Every Presidential election is mostly a two-person race – from a practical standpoint, anyway. Occasionally a third party candidate does make some noise. In 2000, Ralph Nader got a lot of attention, and shook up the race, arguably weakening Democratic nominee Al Gore – but he only ended up with 2.7% of the vote nationwide. In 1992 and 1996, Independent candidate and businessman Ross Perot managed 19 and 9 percent respectively. These were impressive showings on the surface, though he never won a single state, and only came in 2nd out of 3 in a couple of them. In 1980, former Republican John Anderson started strong, polling as high as 14 percent, but faded down the stretch, and ended up with closer to 6 percent of the vote. In addition, George Wallace, Strom Thurmond, Bob LaFollette, Eugene Debs, and Teddy Roosevelt have all been impactful as third party candidates over the last century or so.
But with the exception of a former President – Roosevelt – none were serious threats for the White House. Their appeal was usually due to an outsider message. They often ran primarily on the notion of not being Democrats or Republicans. In some cases, their ideology was within the mainstream (Anderson, Roosevelt). In others, they tended to be more left or right, or something else altogether.
Since 1972, the Libertarian Party has fielded candidates for President in every election. They are arguably the most successful third party of the last 40 years, though that is a pretty low bar. They attempt to eschew the traditional right-left ideological labeling, though they have tended to appeal more to those on the right than on the left. “Socially liberal and economically conservative” is often the mantra, but that’s usually misleading, especially for the most ideologically pure libertarians. Libertarians are “socially liberal” in that they favor decriminalization or outright legalization of drugs, and they are supportive of improved civil liberties. Sometimes they are more open-minded than social conservatives on LGBT issues, and are sometimes less dogmatic about abortion. They are usually anti-war and anti-interventionism. But that is usually where the idea of “social liberalism” ends. Libertarians also believe that representative democratic governments should have no role in assisting or protecting the individual. Health care, consumer protection, environmental protection, food and drug safety – these are all better served by the free market. The government inevitably does more harm than good, and acts as a drag on the markets. These are hardly liberal positions.
They are more accurately described as anti-government. At its heart, libertarianism argues that individuals and businesses rarely (if ever) oppress, and that governments are either unnecessary, or at best, a necessary evil to be limited to the bare minimum. Only governments can restrict individual liberty in any sort of meaningful way, and no matter how one is run, they always do. Libertarians tend to ignore or reject the notion of the social contract, and believe that unregulated capitalism is the truest path to freedom and prosperity.
Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico, is running for the second straight election as the Libertarian Party nominee for President. In 2012, he managed around 1% of the vote, which was actually an historically great result for the LP. But this year, Governor Johnson appears to be doing better. Plenty of people are dissatisfied with the Democratic and Republican nominees this time around. Donald Trump has repelled a lot of traditional Republicans, and hasn’t done all that well with independents. Hillary Clinton has always struggled to find common ground with the American right (though she did enjoy solid relationships with some of GOP while in the Senate), and was attacked with enthusiasm by the left while being challenged by Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed “socialist.”
Since Sanders was defeated by Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries, most of his supporters have moved over to support Clinton, although many have done so reluctantly. Still, a significant percentage (polls have varied) have refused to back Clinton, often for ideological reasons, though many still hold to discredited conspiracy theories of electoral malfeasance by either her and/or the DNC. Either way, many have resolved to write in Bernie – the “Bernie or Bust” contingent – and many have turned toward third party options.
Green Party nominee Jill Stein appears to be the most logical option for many. She occupies an ideological space somewhat to the left of Bernie Sanders, and has taken up the Ralph Nader position that there is no appreciable difference between the two major candidates. Like Johnson, she also ran in 2012, and like him, is polling better now than she was that year. However, she is still polling well short of the 5% needed for the Green Party to receive federal election funding in 2020. Some Bernie supporters may be on the Steinwagon, but not all of them.
Gary Johnson, on the other hand, may have peeled quite a few Bernie fans away from Hillary Clinton. It’s not completely crazy. A significant percentage of Bernie supporters weren’t necessarily Democrats. Many weren’t even political liberals. Some just liked Bernie as an alternative to the mainstream. Many liked specific issues such as campaign finance reform, breaking up banks, or the general theme of ending corruption and cronyism. Bernie appealed to many based on more than just ideology. So it’s reasonable to assume that potential Libertarian voters lurked among the Berners.
However, on occasion, actual liberals have expressed support for Johnson. This also happened with Ron Paul in 2008, and to a lesser extent, Rand Paul this year. These aren’t the only people I’m speaking to, but they may be the ones I have the biggest problem with. They see Hillary Clinton (and mainstream Democrats in general) as either ideologically compromised, or hopelessly corrupt (or both), and generally beyond redemption. While Jill Stein appeals to many of them, they also have noticed the former governor who speaks frequently of civil liberties, reduced militarism, and marijuana, and don’t look any deeper.
