“Be Libertarian with me for one election,” suggests Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson in a recent advertisement. I’ve voted Libertarian in every election in which I’ve been eligible, so it’s no surprise that I’m doing so again this year. But my previous votes weren’t always enthusiastic. The party’s track record nominating candidates is decidedly mixed and I’ve gone along with some of their selections not out of any real support for the candidates, but only to sustain the party until they nominated someone stronger.
This year they did. Johnson, a successful two-term former governor of New Mexico, is the most credible candidate the Libertarian Party has ever offered. And given the dismal competition from the two major parties, his timing couldn’t be better.
I never had high hopes for Obama on economic matters but on a few areas, such as civil liberties, there was some expectation that he would be better than his predecessor (though even then there were warnings to the contrary). Instead, he’s expanded some of the worst practices of the Bush Administration. To give only a brief summary:
Extrajudicial assassination via drone, even of American citizens, is now a routine part of the presidency.
Indefinite detention without trial has been signed into law and federal attorneys continue to defend the power in court.
Despite initial promise on medical marijuana, the administration has ramped up the pace of armed raids on clinics operating legally under their states’ laws.
The administration has declined to bring any charges in cases of torture perpetrated by the CIA.
It goes with saying that Mitt Romney would be even worse on these issues. It’s difficult to know his true position on anything, but one thing is certain: He is no skeptic of state power. He’s hawkish on foreign policy, has no qualms using force to regulate personal behavior, and in the 2008 debates had this to say about indefinite detention without trial:
“I’m glad they’re at Guantanamo. I don’t want them on our soil. I want them in Guantanamo where they don’t get the access to lawyers they get when they’re on our soil. I don’t want them in our prisons. I want them there. Some people have said we ought to close Guantanamo. My view is, we ought to double Guantanamo.”
There’s not much to say in Romney’s favor on economics, either. His supposedly Ayn Rand-inspired running mate, intended to shore up his credentials, voted for TARP, auto bailouts, and Medicare Part D. Romney and Ryan likely offer to defenders of free markets what Obama offered to defenders of civil liberties: pleasing words followed by multiple stabs in the back.
Even by the usual low standards of presidential elections, the choices offered by the major parties this year are bleak. But unlike in past elections, the Libertarian Party has offered an alternative with legitimate credentials and appeal. A guy whom I think I could persuade some of my less explicitly libertarian friends to get behind. A guy whom I would actually be happy to see as president, if by some miracle he were to win.
Johnson, who governed as a Republican in a state dominated by Democrats, has cross-party appeal that could siphon votes from both candidates. He’s an outspoken advocate for marriage equality, supports legalization of marijuana, calls for ending the War on Drugs and treating addiction as a medical issue, and recognizes an important role for government in protecting the natural environment from polluters.
On the American Civil Liberties Union’s candidate report card [PDF], Johnson scored higher than Obama and any of the Republicans. He endorses repeal of the Patriot Act, an end to indefinite detention without trial, and a non-interventionist foreign policy.
Johnson is a more credible opponent of economic cronyism than Romney and Ryan, criticizing the complexity of the current tax code and the incentives it creates for lobbying on behalf of special interests. He endorses free trade and expanded opportunities for legal immigration. He concluded his terms as governor with a budget surplus and vetoed more than 700 bills. Like Josh Barro, I think the drastic cuts he calls for are unnecessarily severe in the short-term and do him no favors appealing to a broader base. I’m also unpersuaded as of yet by his tax policy. However such changes would have to come from Congress, not the executive branch, which would enforce the moderation with which he actually governed.
Johnson winning the presidential race is obviously a long shot, but he needn’t win for his campaign to be worthwhile. Simply being allowed to participate in the presidential debates would dramatically alter their tone, which will otherwise be a race to the bottom on civil liberties, spending, and military intervention. The debate commission – closely tied to the major parties – excludes third party candidates polling under 15%, so for that reason alone it is worth supporting his campaign and raising awareness of it.
Polling suggests that with more awareness of his candidacy, Johnson could find more support. Voters have been fleeing affiliation with the major parties for decades. Poll analyses by the Cato Institute find that about 14% of voters fit a fairly strict definition of “libertarian.” Under a broader definition as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” more than 40% accept the label.
