The Libertarian Party Critique of Justin Amash
Competitors, skeptical delegates, and podcasters attack the congressman for being an incrementalist Deep State enabler rather than a principled radical.
With less than two weeks left before 1,000 or so Libertarian Party delegates select their 2020 presidential and vice presidential nominees in an unprecedented online-only vote, you could probably forgive Jacob Hornberger for being a little irritable.
Hornberger, the 70-year-old founder of the Future of Freedom Foundation, has, after all, won a clear majority of the party's presidential primaries and caucuses, nonbinding though they may be. He has been in and out and back in Libertarian politics for more than two decades now. And yet ever since Rep. Justin Amash (L–Mich.) threw his hat into the ring on April 28, Hornberger has been all but ignored by the mainstream media, while Amash galivants on cable news networks and HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher.
So it came as little surprise Saturday night that when the formerly Republican and independent congressman participated in his first Libertarian presidential debate, it was Hornberger—author of an eight-part blog series titled, "Justin Amash, LP Interloper"—who came out swinging hardest.
"Even the libertarian-leaning conservative members of Congress have websites that direct children to the website of the CIA—the most evil agency in U.S. history," Hornberger charged in his opening statement, reiterating his critique of a student resource page at amash.house.gov. "Conservatives love free enterprise, but have long supported the evil, immoral, socialist, central-planning, Republican/Democratic system of immigration controls, which has brought death and suffering to countless people, as well as a brutal police state consisting of highway checkpoints and other initiations of force against innocent people."
Running as he is a "campaign of principle for the party of principle," in a cycle where many Libertarians seem particularly eager to shed their image as a refuge for ideologically alienated and/or politically opportunistic ex-Republicans, Hornberger portrayed Amash as someone merely tinkering around the edges of the welfare/warfare state.
"Conservatives love to 'reform,'" he said. "But reform of tyranny is not freedom. Freedom is a dismantling of tyranny….In this election Libertarian Party members are asked to trade away our principles for a conservative/progressive/libertarian mush, all for the sake of big publicity and the hopes of garnering votes. If we make that trade, we become like them. We become conservatives and progressives. We become the party of expediency."
Those who assume Amash will waltz to a first-ballot nomination over Memorial Day weekend should take a look at the Libertarian Party of Kentucky's post-debate voting exercise among one-quarter of confirmed L.P. convention delegates. In the first round of polling, Amash received just 33.3 percent of the vote, compared to runner-up Hornberger's 21 percent. (The party requires winning candidates to earn 50 percent plus one vote, using an instant runoff process in which the last-place finisher in each round, and everyone under 5 percent, gets lopped off for the next.)
Amash eventually won the informal vote, but it took him six rounds. Here's how the totals went, as reported:
Round 1: Amash 33.3 percent, Hornberger 21 percent, Jo Jorgensen 16.6 percent, Vermin Supreme 7.7 percent, Judge Jim Gray 6.6 percent, Adam Kokesh 6.2 percent, John Monds 5 percent, Arvin Vohra 1.5 percent.
Round 2: Amash 35.1 percent, Hornberger 23.3 percent, Jorgensen 18.5 percent, Supreme 9.3 percent, Kokesh 7.7 percent, Gray 7 percent.
Round 3: Amash 37.3 percent, Hornberger 22.4 percent, Jorgensen 21.6 percent, Supreme 10.1 percent, Kokesh 8.6 percent.
Round 4: Amash 39.3 percent, Jorgensen 24.8 percent, Hornberger 22.9 percent, Supreme 13 percent.
Round 5: Amash 43.8 percent, Jorgensen 30.5 percent, Hornberger 25.7 percent.
Round 6: Amash 55.6 percent, Jorgensen 44.4 percent.
Jorgensen, the 1996 Libertarian vice presidential nominee who caught Hornberger from behind in Round 4 and eventually elbowed him out, is campaigning in a sort of third lane between the no-holds-barred radicalism of Hornberger and anarchist Adam Kokesh, and the more pragmatic approach favored by Amash and Judge Jim Gray. "I'm offering something that's principled and practical," she said in her closing statement Saturday night.
Jorgensen was the only other debate participant to significantly challenge Amash, albeit in a much less abrasive way than Hornberger (who said that he could not commit to endorsing the congressman should he win the nomination). In her opening statement, she asked Amash a series of questions, most of which he didn't address.