That’s what I wish to discuss.
Gary Johnson has spent quite a lot of time discussing those issues, because the actual positions of the Libertarian Party – as well as his campaign – paint a much different picture. One that is about as far from Bernie Sanders’ idea of America as one can get and still be American. Maybe even farther than Donald Trump.
I should preface this with the Libertarian Party itself and its relationship with Johnson. He is by far the most mainstream and “moderate” candidate they have nominated for the Presidency. And he faced bizzare and aggressive opposition during his run for the nomination. The Libertarian Convention featured some strange and radical individuals who lambasted Johnson for a lack of ideological purity. His experience and relative moderation were not assets to many of the Libertarian true-believers.
First of all, Gary Johnson has not actually been a libertarian, (either large or small “L”) for all that long. He was elected as the Republican governor of New Mexico back in 1994, running on a rather extreme “tough-on-crime” platform. He was a big proponent of prison privatization, and many of his policies helped contribute to increases in prison violence. He also was a huge fan of school privatization, and continues to rail against public schools. After reelection in 1998, he suddenly started preaching the gospel of legal weed, though by 2016, he’s not exactly a leader on the topic, as several states have either decriminalized or outright legalized marijuana, and it appears eventual national legalization is inevitable.
Even as recently as late 2011, Johnson was a Republican, where he initially threw his hat into the ring as a Republican presidential candidate. It wasn’t until he realized he wasn’t going to make noise in the primaries that he switched his affiliation to Libertarian. His positions that year were largely in line with the (small l) libertarian wing of the Republican Party, although he did “come out” in favor of marriage equality at that point. He claims this year to have been committed for a long time to equal rights for gay Americans, though the earliest he seems to have publicly expressed this has been 2011, making him progressive for a Republican, but not exactly a national leader on the topic.
This is primarily addressed to those liberals and progressives that are struggling to get on board the concept of Hillary Clinton, and who like the idea of Johnson, at least on the surface. But this also applies to everyone else, too. Please take a look at some of Johnson’s “moderate for a libertarian” positions, and decide if that’s a leader you would want to elect.
Gary Johnson is adamantly against all deficit spending, and has pledged to push for a balanced budget amendment.
He argues that the federal deficit and national debt are enormous problems, and no amount of deficit spending will be passed by his administration. Of course, the problem is that deficits actually aren’t the boogeyman that he believes, and that some spending is often necessary. Deficit spending is (in part) what ended the Great Recession (also the Great Depression, but that’s a longer story). Any decent economist would argue that forcing a balanced budget without any revenue increases would be absolutely disastrous for the economy. Can you say Great Recession Part 2?
The current status of the EU, as well as the sluggish growth of the American economy is further evidence of the problems with fiscal austerity. Unfortunately, this is an area where Johnson toes the ideological line and allows for zero compromise.
It should also be noted that the state debt of New Mexico more than doubled under his watch. So, there’s that.
With the current levels of spending, this would be laughably insufficient for running the country, and would create debts far exceeding the current rate.
Of course, he advocates massive cuts in spending… but it remains unclear whether or not the money collected would still be enough. Maintaining current spending levels would likely require a consumption tax in the range of 60 percent, which could be disastrous for lower income families and individuals. Even with major cuts to the federal budget, the consumption tax would necessarily have to be far higher than any current sales taxes. These are inherently regressive. If the consumption tax itself had different brackets, and were made progressive, it might alleviate some of these issues, but Johnson has made it clear he wants just a single rate, though he hasn’t specified what that might be.
In 2012, he advocated a 23% flat tax, and a 43% cut in federal spending. An article published in Slate mentioned that for this election, Johnson is advocating an immediate 20% cut in spending. I haven’t seen if he plans to eventually reach his 2012 pledge of 43%. The size of the cut is of course still ludicrous, but moreso, he refuses any phasing of the change, and wants to jump straight in the deep end, seemingly without any grasp of the economic impact this will have.
He advocates simplifying the tax code and closing loopholes, which is laudable, but he also makes the classic conservative mistake that equates the actual number of income tax brackets with said complexity. While he has switched what should be taxed (consumption vs income), he still is pushing the same old single-rate flat tax that the far right has been screaming about for years.
He advocates eliminating all corporate income taxes altogether. While one could make an argument for reducing corporate taxes to better incentivize businesses paying them, complete elimination would amount to an enormous corporate handout, as well as a huge decrease in revenue.
Gary Johnson wants to greatly decrease regulation on business, but he offers virtually no specifics. He only derides “excessive regulation” while paying lip service to retaining some regulations, but with no details.
He also favors complete deregulation of banking. After all, banking deregulation worked so well before.
