A Postmortem on Libertarianism: What Happened to Gary Johnson?

| NOV 28, 2016 | 9:53 PM
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This was supposed to be the Libertarians’ year.

Both major party nominees were disliked at record-breaking levels — yet together they amassed nearly 95 percent of the popular vote. Gary Johnson flirted with the 15 percent polling threshold needed to qualify for the presidential debates — yet what little momentum he had fizzled out, dwarfed by the binary nature of news coverage. For a brief moment, Libertarians seemed like rational, level-headed alternatives to the tiresome charade of the two-party system — yet before alienated voters could take them seriously, they shot themselves in the foot, proving they were just the opposite.

In June, I wrote how Donald Trump should not overlook the threat that a strong Johnson candidacy could pose, as the former governor of New Mexico could be to the Republican nominee what Ralph Nader was to Al Gore in 2000: a spoiler candidate. If the race had been closer, then maybe it would’ve turned out to be true.

But this was not the case. In hindsight, the Libertarian ticket failed because of several factors, among them a suboptimal reputation, reckless immaturity, and the unavoidable, revolutionary, no-holds-barred style of Donald Trump.

1. Trump hijacked the Libertarian Party's traditional source of momentum

From the start, Trump’s campaign oozed the anti-establishment, outsider appeal that third parties covet and traditionally monopolize. The ‘R’ in front of his name in some ways was just his ticket inside the political system to throw haymakers once within, as he withstood tepid support at best from the Republican establishment, in-fighting among various party figures, and an unprecedented shortage of endorsements from conservative publications.

Trump surely would have lost had he campaigned on a third party ticket. But by hijacking a major party, he absorbed the sentiment that the Johnson-Weld ticket would have been able to tap into during any normal election cycle. This year, however, the Libertarians had the rug pulled out from under them.

2. Gary Johnson had a substantial lack of serious media exposure

When reflecting on Johnson’s campaign, what comes to mind is a mishmash of gaffes and other oddities ranging from his failure to explain the significance of Aleppo in world affairs to how he couldn't name a foreign leader whom he liked. Although the responsibility for these faults belongs to no one but himself, Johnson was, regardless of these shortcomings, in a disadvantaged position when it came to attention from news outlets.

Besides a few town hall events, the media largely treated the Libertarian ticket as if it was a tangential nuisance distracting viewers from the main narrative from which it could derive immense profits. Johnson was like a rabid fan who jumped the barricade and tried to hop into the ring while the blockbuster 'Trump v. Clinton' boxing match was under way.

Credible airtime for Johnson and Weld was essentially non-existent in light of Trump's simultaneously impressive and discouraging $5 billion dollars in free earned media coverage in the twelve months leading up to the election. This ultimately lowered the ceiling of support they could achieve.

3. The Libertarian Party is generally seen as a fringe force with fringe ideas

Due to the tenets of the party platform, its members’ world views and conduct in every day life, and various reasons in between, Libertarians have long been saddled with a reputation of illegitimacy in the political sphere.

The chief libertarian principle of as little government as possible, for instance, can lead to unabashedly propagating the arguments that all taxation is theft, that speed limits shouldn’t exist, and that private citizens should be in charge of maintaining highways and airport runways. Libertarianism incorporates an expansive array of views, some of which many feel to border on the ridiculous. And so it is a tall order, frankly, to bring them into mainstream political dialogue when we have collectively become conditioned to accept politics as a binary struggle. 

An example of the libertarian challenge of shedding its scarlet letter occurred at a town hall event in June. An audience member asked Johnson his view on legalizing drugs. This became particularly tricky not only since he had advocated in the past for the legalization of all drugs (a common libertarian stance), but also because the woman's son had used heroin and was now confined to a wheelchair.

 

The result was Johnson awkwardly trying to talk his way around the perception that he was soft on drugs while pushing for treatment centers where users could bring in their drugs to avoid overdoses. A nuanced position such as this by a presidential candidate does not come off well to mainstream Americans no matter how well it is articulated.

Neither does the audible rejection at the party's national convention of the suggestion that there should be laws against selling heroin to five-year-olds. Both are telling cases of poor optics that haunt the “too out there” Libertarian ticket.

4. Libertarians are weird”

At the party's convention in May — an occasion packed with unusual events — James Weeks, a candidate for party chair, stripped on stage.

During an interview with MSNBC's Kasie Hunt, Gary Johnson spoke with his tongue out:

An odd man who calls himself “Vermin Supreme” and who wears a boot for a hat ran for the Libertarian nomination — and received 18 votes.

Bill Weld essentially endorsed Hillary Clinton, making voters wonder what he was even doing on the Libertarian ticket in the first place. (He officially joined the party only a few weeks before the convention).

The examples are endless, and the implications clear: The Libertarian Party, yet again, proved itself to be, as Ian Tuttle of National Review writes, “tragically unserious.”

In an election cycle that was, on paper, the most friendly to a third party bid in a generation, Libertarians needed to dedicate themselves to making inroads with displaced voters left out in the cold by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. But instead of persuading them that there was a reasonable third way, they seemed to retreat into their cocoon of nonconformity, doubling down on their misfit-embracing, suit-with-sneakers attitude.

5. The race tightened and people voted strategically

As the election drew near, party loyalties hardened. A majority of registered Republicans who had refused to back Trump throughout the summer came around; he earned 90 percent of them. Most Sanders voters backed Clinton; she received 89 percent of registered Democrats.

Regardless of the fact that the race was reasonably close on Election Day, even if voters perceived a toss-up, they had the impression that their ballots mattered more — especially in battleground states. Less inclined to support Johnson, who they knew could not win, they were less willing to “waste” their vote.

The American public is well-versed in the implications of the archetypal three-way scenario that has reared its head in presidential elections every few decades. As a result, Libertarians continue to suffer from a collective action problem among the electorate since no one — except maybe Libertarians themselves — has been convinced a third party candidate will win. People like picking winners — even when both candidates are widely despised.

6. Libertarian ideology is appealing but lacks structure for implementation

The percentage of the American public that calls themselves libertarians has steadily increased over the last few years. In a recent Gallup survey, 27 percent of respondents identified as such  — the highest number ever recorded. Johnson himself has said there are about 30 million Libertarians in America who just don’t know it. At the same time, those who identify as Republicans or Democrats has hit historic lows: 26 percent and 29 percent, respectively, in 2015. Party polarization is increasing year by year, alienating those in the middle.

Yet Libertarian candidates have nothing to show for these promising numbers when the votes are counted. Poor showings at the ballot box can be traced to a lack of organization within the party, meager financial resources, and uninspired grassroots operations. While Johnson's campaign raised just under $12 million, for instance, Trump's collected more than $333 million.

The party is also comparatively new, having undergone various internal crises since the 1970s regarding its direction. Most of these have been borne out of a 'principle vs. pragmatism' dilemma — unavoidable in party built around a worldview that is difficult to implement in real life. If the past is any indicator, then the party's road to resolving these woes is long.

Donald Trump in June 2016 had said of the Libertarian challenge he faced:

Gary Johnson got one percent last time. I watched the whole situation. It was really pretty disgraceful. I think it’s a total fringe deal. He’s a fringe candidate.

This time around, Johnson received just over three percent — a net gain of three million votes, and the most in party history. But this election was supposed to be more promising for Johnson himself and the party as a political entity. A few months ago, it wasn't out of the question that he could rival Ross Perot’s spirited 1992 Independent Party bid that prompted nearly 20 million Americans to choose the road less traveled.

But this was a far-fetched hope. Failure, both self-imposed and from forces beyond its control, has left the Libertarian Party consigned to yet another four years of obscurity.