The 2020 presidential election gave libertarian voters few good options: A serially dishonest and incompetent leader who bungled the COVID-19 pandemic and imposed trade and immigration restrictions versus someone who promised $11 trillion in new spending, who played a role in many of the greatest policy failures of the last 30 years, such as the Iraq War, the PATRIOT Act, and the expansion of the drug war.
And then there was the Libertarian Party (L.P.). After nominating a pair of popular former governors to run in 2016 who pulled just over 3 percent of the popular vote, the party backed Jo Jorgensen, a Clemson University psychology lecturer who was featured on the L.P. ticket in the 1990s but remains largely unknown outside of libertarian circles. She drew just over 1 percent.
So is the party still a worthwhile project?
Reason spoke to several party insiders about what they think went right and wrong in 2020, the L.P.'s internal divisions, and the party's strategy for the future.
"You had something in the Jorgensen-Cohen ticket that appealed to anybody, no matter where you were in the party," says Alex Merced, the L.P.'s former vice chair.
He thinks that even though Jorgensen fell short of 2016 L.P. presidential candidate Gary Johnson's vote share, the unifying effect it had among libertarians was positive for the movement.
"I think that when you try to water down your messaging to appeal to everyone, you sort of appeal to no one," says Angela McArdle, who is chair of the Los Angeles Libertarian Party and who plans to run for chair of the national party in 2022.
She's affiliated with the Mises Caucus, which believes libertarians have been far too willing to compromise their principles and water down their rhetoric to make alliances with the political left or right. They reject the "need to make Faustian bargains" in the interest of gaining mainstream acceptance.
While she criticizes aspects of the Jorgensen campaign, McArdle thinks it began the necessary process of recalibrating the party, which she says should be less Gary Johnson and more Ron Paul.
"When you look at the general composition of the liberty movement—not just the Libertarian Party—it looks a lot more like Ron Paul than it does Gary Johnson. And I don't know a lot of libertarians who tell me that they were inspired by Gary Johnson," says McArdle, who believes the best use of the national party is to inspire activists to get involved with the state and local parties, where candidates have a better shot of actually winning.
The L.P. does currently hold more than 200 elected seats, mostly local positions like treasurer, city council member, school board member, or small-town mayor, according to its website. The most powerful members of the party holding office are Jeff Hewitt, Riverside County supervisor, who ran in a nonpartisan race, and Rep. Justin Amash (L–Mich.), who wasn't elected as a Libertarian but switched party affiliations. But Amash opted not to run for reelection in 2020.
In the most recent election, the party has secured 11 electoral victories so far. The highest office won by a L.P. candidate in 2020 was secured by Marshall Burt, who will join the Wyoming state House in January.
Current L.P. Chair Joe Bishop-Henchman agrees with McArdle that electoral success begins at the local level.
"Just imagine how different the national political discussion would be if there was a caucus of…eight or 10 or 12 Libertarian senators who could really be significantly changing what's happening in Washington, D.C.," says Bishop-Henchman. "So how do you get to that? Well, we've got to elect more Libertarian House members…build up a deep bench of elected officials at the state and local level…And so how do we get there? Well, it's building up the infrastructure of the party. So we have people who know how to elect and reelect people."
He says that while Jorgensen did worse than Johnson in 2016, the party has grown its registration roll significantly, which is now at a record 650,000 members.
"We've got lots of market liberals who are fed up with the AOC direction of the Democratic party…And we've got a lot of small-government conservatives who are fed up with the anti-trade, anti-immigration Trump direction of that party. So there's a lot of people who are politically homeless right now," says Bishop-Henchman.
But for members of the Mises Caucus like McArdle, the more effective strategy is to lean into radicalism even if it means potentially alienating centrists.
"We need someone at the front of the national party who is not afraid to talk about issues that are controversial. We need someone who is going to make libertarian statements and not worry about offending the left, because why do we waste our time pandering and begging for votes from a group of people who ultimately aren't going to like us?" says McArdle.
For instance, McArdle believes the party should've differentiated itself from Democrats and Republicans by taking a stronger stance against COVID-19 lockdowns and holding an in-person convention.
Several Libertarians, including McArdle, also criticized the Jorgensen campaign's adoption of Black Lives Matter rhetoric in a tweet telling her followers it's not enough to be not racist but rather one must be actively anti-racist.
"The Libertarian Party doesn't necessarily need to be anti-P.C. It needs to disregard P.C. politics," says McArdle. "If there's a situation that comes up that we could talk about the value of individual black lives, we should absolutely do it. It doesn't mean that we need to co-opt their language and be afraid of offending them. When we talk about the ramifications of the drug war, we can just speak the truth because that's what we should be doing."
Bishop-Henchman disagrees with the notion that the Libertarian Party has ever had a problem speaking unpopular truths.
"We've never really pulled our punches," says Bishop-Henchman, pointing out that the party favored marijuana legalization, marriage equality, and abolishing the draft long before any of those were popular positions. "Almost any libertarian would be considered politically radical by the conventional definition of the terms."
For Bishop-Henchman, the focus of the next four years is getting L.P. candidates elected at the state and local level.
"It's time that we get out of startup mode, and that we prove that we can do it," says Bishop-Henchman.
CORRECTION: The video mistakenly identifies the Lions of Liberty podcast, "Should The Libertarian Party Be Abolished?" as episode 408. It's actually episode 480.
Produced by Zach Weissmueller.
Photo credits: K.C. Alfred/TNS/Newscom; Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom; Paul Hennessy / SOPA Images/Sipa/Newscom.
Music credits: Muted.