As the dust settles after the election, it’s time to take a step back and analyze what many libertarians considered a huge opportunity to advance the cause: a Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump race. “What a couple of terrible candidates,” everyone said, “any decent third party candidate could steal a lot of votes.”
Now I do not believe that government and politics are the solutions to the problems of society, but if some people want to use it as a tool to bring more people to libertarianism, then that certainly cannot be bad. After all, it’s at least a good first step for people to see things outside of the two party dichotomy. Of course no third party candidate had any real shot at winning the election and, in my own view, the number of votes the Libertarian Party candidate got was not very important to me. What I care about is the message of liberty and how the movement grows. The Libertarian Party just needed to nominate someone who could be a good messenger of liberty especially now that Ron Paul has largely left the spotlight.
And so the Libertarian Party picked Gary Johnson. And they put Bill Weld in as his Vice Presidential candidate.
Johnson was supposed to be the guy to bring new people to the movement. The goal was 5% of the popular vote. Gary Johnson got 3.27%. Now that is an increase from his 0.99% he won in 2012, but consider how much of the country did not like either Clinton or Trump and were fed up with typical politics. Were the votes due to a newfound belief in libertarianism or were they just protest votes against Democrats and Republicans?
Considering that Green Party candidate Jill Stein nearly tripled her share of the vote from 2012 to 2016 (0.36% to 1.00%), it is reasonable to believe that the latter happened.
So what went wrong? Were people just not ready to accept the message of libertarianism? Or was Gary Johnson the problem? I would argue that the Gary Johnson experiment should be ended and that it’s time to jettison him. It should also make libertarians think twice about having a desire to coronate a leader for the movement.
I have a hard time calling Gary Johnson a libertarian. Sure, he has some fiscally conservative and socially liberal views, but that makes him more of a moderate, not a libertarian. And while moderates and libertarians share some positions and ideas in common, libertarianism is rooted in specific principles. Throughout the campaign, Johnson made it clear that he was ignorant of these principles; therefore, he could not come up with libertarian answers and solutions to the issues brought up to him.
Here are six reasons why we should say “Thanks but no thanks” to Gary Johnson and anyone like him.
1. “The Non-Aggression Principle goes over my head.”
This is probably the worst thing Johnson has said or done. He was at a Libertarian Party presidential debate in Philadelphia and was responding to a question from Larkin Rose on whether or not the Constitution was compatible with the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP). Not only did he say that the NAP “goes over my head,” but he also continued, “So the fact that government should not be engaged in force, how that’s relative to the Constitution, I really can’t answer the question. I’m not smart enough to answer the question.”
It is not as though the criticism for Johnson is that he didn’t tout some libertarian platitude, it’s that he claimed to be unaware of it. It’s like being a doctor and saying you don’t understand what Ibuprofen does.
I don’t understand why Johnson couldn’t have said something like, “Of course the taxation violates the Non-Aggression Principle, but when we’re out and about, let’s not get so technical with people; their eyes will glaze over if we do.” Remember, Gary Johnson was speaking at a Libertarian Party presidential debate in a small room of probably less than 150 libertarians and this was one of a number of questions that were philosophical in nature. “Ordinary Americans” would have had no idea this debate was even happening and there’s a good chance they wouldn’t even know who Gary Johnson is. If Johnson doesn’t understand how the Non-Aggression Principle applies to taxation, he’s not a very good libertarian. If he understands it but says he doesn’t, then he’s a liar.
Not understanding the Non-Aggression Principle is largely a disqualification for being considered a libertarian.
2. “What is Aleppo?”
If Gary Johnson’s goal was to get media attention, then he hit a home run here. When asked, “What would you do if you were elected about Aleppo?” he responded, “What is Aleppo?” If you believe the old saying “Any publicity is good publicity,” this would prove that sentiment wrong. Johnson got absolutely slammed for this. It was an absolutely painful few seconds to behold.
The real shame of this was that he actually gave a decent answer once he realized what Aleppo was. How many people will remember his answer? Do I need to answer that?
As someone running for President of the United States, it is imperative that you are aware of, well, every current event. Both Clinton and Trump would have known exactly what Aleppo was and would have had an answer right away. And if one of them said that the solution was to bomb Aleppo to smithereens, it would have gotten less negative media attention than Johnson’s response.
3. “I’m having an Aleppo moment.”
