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In the strangest presidential election year ever, the surprises keep on coming. Some of them are pleasant, though, including the huge surge in attention being paid the Libertarian Party.
Four years ago, a little over 20 press passes were issued to cover its national convention. This past weekend, over 250 journalists joined a record number of delegates at a convention that made the 2012 RNC seem like “the dance of the living dead,” as Rodney Dangerfield would put it.
But just as the Republican and Democratic Parties are deeply divided this year, so, too is the Libertarian Party, for relatively the same reasons. The Party’s winning presidential ticket, Gary Johnson/William Weld, aren’t viewed as true libertarians by almost half of the party’s delegates. The cybersphere is replete with comments and blogs from hardcore libertarians saying the Libertarian Party no longer represents them, that it’s nothing more than Republican Party Lite, etc.
I believe they’re wrong.
For the record, I am an anarcho-capitalist, which I believe is the only way to be 100% libertarian. Since just before Lew Rockwell outed me in 2011, I have believed the only way the human race will ever really free itself is to reject the state completely, along with all its works, and all its empty promises. And I believe we will get there. Someday, people will consider government itself as much a barbaric anachronism as we consider state religions today.
But getting rid of state religions took 5,000 years. Libertarianism has only been around a little over 300. Anarcho-capitalism is even younger. This is going to take time and, in the meantime, the political process is one of many avenues to try to advance liberty within the present framework. Voting is a 15-minute commitment. It doesn’t cost anything in terms of time or money and doesn’t stop one from pursuing liberty in any other way, including agorism, civil disobedience (but I repeat myself), homeschooling, etc.
The Libertarian Party has nominated some of the greatest voices of liberty in the past half century, including Ron Paul, Harry Browne and Michael Badnarik. Neither Johnson nor Weld are nearly as purely libertarian as any of these giants, but they’re going to get far more votes. Dissatisfaction with Trump and HIllary is certainly one reason. But it’s not the only one.
Libertarians don’t want to hear the other reason, but I’ll say it anyway. Contrary to libertarian-ish (in rhetoric only) icon Ronald Reagan, government is not the problem. The electorate is. As a social media friend remarked, “If you want to find out how interested your neighbors are in individual liberty, just go to your local planning board meeting.”
The truth is most Americans in 2016 aren’t ready for an ideologically pure libertarian message. This is an electorate that is angry with Washington, D.C. for not doing more, not for meddling too much. Grassroots conservatives complain Obama has gutted the military and (gasp!) negotiated with Iran. Grassroots liberals believe markets are too free and corporations “run rampant.”
Thanks to Trump and Hillary, millions of these Americans are going to find the Libertarian Party for the very first time. If the first thing they hear is “abolish the police,” “close all public schools” or “disband the army,” (all positions this writer would support), they’re going to stop listening immediately, never to be seen or heard from again.
Johnson/Weld has the potential to attract millions of new members to the Libertarian Party where they will be exposed to the far more libertarian views of most of its members. And no, this will not destroy the party or libertarianism as a philosophy, just as electing centrist Bill Clinton did not destroy the Democratic Party or the progressive philosophy. On the contrary, Clinton strengthened the party, paving the way for the far more progressive Barack Obama and the overtly socialist Bernie Sanders.
Perhaps a musical analogy would help. In the 1950s, white kids were discouraged from or forbidden to listen to black artists playing what was disparaged as “jungle music,” a.k.a. “rock ‘n roll.” Then, along came Pat Boone with a sexless, rather cringeworthy version of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.”
Despite Little Richard’s hilarious rant in Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll! about Pat Boone stealing his song, he admitted in a quieter moment that Boone’s whitewashed cover actually helped him, by introducing millions of white listeners to a style of music they may never have otherwise heard, at least at that time. Posterity reveres Little Richard as a founding father of rock ‘n roll. Pat Boone may be remembered for other things, but not that.
Gary Johnson might just be the Pat Boone of libertarianism for an American public subconsciously yearning for the real thing, but not yet ready to hear it.
Let there be no mistake. I disagree with Johnson on all of the same grounds as the hardest core libertarians. He’s wrong on bake the cake, in my opinion. I agree with Darryl Perry he’s wrong on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And let’s be clear about what Perry and I disagree with: only Titles II and VII, which deny freedom of association to private individuals. Perry and I are both glad the federal government came in and crushed Jim Crow laws, “states’ rights” be damned.
Anyone who’s read my latest book knows I agree with Tom Woods: libertarianism is not “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.” It is a philosophy unto itself, with its own first principles. Woods and I disagree on the strategic value of a Johnson/Weld Libertarian Party Presidential ticket.
But let’s get some perspective here. If these are the worst of Johnson’s heresies against libertarianism, then I have to ask many of my fellow libertarians why they aren’t applying the same measuring stick to Donald Trump, whose only libertarian position is his noninterventionist foreign policy. Because of this alone, they’re willing to excuse Trump’s full-throated endorsement of NSA spying on American citizens, shutting down the internet, protectionist tariffs and promises to expand the military, if not to use it as often. Johnson is far more libertarian on all of these issues than Trump.
Even on foreign policy, Johnson is better. For, while both men agree the interventionist policy must change, both questioning NATO and the overseas military empire, Trump still promises yet another war, against ISIS. Johnson has made no such indication. Johnson told this writer he is willing to go “all the way” down the road of bringing U.S. troops home from overseas deployments, adding “something drastic needs to be done” with U.S. foreign policy.
The purest libertarians don’t believe there is any legitimate role for government, as Darryl Perry also pointed out in last weekend’s debate. Any involvement in politics at all evokes the old joke about the prostitute (Would you sleep with me for a million dollars? Sure! Would you sleep with me for $25? No, what do you think I am, a hooker? We’ve already established that. Now, we’re just bickering about price.)
If we’re going to pursue liberty through the political process at all, the only way to do so is to have a reasonable shot at winning. Even Ron Paul said that. That doesn’t mean selling out our principles. That nominating Gary Johnson is doing so is as hysterical an overstatement as the typical, neocon “Insert-Dictator-Name-Here is Hitler” meme.
As much as I abhor the left’s agenda, I am realistic about one thing: they’ve played it smart. The 20th century was as overwhelming a victory for progressivism as one could imagine. They didn’t achieve that by dogmatically refusing to support any candidate who parted with them on one or two issues. On the contrary, they got behind anyone who supported any of their positions, regardless of how ideologically impure the candidate may have been from their perspective.
It’s time for the Libertarian Party to play it smart, like the left has, albeit for different ends. The real world isn’t a think tank. Get behind Johnson/Weld and seize the opportunity pounding on your door. You have nothing to lose but your irrelevance.
Tom Mullen is the author of Where Do Conservatives and Liberals Come From? And What Ever Happened to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness? Part One and A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.