"Would you use your authority as commander-in-chief to end our involvement in foreign wars, stop subsidizing the defense of wealthy allies, and bring our troops home? I will," Jorgensen said. "Would you…use your pardon power to free people convicted of exposing government corruption, violating unconstitutional laws, or committing so-called crimes when there's no victim? I will. Would you immediately stop construction on President Trump's border wall boondoggle, and work to eliminate quotas on immigration so that anyone who wishes to come to America could do so legally? I will. And last, where do you stand on one of the most divisive issues in America: abortion? Do you support the Libertarian Party platform? I do. It's not enough to be better than Trump or Biden. Our nominee must be deeply principled with a long commitment to our party."
Amash did address abortion in the debate, saying at first: "I'm pro-life. I believe that the pro-life position is a Libertarian position, and my goal is to work outside of the Libertarian Party to convince people of that. I work with pregnancy resource centers, for example, here in West Michigan, to try to get the message out and spread the message about life. I don't think that the government is most effective at doing that sort of thing. As a president, the Libertarian Party supports the idea of not funding abortion providers. So, the Libertarian Party is aligned with my position on that."
Hornberger then grilled the congressman further:
Hornberger: … You of course pride yourself on being a strict constitutionalist, a supporter of the Constitution. And you supported a bill that called—I think it was in the past couple of years—that called for a nationwide criminal ban on abortion, in which people who were caught engaging in an abortion would be convicted of a federal felony involving a five-year jail sentence. Can you tell me where in the Constitution you rely on to support this federal felony offense for abortion?
Amash: So I'm not sure about the particular bill you're referencing, because it was in the past and I don't know exactly which bill—
Hornberger: It's House bill 36.
Amash: But I can answer the question. The 14th Amendment provides the power to have the federal government address state violations of people's rights. And as someone who's pro-life, I believe that a baby inside the womb is a life. And if I believe that that person is a life, then I think it's appropriate for the federal government to tell states that it is not okay to discriminate against these lives.
Now, as a presidential candidate, as a presidential nominee, I won't be making the legislation; the legislature will decide that. Congress decides on the legislation and sends things to my desk. With the parties very divided over this issue, nothing's going to come to my desk that does that.
That's my view of it, and when I'm voting in Congress, that's how I would vote. But as a presidential candidate, with respect to people who are concerned within the party because there is a split within the party between pro-life people and pro-choice people, the president will have very little opportunity for that kind of thing, because there is a huge divide within the party. So the only thing that is likely to come to my desk as president is a bill to not fund abortion providers, no federal funding for abortion providers, and that is something that all Libertarians within the party agree on. At least, the vast majority of them agree on that.
Hornberger's most influential backers, at the Libertarian Party Mises Caucus and on the podcasting airwaves, have dinged Amash for backing the "Deep State" in the impeachment of President Donald Trump (despite Amash's lead role in nearly de-funding the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance operations back in 2013), and for potentially being another in a lengthening line of ex-Republicans who fail to ignite a lasting ideological fire.
"I even think that in some scenarios 1 percent might be better than 4 percent," libertarian comedian Dave Smith said to Hornberger on an episode of his Part of the Problem podcast last month. "I think those votes are worthless if you didn't actually convert people or introduce them to liberty or change their way of looking at the world at all."
Or as Ludwig von Mises Institute senior fellow and popular podcaster Tom Woods, with whom Smith taped an Amash-criticizing podcast last week, said at a Mises Caucus-sponsored event down the street from the 2018 Libertarian National Convention: "So yeah, we won't get the 70 million votes, but maybe we get 1 million people who say, 'I never looked at the world the same way again after I listened to those people.'"
Amash's answer to the broad critique is to remind people that most Americans are not self-identified libertarians, no matter how intrinsically libertarian they may be without knowing it, and that political actors wishing to have any kind of influence need to acknowledge the fallen world around them.
"I've been a libertarian my entire life, a small-l libertarian," Amash said Saturday. "And I believe that when you work within government, you have to make those changes that will convince people to come to your side….You have to present libertarianism to them with the issues that they care about or are concerned about right now. It can't be some kind of overnight experiment where we re-work all of society or re-work all of our government."
"In fact," Amash continued, "that's arrogance in the form of central planning of another sort, to come in and say, 'We're just going to throw out everything we have overnight and start anew.' We have to do things gradually and carefully, and we have to trust the people to make decisions through our constitutional system of government."