For forty years, the Libertarian Party has worked to survive. Then, in what seems to be a brief flash of time, it is suddenly at the center of American political life. It’s absolutely remarkable how quickly this has happened.
It’s a perfect storm that made this happen. Party A has become a plastic vessel for pillaging pressure groups, with a phony at the top of the ticket. Party B has been taken over by a cartoonish replica of an interwar strongman. Like beautiful poetry, or like the third act of a 19th-century opera, the Libertarian Party has risen to the occasion to represent a simple proposition: people should be free.
And that theme seems interestingly attractive, enough to draw more media attention to the Libertarian Party in the last week than it had received in the previous 40 years combined. Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration. But a Google News search generates 600,000 results right now, and more recent coverage than I could read between now and midnight. Meanwhile, the Johnson/Weld ticket is polling at 11% nationally, which is essentially unprecedented.
Given today’s information flood, do you know how difficult this is to accomplish? It’s unbelievably difficult to cause anything to trend in this world. That this has happened is amazing. Plus, “libertarian” is a weird word to most people. In some ways, for a party that represents a beautifully simple idea, and the most important idea in the history of the world, this is word is a handicap.
And yet it is happening anyway.
Friends of mine have taken issue with this or that position held by Gary Johnson and William Weld. This is not the point. Every time I speak to either them, they are immediately quick to clarify that this election is not about them as people or the particulars of their policy positions. It is about representing an idea and a body of thought — an idea that has otherwise been nearly vanquished from public life. They admit to being imperfect carriers of that message. But this humility alone contrasts with the arrogance of the other two parties.
Nor is this really about getting Johnson/Weld elected. It is about clarifying the very existence of an option to two varieties of authoritarianism that the two main parties represent.
This ticket is not an end but a beginning.
For many months, I watched in horror as the only home that tolerated something approaching the old liberal idea has been taken over at its very top by a political force that now has had nothing good to say about liberty.
I’ve looked for an upside but had a hard time finding.
Now I do see the upside. The purging of freedom-minded people from the national end of the Republican Party has created an amazing opportunity. And the Libertarian Party is stepping up to play its historical role.
What is that role? Here has been the controversy for many years. Initially, many people believed it could actually compete with the two parties. When it became obvious that this was not possible, the role became one of ideological agitation and education. Thus ensued a 30-year war over purity of ideology. After all, if the point is not to win, and rather only to enlighten, it becomes important to offer the most bracing possible message.
But that conviction alone does not actually solve the problem. Which version of libertarianism, among the dozens of main packages and hundreds if not thousands of iterations, should prevail? This becomes a prescription for limitless factionalism, arguments, personal attacks — which is pretty much a description of how people have characterized the party and libertarianism generally over the years.
It is for this reason that the Johnson/Weld run this year is so refreshing. They are sometimes called moderates. I don’t think that’s right. It is more correct to say that they are interested in the main theme of the party, and that theme is freedom. No, they are not running to implement my vision of what liberty looks like in all its particulars. But they are on message with the essentials: freedom is what matters and we need more of it.
There was a time when such a message was redundant of what was already said by the Republicans and, perhaps, even the Democrats. But with the whole messaging of the two-party cartel having become “what kind of tyranny do you want?” there is a desperate need for someone to change the subject.
All issues of ideological particulars aside, this is what we need right now. And it will make the difference. Having this ticket become a part of the debate structure can provide that needed boost to liberalism as an idea, saving it from the desire on the part of the Trump/Clinton to drive it out of public life.
These are enormously exciting times. Six months ago, I would have never imagined such opportunities. As I’ve written elsewhere, the choice is at last clear, and clearer than it has been in my lifetime.
We can do socialism, fascism, or liberalism. Which way we take forward will not be determined by who gets elected but by the values we hold as individuals. And here, at long last, national politics can make an enormous contribution to changing hearts and minds.