Normally when you do something bad, you don’t want to remind people about it. In Gary Johnson world, if you’re caught unsure how to answer a question, then you should bring up the last time you were unprepared for a question. Chris Matthews asked Johnson who his favorite foreign leader was and his response was “I’m having an Aleppo moment.”
My issue is not that he could not think of someone; my issue is that he missed a slam dunk answer that any libertarian would have been able to jump right to. What he should have said was, “I’m a libertarian, so I think that rulers are the problem. That’s why I don’t look up to or admire any of them.”
For most libertarians, that would be an honest answer. The problem is that I don’t think this thought would ever cross Johnson’s mind because he doesn’t see the state as the problem. He sees too much of the state as the problem.
4. Forced anger
On multiple occasions, Gary Johnson “lost his cool” when asked about foreign policy, illegal immigration, and his tax plan. Should we get upset that there are bombs being dropped on innocent people in other parts of the world using our tax dollars? We absolutely should. The foreign policy of the United States is absolutely disgraceful and inhuman. But that righteous indignation should probably be saved for someone who disagrees with you and on someone who is simply asking your opinion.
But what really makes this notable is that his anger just seemed so forced and perhaps even feigned. If his anger seemed more organic, then I could at least defend him as passionate, but going from calm to bug-eyed anger makes you look unstable or crazy.
5. Word associations
Gary Johnson was on CNN with Bill Weld and was asked to play a game of word association. He had to come with the first thing that came to his mind after the host said a name.
President Barack Obama: “Good guy.”
Hillary Clinton: “A wonderful public servant.”
What? In what world does a libertarian say that about those people? When asked for a word association for Donald Trump, he said, “I’m sure there’s something good to say about Donald somewhere.” Okay, so that response makes it clear that Johnson was trying to come up with positive things to say. Maybe it was his way of breaking away from all of the negative campaigning, but could he be more out of touch? As bad as Trump is, how much worse is he than either Obama or Clinton that he couldn’t come up with some silly nicety to say about him like he did for the other two?
Like the “Aleppo moment,” this is another situation that is made a whole lot worse because of the previous item. Gary Johnson wants us to believe that the foreign policy of the United States and the wars it engages in are so bad that he cannot talk about them without seething with anger. So why would he refer to two of the people most responsible for the foreign policy and wars as a “good guy” and “a wonderful public servant?” This makes absolutely no sense.
Now I do not want to suggest that Gary Johnson is not against the wars as he says he is, but do they matter to him as much as he would like us to believe? It is not hard to be consistent when you’re grounded in principle.
Even from a pragmatic standpoint, his answers make no sense. Everyone knew that Johnson had a shot at making a dent in the election because of how much people despised the establishment, which centers on people like Obama and Clinton. He could have tapped right in to the feelings of tens of millions of people, but instead decided to pay a compliment to some of the most hated people in the country.
6. Bake the cake
This was a real nail in the coffin for Johnson among libertarians. With a few businesses in the news for discriminating against customers based on religious beliefs, Johnson was asked his opinion on it. Going against basic libertarian principles, he felt that a baker, for example, should be forced to bake a cake for a gay couple even if that baker did not want to. When asked to elaborate on that, he said that a baker should be required by law to bake a gay couple a cake but should not be forced to decorate it.
Aside from this being antithetical to libertarianism and freedom of association, it is completely nonsensical. Regardless of their view on anti-discrimination laws, who would listen to that response and find it agreeable (assuming they understood it)? He must have been trying to not alienate himself from the status quo view of most of society, but he ended up alienating himself from anyone with ears.
The best explanation that I can find for Johnson’s ridiculousness is that he was trying to appeal to the masses. That’s fine to do, but that should be done by presenting libertarianism in a way that can be agreeable to most people. It should not be done by twisting the ideas to make them fit what people incorrectly believe.
Johnson said a lot of absurd things during his campaign for President. It would make it seem as though he is an idiot, but I’m not sure that’s the case. It makes much more sense to consider the idea that Johnson is simply not a libertarian. When you have the expectation that someone is a libertarian when he actually is not, his opinions are going to sound out of left field and shocking. That is because our expectations are not calibrated correctly. All that does is frustrate libertarians and prevent potential followers from exploring the ideas. Misrepresentation helps no one.
I hope that this Gary Johnson campaign makes people realize that it is not a good idea to place pragmatism ahead of principle. The leaders of the movement should earn those spots through their work in spreading the message of liberty and not through some crowning process.