Twenty-four hours after Ben Sasse told Nebraska’s Lincoln Journal Star, on Sunday, “the Libertarian Party is something I would certainly consider in the long term,” he apparently googled its nominee, Gary Johnson.
“Notes for October: Johnson is pro-abortion, pro-exec overreach, bad on religious liberty & naive on national security. Otherwise ‘solid,’” Sasse tweeted Monday afternoon. He added, “SMH,” internet parlance for “shaking my head.”
As others in his Party have sucked it up and endorsed Donald Trump, who was once a Democrat and friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Sasse, the Republican Senator from Nebraska, has remained a vocal and unrelenting critic, which has upped his profile and led some to chatter about an independent Sasse candidacy.
But Sasse, like so many conservatives who disapprove of Trump, will not find solace in the most prominent third-party alternative—because the most prominent third-party can’t even satisfy the people who consider themselves libertarians. Sasse’s apparent surprise and disgust upon finding out what Johnson believes is in some way a microcosm of the challenge ahead for the Libertarian ticket.
The old saying in politics is that Democrats fall in love while Republicans fall in line.
But there’s an old saying in libertarianism, too: organizing them is like herding cats.
It’s not just a matter of Sasse being a Republican who is ideologically opposed to many Libertarian ideas—plenty of Libertarians feel the same way about Johnson’s candidacy.
It’s the same infighting and obsession with purity that paralyzed the liberty movement, thwarting Rand Paul’s chances of finding success as a candidate and now from being a even halfway decent option for disaffected Republicans.
Not that it’s getting Johnson down.
“This is Gary!” a jovial Johnson answered the phone on Monday. He was in DC for media appearances, and—having just read a survey in which he polled at eleven percent—his spirits were high.
For months, the former governor of New Mexico’s campaign chugged along with little interest from voters or the press, but following his formal nomination at the libertarian convention in Florida in late May, he’s suddenly enjoying a full dance card.
“That ought to keep us fueled here for a little bit longer, anyway,” he said.
Johnson dismisses libertarian purity tests as “not unique,” but he concedes that they are “definitely there.”
And they are. Like any other ideology, there is no one-size-fits-all brand of libertarianism, of course, but generally libertarians favor small government, minimal foreign intervention, and personal freedom. Read: fewer taxes, fewer social programs, more privatization, no Iraq-style war nor humanitarian intervention, drug legalization, and so on.
The libertarian party’s official platform says they seek, “a world in which all individuals are sovereign over their own lives and no one is forced to sacrifice his or her values for the benefit of others.”
The Libertarian Purity Quiz by Bryan Caplan consists of 64 questions like, “are worker safety regulations too strict?” The highest score achievable is 160 points which is, “Perfect! The world needs more like you.” I scored a 30, which Caplan says means, “you are a soft-core libertarian. With effort, you may harden and become pure.”
No such literal test seems to exist for the conservative or liberal ideological movements.
Still, Johnson isn’t concerned much with libertarian purity, because he isn’t concerned much with ideology in general. He’s guided not by idols or a standard set of principles that the refers to, but his own innate sense of right and wrong.
Asked what he would do about ISIS, Johnson said he would “involve Congress,” but he also said that, despite wanting to be “the skeptic at the table,” he believes in military intervention when necessary.
“If we are attacked, we’re going to attack back,” he said.
As an example, Johnson said that “if Americans are being beheaded…You certainly have to look at putting boots on the ground in a situation like that.”
Of course, ISIS did behead an American—the journalist James Foley, in 2014. Johnson wouldn’t answer when asked how many Americans would need to be beheaded in order for him to support boots on the ground. He said providing a number was what normal politicians do, while he is, as he put it, “the different cat here.”
Different is one way to put it.
Although Johnson falls in line on most social issues (he’s a proponent of marijuana legalization as well as a user. During our interview, he admitted he last did edibles about a month ago, but claimed he’s not going to be getting high while he continues to campaign for the presidency) he is very much out of step when it comes to the role of government in American life in general.
“I do believe in the safety net, yes,” he said. Social Security, he said, is “imminently fixable” and similarly, he would reform Medicaid and Medicare—not do away with them. He would like to, however, abolish the department of education.
Unlike Ron and Rand Paul, Johnson didn’t arrive at libertarianism after reading the work of Austrian economists or The Fountainhead, but after being handed a pamphlet-like book sometime in the early 1970s, after he graduated high school, that he described as, “basically, what it is to be a libertarian”—a book which, despite its immense impact on the trajectory of his life, he can’t recall the name of.
He didn’t even register as a libertarian until 2012, when he first ran for president on the Party’s mantle (ultimately winning one percent of the vote, the best showing in libertarian history). And it doesn’t help much that he shares a ticket with Bill Weld, the former Massachusetts governor who, while in office, enacted strict gun control measures. As a Republican, in 2008, he endorsed Barack Obama.
“Johnson did win in spite of his deviations from libertarian philosophy,” Justin Raimondo, a libertarian and the editorial director of Antiwar.com, told The Daily Beast. But, he wondered, “how is he not a moderate Republican? I mean, if you’re gonna have a libertarian candidate, why can’t he be a libertarian?”
Raimondo, who believes Trump is a better alternative than Clinton but refuses to vote for either, admitted that this type of attitude had harmed the cause in the past.
“Libertarians are good at creating castles in the air,” he said. “They’re good at theory, but practice? Not so much. There’s never been a libertarian theory of strategy.”
But at the end of the day, he said, “we need another Ron Paul. This is not a year for compromising.”
After all, if libertarians wanted to compromise, they could just become Republicans.
But Jack Hunter, a former aide to Rand Paul and now the politics editor of Rare.us, a libertarian website, told The Daily Beast it’s important not to get so bogged down in debates about who’s pure and who’s not that you miss the forest for the trees. “The Libertarian Party has forever been a vote of conscience—I don’t like the Democrat, I don’t like the Republican, I’ll vote for this guy,” he said.
Hunter stands in opposition to the purity tests which have prevented libertarians from assuming mainstream perches. “I’ve consistently been frustrated,” Hunter said. “I always say there’s a difference between being the biggest libertarian in the room and trying to make the country more libertarian.”
Clinton and Trump are historically disliked major party nominees, and that–in theory–provides a huge opportunity to anyone competing on another party's ticket.
If only they could unify.
“I get frustrated,” Hunter added. “But at the same time, that’s the nature of ideological movements. I think the hyper-individualism of libertarianism probably makes it a little more raucous.”