
But wait, wait: The real problem this election is that Gary Johnson and Bill Weld—each a former two-term Republican governor of a Democratic-majority state— are "not even being good at being Libertarians." How is that exactly? When it comes to immigration, Johnson and Weld are openly and unabashedly in favor of letting people move and work here legally. So that's bad from a conservative point of view. They also favor free trade, even as many Republicans such as Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich are now supporting "fair trade," a longstanding euphemism for protectionism. When it comes to all the culture-war issues that conservatives still cling to in hopes of eking out one more election win, Johnson and Weld are solldly libertarian. Marriage equality, pot legalization, you name it, they're cool with anything that's peaceful. When it comes to government spending, taxes, and regulation, the Libertarian ticket doesn't skip a beat. Johnson has again and again talked about the need to balance the budget by bringing expenditures down and shrinking the size and scope of government. What's not to like from a limited-government perspective?
But for The Federalist's Tracinski, none of that matters, even though he says there's room for disagreement between conservatives and libertarians:
[Republicans] may not agree with the Libertarians on everything, but they would be open to a ticket that can emphasize areas of agreement on a few core issues, while presenting themselves as the sane and normal alternative in this insane election year. You know how, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king? This is the year when just being minimally acceptable is enough to snap up millions of grateful voters. It could also be done without having to compromise actual pro-liberty principles, for example, by actually defending religious liberty and Second Amendment rights.
I think any good-faith reading of Johnson-Weld's positions should more than pass muster with conservatives and disaffected Republicans. In fact, they're the ones who refuse to compromise on anything. As I've noted before, abortion is an issue with which many and maybe most conservatives and Republicans begin and end all conversations. If you don't believe in passing legislation against all abortions, it's not even worth finding out your position on anything else. Tracinski manages to go a little further, but not much. Johnson's support for antidiscrimination laws against sexual orientation and Weld's uninformed ramblings on gun rights are enough to squash any possibility of anti-Trump conservatives or Republicans voting Libertarian.
Here's Tracinski again, who can barely contain his utter contempt for libertarians even as he rends his garment that they are blowing the chance of a lifetime to win over conservatives:
Did you notice how, in the last election, Ron Paul kept billing his campaign as the "Ron Paul Revolution," with the "evol" flipped backward so it read "LOVE"?
This was pure hippie flower-child nostalgia.
That's why the Libertarians have been wasting so much effort in this election trying to appeal to disaffected Bernie Sanders supporters by railing against social conservatives and the military-industrial complex and a whole bunch of other lefty bogey-men. They cling to the illusion that they can convert a bunch of utopian socialists to libertarianism, if only they make clear that they're opposed to religious nuts discriminating against gays, and that they don't like guns. That, and the part about being allowed to smoke pot.
Yes, Ron Paul was absolutely the second coming of Timothy Leary and his Audit-The-Fed posse were latter-day Merry Pranksters if not the Weather Underground 2.0! And for what it's worth, the creator of the Ron Paul sign in question, Ernest Hancock, isn't going to be confused with Donovan or Tiny Tim anytime soon.
More important, Gary Johnson hasn't been "wasting so much effort" only trying to flip burned Bernie Sanders supporters. He's been trying to peel votes from both the right and the left by consistently saying the same thing to both sides: Most Americans are fiscally conservative and socially liberal. If you are too, then take a look at me and my program. Johnson is critical of the military-industrial complex but unlike Ron Paul, he can't be mistaken for an isolationist, either, unless you believe that every American intervention is equally valid. And regardless of whatever Weld has said about firearms, there's no way to categorize Johnson as anything but a super-strong advocate of gun rights. "There's just no evidence whatsoever to suggest that [gun control] makes us any safer," he said publicly in the immediate wake of the Orlando night club shooting. "In fact restricting guns makes things less safe, that's the camp that I'm in." What ultimately irks folks such as Tracinski is that libertarians and Libertarians actually don't agree with conservatives and Republicans on many issues. If you travel in libertarian circles, you get this all the time from right-wingers: You don't really believe the things you say! You just want to annoy conservatives! You're just trying to be cool! No, libertarianism is actually distinct from conventional conservatism in all sorts of ways that lead to genuine differences of opinion.
Then again, all of this is taking conservative concern trolling of Johnson and Weld way too seriously. After all, the last thing most contemporary conservatives and Republicans want is a strong, thriving libertarian movment and Libertarian Party, both of which are doing pretty well of late. As Gallup tracks American attitudes, libertarians now outnumber conservatives, liberals, and populists. The Libertarian Party, never the poster child for effectivness, has nowhere to go but up. How any of this shakes out in terms of electoral politics is anyone's guess, but libertarianism isn't leaking market share like MySpace circa 2008. It's conservativism and the GOP that are taking it on the chin for many reasons, including a disastrous run in power during the early years of the 21st century and a general inability to adapt to a world in which individuals are empowered like never before. And now conservative Republicans are stuck with a candidate who embarrasses them because he often takes conservative positions too seriously.
They've got a lot of explaining to do, both to themselves and to the outside world. And history, which conservatives famously want to stand athwart, yelling Stop, isn't the least bit interested in slowing down.