Until about an hour ago, there were probably more than a few staffers in the Libertarian Party’s DC headquarters that worried they might be the the victim of a cruel April Fool’s Day prank.
Tonight, for the first time in history, the front-runners for the Libertarian presidential nomination squared off in a nationally televised debate.
Given the sheer dominance of the Republican and Democratic parties, it can be easy to forget that the US does actually have a minor party infrastructure, even though their representation among elected officials – at least at the federal level – pales in comparison to other countries. Besides Ralph Nader’s high-profile tilt at the White House as a Greens Party candidate in 2000, the motley crew of organizations beyond the elephant and donkey have rarely entered the mainstream consciousness, let alone the news cycle.
Nonetheless, former Republican Governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson, won a respectable 1.2 million votes in 2012 as Libertarian candidate, which would have clinched him the election in Botswana or Slovenia, but amounts to just under 1% of the popular vote in the last American race.
Unsurprisingly however – given the historically high unfavourability numbers of the two front runners for the major parties right now – Mr Johnson is doing a little better in the polls in his second attempt.
In fact, according to a Monmouth University poll released last week, Johnson – the favourite for the LP ticket – has double-digit support with 11% nationally in a three-way contest with Clinton (42%) and Trump (34%). Sure, it’s not enough to get to 270 electoral college votes but certainly enough to make an impact on the campaign and gain publicity for his public policy agenda (which he actually has, unlike at least one of the major party candidates).
It’s an agenda that could play well with an electorate that is clearly frustrated with the red and blue flavours on offer.
Combining the GOP’s fiscal conservatism and faith in free markets with the Democrats’ progressive attitude on social issues like gay marriage and recreational drugs, the libertarian position diverges from the extremes usually associated with minor parties. In fact, compared with the old school socialism and xenophobic populism being sold by the two majors currently, it actually reflects a refreshingly sensible centrism.
Having said that, Johnson faces some inherent challenges. Despite his two popular terms as a waste-cutting, budget-balancing Governor – and impressive background as a successful businessman who has climbed to the peak of Everest – his resume also features a stint as CEO of a company called ‘Cannabis Sativa’. Even more controversially, Johnson is one of those rare legalisation supporters that actually advocates marijuana use and not just personal choice, telling viewers of the debate that weed is “so much safer” than other narcotics, including alcohol. He’s probably right, but it’s not a message conducive to election landslide.
Before Johnson’s platform can be tested at the polls he must first overcome his two rivals, both of whom are more eloquent (if less politically experienced) than the likeable but somewhat bumbling mountaineer.
And John McAfee in particular doesn’t strike me as someone who lays down without a fight.
The infamous cybersecurity pioneer – known to many of us as the annoying pop-up requesting subscription renewal – has in recent years become a mysterious cult figure after being named as a ‘person of interest’ in a murder case in Belize and embarking on a storied escape through the Nicaraguan jungle. His version is that he was framed by a corrupt Belizian regime, a story that fits conveniently with his anti-state ethos.
With a grizzled appearance somewhere between Bond villain and surfer dad, McAfee projects a wild wisdom and entrepreneurial spirit that could be an interesting counterpoint to Trump should he ever get the chance.
The third hopeful is Austin Petersen, a baby-faced and slightly camp former Fox News producer well-known in libertarian circles. The most articulate and idealistic of the three, Petersen made an impassioned plea for a return to the founding fathers’ vision of limited government that, if an audience beyond hardcore LP supporters and political tragics like yours truly were watching, could really inspire broader support. He described himself as the “anti-establishment candidate in this anti-establishment party”.
The debate reflected an infinitely more genuine dialogue than you will see in any of the mainstream presidential debates in this two-horse town of a nation, with almost none of the scripted spin that turns so many off the whole process.
All three of these gents offer an appealing alternative for those voters that consider Trump a dangerous narcissist, Hillary a deceptive political machinist, Cruz a bloodthirsty ideologue, Bernie a misguided Trotskyist and Kasich a meek-and-mild afterthought.
I suspect there are more than 1.2 million Americans that fit this description right now.
Published on 1 April 2016