He has officially called for “auditing” the Federal Reserve. This is all he suggests on his platform page. But in speeches and interviews, he has acknowledged wanting to “end the Fed,” a popular sentiment on the fringes of the far right. Also a misguided sentiment.
He advocates abolishing the Department of Education, and has spent years pushing for more privatization of schools. He has stated “education is best provided by the free market.”
He acknowledges the role of humans impacting global warming, but argues that the government should do little-to-nothing about it.
Beyond global warming, his statements and proposals on science-related issues are mixed-to-poor. He isn’t a science-denier like Trump, and he hasn’t pandered to some of the goofier anti-science ideas like Stein, but he is adamantly opposed to government funding of research and development, has no proposals at all for the future of NASA, and has stated that fracking should be increased, as well as coal power plants.
He is adamantly against any sort of universal or government-paid healthcare, and would not only eliminate the Affordable Care Act, but would ensure that a public option never occurs under his watch. He would scrap Medicare and Medicaid. Anyone receiving free or subsidized healthcare would be on their own.
He believes in removing pretty much all laws and regulations regarding firearms, despite the mountains of evidence that states this would cause a massive increase in gun-related deaths.
Oh, what else?
He opposes the minimum wage entirely. He would get rid of it, not just reduce it. Bernie fans, take note of that one in particular, along with the banking deregulation.
He advocates right-to-work laws, and is about as anti-union as it gets. The rights of workers are pretty much nonexistent in his world.
The Libertarian platform endorses eventually phasing out Social Security altogether. Social Security (it shouldn’t have to be noted), is by far the most successful antipoverty program in American history. The Libertarian Party clashes with Johnson somewhat on this, as he has stated he generally supports Social Security, but believes it shouldn’t be funded with payroll taxes, and instead could be covered by his consumption tax. This is a fiscally ludicrous notion, unless he plans on drastically scaling back benefits. But he hasn’t called for the outright end to the program, either.
As I touched on earlier, as governor of New Mexico, Johnson governed on the notion that government’s primary job was to do as little as possible, and cede as many services as possible to the private sector. This was met with disastrous results with prisons. The overall economic record of New Mexico was mixed, in part because Johnson was largely opposed by Democratic legislative majorities, and didn’t get a whole lot accomplished, though he did use his veto pen more than any other governor at the time. Schools remained a weak point in New Mexico throughout his terms, and never improved while he was governor.
It’s already been covered quite a bit by the media, and he certainly acknowledged his mistake, but the fact is that a Presidential candidate who wants to be taken seriously couldn’t answer a question about one of the big issues he would face as president. It really was a major deal.
Johnson seems like a good guy. He’s certainly the most interesting personality in the current Presidential race, and it appears he would be a blast to hang out with. He built his own home in Taos, NM (a wonderful little town). He’s climbed the Seven Summits. He runs ultramarathons. He paraglides. He’s smoked weed. Yeah, I would hang out with him. That charm and persona help his cause, especially among liberal-minded people. And yes, personality matters. A little.
However, Gary Johnson might be ideologically further from Bernie Sanders than Donald Trump is. Sure, he wants to legalize pot. And he’s an advocate for cutting back on the military. But otherwise, they are polar opposites. A Gary Johnson presidency would mean no free tuition for college. He wouldn’t “break up the banks.” Instead, he would eliminate regulations on them. He has waffled a little on background checks, but for the most part, firearm access would become substantially easier. He would drastically cut all social services – somewhere between 20 and 43 percent. And he would do it all at once, with no phasing. He would make taxes much more of a burden on the poor, and much easier on the rich. He would make sure nobody received free or discounted healthcare – at least not by the government. He would do little to offset climate change. He would eliminate many government institutions, with only “the free market” to pick up the slack.
If all of this sounds good to you, well, then by all means, go for it. He’s your guy. It sounds like he needs to read more Upton Sinclair and less Ayn Rand, but that’s just me. However, if you are a liberal or progressive or even a centrist, and you think Hillary Clinton is too corrupt, dishonest, or not ideologically pure enough to get your vote – well, you can do a lot better than Gary Johnson. Write Bernie in. Vote for Rocky Anderson. Take a breath and let me or someone else change your mind on Hillary. But Gary Johnson? Seriously? Nice guy, but take a deeper look at what he believes. Definitely take a look at what his party believes. And if you are someone who doesn’t agree with Republicans on economic issues, remember that on those topics, he will have their full support. There is a lot of damage that could be done under President Johnson.
I have a piece on the human garbage fire that is Donald Trump in the works, and my final thoughts on Hillary Clinton, hopefully in a few weeks. As for now though, if you don’t like Clinton or Trump, don’t assume that Johnson will be any better, just because he seems like he would be cool to share a joint with. There really is so much at stake here.
I’m endorsing Gary Johnson for Cool Public Figure. But not President.
As always, links to better-written articles are below: