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Opinion: How Gary Johnson killed the Libertarian moment

2016 was quite a moment for third parties. The two major party nominees for President of the United States, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, were perhaps the least popular candidates in the history of the republic. Americans were dissatisfied, frustrated, and ready for any kind of change.

This unique situation presented an opportunity for the Libertarian Party. The party bucked fringe hardliners in favor of former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson. While Johnson’s nomination attracted the ire of the some of rank-and-file who attacked him for not being libertarian enough, he was a reasonable choice for a party that was trying to gain legitimacy. Unlike his primary opponents, Johnson had considerable political experience, having served eight years as Governor of New Mexico, was perceived as a political moderate–with conservative economic views and more moderate/liberal views on social issues such as gay marriage and drug policy–and had positioned his career so that he could easily pitch himself as a reasonable alternative to the ultra-conservative Donald Trump or widely disliked Hillary Clinton. The Libertarians couldn’t have asked for a better presidential candidate.

Nor could they have asked for a better vice presidential candidate. Johnson, who was nominated by the Libertarians in 2012 and received less than one percent of the general election vote, also had his 2016 prospects bolstered by the presence of another political heavy hitter, former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld. Weld brought not only extra legitimacy to the ticket, at least in the eyes of the general electorate but also a unique knack for fundraising. This ticket of two former GOP governors was, in the eyes of many, poised to siphon off many traditional and moderate Republican voters.

For a while, things seemed to be working in the party’s favor. June polls showed Johnson polling at 8%, and a groundswell of disaffected voters–especially younger voters and more moderate Republicans–began to see him as a reasonable alternative to the two major-party nominees. While few ever seriously believed that he would win the presidency, there emerged some speculation that he could pull it off.

Of course, Johnson’s support slipped after he made several television gaffes, including not having any knowledge of Islamic State fighting in Aleppo (or even the existence of Aleppo), not being able to name a single world leader, and talking with his tongue out during an interview. He fell considerably from his strong standing in the polls–he never reached the numbers required to qualify for the debates–ultimately not even earning enough votes to allow the Libertarian Party to qualify for federal funding. Donald Trump was narrowly elected President despite losing the popular vote, shocking the world. Those who mourned Trump’s victory largely blamed Johnson for acting as a spoiler, and the hardline libertarians who decried Johnson’s nomination from the beginning were vindicated. The Libertarians had lost their moment and Johnson, for his part, decided to never run for public office again.

But the Libertarian Party lost more than their chance at the Presidency. Their legitimacy as a party was shot, and their ideology, which for a while seemed ready for a moment–especially after the success of libertarian-minded Republicans during the Obama era–is dying. Libertarian Party membership collapsed following the 2016 election. While party leaders are optimistic, they have no clear leader to replace Gary Johnson, and their leadership has recently faced a serious scandal; the Vice Chair of the Libertarian National Committee, Arvin Vohra, has come under fire for Milo-esque statements defending pedophilia.

Young Americans for Liberty, a major libertarian youth organization unaffiliated with the party, got in trouble for their botched involvement in a Michigan campaign to make their state legislature part-time. Their last major candidate, Gary Johnson, has faded back into obscurity, and even by the end of his campaign, his favorability rating among the voters had nosedived. In July of 2016, Gary Johnson’s unfavorability rating was 15%, by November, as more and more people became aware of who he was and what he stood for, it was nearly 40%.

Herein lies the libertarian crisis: the more aware people are of libertarianism, the less they like it. While Johnson’s supporters cried that he could have won had he been allowed in the presidential debates or given more exposure, it was that attention he received that shattered his movement. With every interview, with every statement, Johnson revealed himself to be both thoroughly incompetent and unprepared to be President.

But a dull-witted former Governor who couldn’t name a single world leader and thinks that lacking knowledge of basic geography doesn’t disqualify you from being President of the United States wasn’t the Libertarian party’s biggest problem. Governor Johnson at least understood that the best way to sell libertarianism was to pitch it as an ideology that was socially liberal and fiscally conservative. The backlash to Johnson, and specifically to that view of the ideology, taught the American populace that libertarianism was a very different kind of ideology, one that wasn’t so appealing under close examination.

Whether the Libertarian Party or the ideology it supposedly represents will ever truly die remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that the ideology had a moment of crushing defeat in 2016, and has yet to bounce back as the American people are increasingly disinterested in their ideas and their candidates. While pitching themselves as a vision for the future of the political right should be easy considering the devastating unpopularity of Donald Trump, they have yet to succeed in doing so. It should also be noted that while Trump is unpopular with the overall electorate, the majority of Republicans still support his Presidency and ideology, albeit a decreasing majority. The right has their own vision for what conservatism should be, and the left is increasingly rejecting the kind of centrism that would be necessary for libertarians to thrive. While they may be able to find their place in a different political era, for now, Libertarianism will sit on the sidelines.


Learn more:

FiveThirtyEight – What went wrong for Gary Johnson

Reason.com – Did the Libertarian Party Blow It in 2016?

Time – Third Parties Faded to the Background in a Shocking Election

Jesser Horowitz ‘19 is a history major, guest contributor to the Vassar Political Review and is very active in Democratic Party politics, having worked for Kirsten Gillibrand and Hillary Clinton among others. 

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