Nonetheless, convincing people to actually vote for a third party candidate is an uphill battle. There are two reasons I encourage them to do so, one practical and one principled.
First the practical reason: It’s extremely unlikely that either Romney or Obama will miss your vote. Even if this turns out to be a close race at the national level, the race for electoral votes in your state may not be. Oregon, where I now live, appears to be of little consequence in the national election. The conclusion from FiveThirtyEight:
[…] in over 99 percent of the model’s simulations, Oregon’s seven electoral votes prove either a given for a winning Mr. Obama or unneeded for a victorious Mr. Romney.
The pessimistic view of this is that Oregonians’ votes don’t matter. The optimistic view is that we are free to vote our conscience. Are you tired of voting for war, civil liberties abuses, and cronyism? Congratulations! You needn’t feel obliged to cast your lot with the lesser evil.
And that brings me to the principled reason to vote for Johnson. Politics necessitates compromise; rarely does one find a candidate that one agrees with on every issue. But there are some issues on which one should not compromise. Among these, I suggest, are imprisoning people without trial and overseeing a secret “kill list” of assassination targets.
This string of civil liberties abuses began under Bush but one thing you could say in Bush’s favor is that at least he inspired a vocal opposition. Obama has largely bought them off, cementing excessive executive powers and leaving them intact for the next Republican president, whomever he may be. Concerns about civil liberties that seemed vital under Bush have been erased from the Democratic platform now that the party is in power.
There’s a very good discussion of this recently between law professor Jonathan Turley and actor John Cusack. (John Cusack, who knew?) It’s long but I highly recommend it. Here’s one exchange:
CUSACK: Yeah, yeah. And so then it gets down to the question, “Well, are you going to vote for Obama?” And I say, “Well, I don’t really know. I couldn’t really vote for Hillary Clinton because of her Iraq War vote.” Because I felt like that was a line, a Rubicon line –
CUSACK: — a Rubicon line that I couldn’t cross, right? I don’t know how to bring myself to vote for a constitutional law professor, or even a constitutional realist, who throws away due process and claims the authority that the executive branch can assassinate American citizens. I just don’t know if I can bring myself to do it.
If you want to make a protest vote against Romney, go ahead, but I would think we’d be better putting our energies into local and state politics — occupy Wall Street and organizations and movements outside the system, not national politics, not personalities. Not stadium rock politics. Not brands. That’s the only thing I can think of. What would you say?
TURLEY: Well, the question, I think, that people have got to ask themselves when they get into that booth is not what Obama has become, but what have we become? That is, what’s left of our values if we vote for a person that we believe has shielded war crimes or violated due process or implemented authoritarian powers. It’s not enough to say, “Yeah, he did all those things, but I really like what he did with the National Park System.”
CUSACK: Yeah, or that he did a good job with the auto bailout.
TURLEY: Right. I think that people have to accept that they own this decision, that they can walk away. I realize that this is a tough decision for people but maybe, if enough people walked away, we could finally galvanize people into action to make serious changes. We have to recognize that our political system is fundamentally broken, it’s unresponsive. Only 11 percent of the public supports Congress, and yet nothing is changing — and so the question becomes, how do you jumpstart that system? How do you create an alternative? What we have learned from past elections is that you don’t create an alternative by yielding to this false dichotomy that only reinforces their monopoly on power.
The big question of this election is not who whether Romney or Obama is marginally better than the other. The question is how to fight the abuses of power that have been fully embraced by both of them. Voting for Johnson is one small way to do so. Imagine if 5 million or 10 million people voted for a candidate running on a platform of civil liberties, ending the Drug War, non-interventionist foreign policy, and an end to cronyism. You don’t have to be a libertarian – you don’t even have to want Johnson to win — to think that this would have a beneficial long-term effect on policy as the major parties try to win those votes.
That will never happen if voters allow themselves to be held hostage by Romney and Obama. And, for once, a third party has offered a worthy alternative. This year the surest way for the constituency supporting civil liberties, economic freedom, and social toleration to express itself is with a good turnout for Gary Johnson.