There were two watershed events at the Libertarian Party’s national convention, held this past weekend in Orlando, Florida.
One of them was a nod to the lingering perception that Libertarians—whose party was founded in 1971 by draft dodgers, techno-hippies, supporters of abortion rights (“PRO-CHOICE ON EVERYTHING!” reads one t-shirt you still see sometimes at gatherings), gun nuts, hard-money absolutists, and stoners—are, well, still not quite ready for prime time.
And so it came to pass that on Sunday afternoon, as ballots were being cast for to see who would be selected as the party’s vice-presidential candidate, a plus-sized LP activist named James Weeks II bum-rushed the stage and stripped down to a thong while exhorting the crowd to pick his choice for the number-two slot. “That was so offensive it's a violation of the non-aggression pledge,” said one wag, citing a central tenet of philosophical libertarianism.
But the other moment—and the one that signals something huge not just for the LP but for the 2016 election and quite possibly the future of American politics—is the actual ticket that emerged from an incredibly vital, fun, and intense discussion of principles and pragmatism by the party faithful. The result is an immensely appealing ticket featuring former two-term governors, Gary Johnson of New Mexico (who served from 1995 to 2003) and William Weld of Massachusetts (1991 to 1997). Each held office as a Republican in a Democratically controlled state and each was a broadly popular social liberal and fiscal conservative who at least held the rate of spending growth.
Writing in the latest issue of the conservative National Review, a magazine that rarely misses an opportunity to bash libertarians, John J. Miller sympathetically summarized Johnson's tenure thus: "Vetoes made him famous. Johnson issued 739 of them, according to Ballotpedia, and that doesn’t count line-item vetoes of spending measures… [He] never came close to establishing the statewide school-voucher program he envisioned and repeatedly proposed. Yet he slowed the growth of government, presided over a series of tax cuts, and finished his eight years in office with fewer employees on the state payroll than when he started. After office, he literally climbed Mt. Everest (losing part of a toe in the process) and headed up a company that brands and list dosing information for legal pot products.
Johnson, of course, won the party's presidential nomination in 2012 and pulled 1.2 million votes and 1 percent of the popular vote against Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Weld himself flirted with running for office on the Libertarian ballot in the early Aughts after moving to New York. Neither is a purist in the manner of many of the other candidates they vied with (Johnson has been squirrely on some questions about free expression and forcing private businesses to serve customers despite religious reservations and Weld openly endorsed John Kasich earlier in this election cycle). Neither Johnson nor Weld won their nominating races on the first ballot—Libertarians take political procedures seriously and nobody was just going to anoint them to anything. Weld freely admitted to my Reason colleague Matt Welch that today's LP members were unfamiliar with him since he'd been out of politics for 10 years—but that at his first press conference as Massachusetts governor, he greeted the crowd by saying, “Fellow libertarians” and that Friedrich Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty was bedside reading during his law school days.
Purity tests and LINO concerns aside, here Johnson and Weld are now, the Libertarian candidates for president and vice president with a total of 16 years of gubernatorial experience between them, facing off against the two most-disliked presidential candidates in U.S. history. While they have yet to start building out specific campaign planks, the general contours of what they believe are not just recognizably libertarian but broadly popular with most Americans. They are staunchly against the sort of elective wars that Hillary Clinton voted for as a senator and the monumentally failed interventions she took credit for as secretary of state (amazingly, Clinton still calls our actions in Libya a great example of "smart power").
Johnson and Weld also stand in absolute opposition to Donald Trump's insane plan to root out and forcibly deport 11 million illegal immigrants whose only crime was to come to a country with more opportunities. Weld went so far as to say he "hears the glass crunching on Kristallnacht" when Trump outlines his mass-removal plans. Given that polls show consistent and overwhelming (around 65 percent) support to give illegals a path not just to legal status but citizenship, you've got to wonder if Trump's low-blow retort is a sign that the billionaire may be a wee bit rattled. "I don’t talk about [Weld's] alcoholism, so why would he talk about my foolishly perceived fascism?," he retorted.
As Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and other leading Democrats such as Elizabeth Warren continue to slag the sharing economy (do these people even bother talking to their Uber drivers and Airbnb hosts?) and would-be President Trump promises to sic antitrust regulators on Amazon, one of the most innovative and life-improving businesses of the past 50 years, Johnson instead insists that “The future is Uber everything…Not just for rides, but for doctors, lawyers, and everything.” He has long supported marriage equality, favors treating pot like beer, wine, and alcohol, and is against the excesses of the surveillance state. Indeed, back in 2013, Johnson said that whistleblower Edward Snowden "didn't belong in jail," something that it took former Attorney General Eric Holder years to finally admit.
Of course, there is effectively no chance the Johnson and Weld will win the election. In fact, given the ways that the two major parties cock-block political discourse with every tool they have, it's unlikely the Libertarians will even get to participate in televised debates (Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein has been waging a lawsuit to end this exclusion). But ultimately the electoral results generated by the LP ticket in 2016 are less important than the ideas and the possibilities they put into circulation.
Politics is a lagging indicator of where America is headed as a country. For the past half-century or so, we've been trending to greater and greater freedom and possibilities of how to live our lives. We are more comfortable with choices about what to eat, whom to marry, where to live, how to learn, how to express our values through our work and social commitments, and so much more. There is a reason why our identification with the two major parties has been falling over that same time frame: The Republicans and Democrats exist only in yesterday's America and fewer and fewer of us want much to do with such hollowed-visions that only 29 percent identify as Democrats and just 26 percent as Republicans.
Johnson and Weld and the Libertarians won't win this time around. Even a post-Kardashian, post-body-shaming America isn't quite ready for a striptease performed at a national convention.
But everything they stand for, and that the American people are demanding—more peace around the globe, more choice here at home, the ability to innovate and speak freely—will be absorbed either into both major parties, or by whatever replaces them.