Before we completely flush 2016 down the memory hole, let us pause to remember Gary Johnson, the former two-term governor of New Mexico who generated a record number of votes as the Libertarian Party's candidate for president. If there was anything good that happened in 2016—a year filled so much awfulness that even the Chicago Cubs could win the World Series after a thousand-year drought—it was @govgaryjohnson's ramshackle campaign to bring a very different way of thinking and talking about national politics to America.
In the end, of course, there was a lot of disappointment. He didn't crack 15 percent in polls to route around the bullshit criteria created by the two major parties to keep people like him off the stage; he supported the inalienable rights of gay Nazis to force homophobic Jewish bakers to make German chocolate cakes in the shapes of swastikas; he spaced out while talking to recidivist plagiarist Mike Barnicle on Morning Joe and asked, What is Aleppo?; and so much more. Yeah, yeah, I get it. In fact, as a professional libertarian, I was there for lots and lots of it, including a year ago when he outlined his bizarre and quickly walked-back comments about banning burqas in America. I read all the crocodile-tear complaints about from conservatives and liberals who said that GovGary wasn't libertarian enough for them and from the "thin libertarians" who said they bailed on him the minute he refused to start every answer to every question with a recitation of the non-aggression principle. Bloomberg View's Eli Lake called it in August, pre-"Aleppo Moment," when he said that Johnson "is a gangly ball of nerves who exudes the charisma of Don Knotts from his Three's Company years" and that Americans couldn't see him as a commander-in-chief. Then there's Bill Weld, the governor's running mate who infuriated almost everyone (except me, tbh) with his charming and idiosyncratic riffs on all sorts of non-libertarian ideas before semi-endorsing Hillary Clinton just before Election Day….
To all of it, I say, politely: Go screw yourselves, all of you.
Gary wasn't perfect and I still don't really comprehend anything about that tongue-thing while talking to NBC reporter Kasie Hunt, who was understandably all like, Get me the hell out of here. But in the end, Johnson pulled almost 4.5 million votes (3.3 percent of the total), compared to 1.3 million votes (1 percent) four years ago. Of course, all of us who voted for Gary Johnson wanted him to do better still, but the world exists to disappoint us believers in small government.
I choose instead to focus on what I think were two major themes that Johnson introduced into national politics that will have a very long shelf-life. He might have scratched out tiny numbers in the final tally, but the little acorns he planted in November will grow into might oaks over the coming years, as confidence in government continues to fade, the nation's finances continue to deteriorate, and we all realize that we need a different approach to the size, scope, and spending of government.
First, he was the first politician in forever who had the temerity to say what we all know to be true: That most Americans are socially liberal (or tolerant) and fiscally conservative (i.e. responsible). Libertarian purists will denounce such a formulation as lazy or incorrect or insufficiently Misesian or Hayekian or Randian, but the way that Gary put it is exactly right in political terms. Most Americans have no problem with immigrants (except that we seem to be attracting fewer and fewer of them), legal or illegal. FFS, a majority of Republicans favor some sort of legal status for illegals. The same is true about marriage equality, pot legalization, and abortion rights. Alt-right jackasses be damned! Growing majorities are OK with living in a more-cosmopolitan, more-globalized America where you're free to travel, work, and mix with whatever people, food, and music you want. It's not simply coastal elites who are dining out more; goddamn Kroger stores in Ohio have sushi bars in the produce sections. If Texas is the near-future of America, the one thing you can say about it is that it's pretty comfortable with all sorts of mixing. And yet, somehow neither this reality—or the idea that people want a government that does less and costs less—isn't represented by either major party. Indeed, according to Gallup, 54 percent of us agree that "government is doing too much" while just 41 percent say the government should be doing more. What's more, for the first time, Gallup data shows that libertarian is the single-largest ideological bloc at 27 percent, bigger than conservative (26 percent), liberal (23 percent) or populist (15 percent). That was the essential message of the Johnson campaign and if it got drowned out somewhat by various gaffes and world events, it isn't going away any time soon.
Second, and more controversially, I think, Gary Johnson incarnates what we will come to expect from politicians and presidents. Hillary Clinton was imperious and hyper-credentialed to a fault, Donald Trump was simply a bullying blowhard, and Jill Stein an unconvincing bullshit artist (she's still at it, actually, improbably attributing the New Year's Eve attack in Istanbul to climate change). Johnson presented himself as experienced and competent—he had a great run as a two-term governor of New Mexico and had built two successful businesses—but also relentlessly human. He didn't pretend to know everything (including some things he absolutely should have had down cold) or to be all things to all people. As the government is inevitably scaled down due to financial constraints, we will also want to scale down the people and the personalities that operate it. We don't need louts like Donald Trump or distant technocrats like Hillary Clinton or rhetorical masters such as Barack Obama any more. One of the most-attractive things about Johnson to me was that he didn't need to own every room he walked into, didn't need to be a super-genius or ultra-coiffed glibmeister with a canned line about everything in the world. Rather, at his best, Gary came off as a motivated and capable everyman, the sort of person you would trust to do right by you, own his mistakes, and move forward in the best faith possible.
The tragicomedy of America is that we mostly get the government we demand. For all his faults, Johnson articulated the broadly felt desire for government that does less and costs less and personified a down-to-earth politician. In doing so, he prototyped what the politics and politicians of the future will be like. Gary, we hardly knew ye, but we will, and sooner than most of us think.
Here's a flashback to a Facebook Live video Matt Welch and I did with Gary Johnson during last July's Democratic National Convention. Take a look at the future: