Gary Johnson failed the Libertarian Party


Cam Fuller

2016 was supposed to be the year. The Libertarian Party was going to take complete advantage of one of the worst political megastorms in United States history and make a real case for a third option in American politics. Many believed that this would be the year the party went completely mainstream. Given the two historically unpopular major party candidates and with a former New Mexico governor, Gary Johnson, as their nominee, things were looking good for the Libertarians. Johnson made it onto the ballot in all 50 states. He was regularly polling in the low double digits, and his support held up after the Democratic and Republican parties’ conventions.
Not that Johnson would become president, of course. He was more running as a giant advertisement for his party which means he had to seem likeable to as many people as possible. He was the last hope that libertarian ideas and philosophy would be promoted at a new level, potentially piercing America’s popular conscience like never before. Prominent libertarian writer David Boaz wrote two years ago that Johnson “will present a clear alternative to Trump and Clinton: strong and coherent fiscal conservatism, social liberalism, drug-policy reform, criminal-justice reform, reining in mass surveillance, ending executive abuse of power, and a prudent foreign policy that is neither promiscuously interventionist nor erratic and bombastic — all grounded in a philosophical commitment to liberty and limited government.”
Sadly, Johnson really did none of this. Over the course of the 2016 election race, Johnson continually made a mockery of both himself and his party while also seeming to push away any kind of small support he had from moderates. To be fair, you don’t need Johnson to make the Libertarian Party look downright insane, but his job was to overshadow this by appealing to the widest range of people.
Most libertarians would point to Johnson missing the debates as the main reason he began to fall apart. He lost about 1.5 percentage points from his national poll numbers in September of 2016 when the first debate took place. He may, however, have already been on a downward trajectory before the debates took place; on September 25, the day before the first debate, he had 7.3 percent (on average) in national polls, compared with 9 percent a month before. So, it’s quite possible Johnson’s numbers would have continued to dip even if he appeared on the debate stage. And this is, of course, the ultimate problem: Gary Johnson cannot seem to be normal for even five seconds.
Johnson committed some major policy-related gaffes— not knowing basic facts about the Syrian War or being able to name a foreign leader he admires — that suggest the debates would have been rough on him. But heck, we elected a man president who had essentially these same problems, so why did “The Johnson Experiment” not work? Surprisingly, the answer is less questionable than that name I just made up. Johnson just can’t connect with voters when he’s acting like a complete buffoon and hurting his own agenda. One of the worst moments to come out of his ill-fated campaign was his “I will give up smoking weed if elected president.” For a man who owns a weed dispensary and has been fighting government for decades over decriminalization, Johnson seemed to completely shut down his liberty thinking ways when it came time to be interviewed. For a libertarian who thinks weed should be legal, it’s highly questionable from all sides why the drug would suddenly be reprehensible while on the most stressful job on Earth.
Johnson had his chance. It was the biggest shot the Libertarian Party will likely ever have in my lifetime, and his campaign did more to diminish liberty than promote it. The Libertarian Party must come to terms with the fact that the only way to affect the larger political landscape is elect a somewhat normal person. Moderates and realists within the party must come together to support actual libertarians instead of washed up goobers who can no longer communicate to other humans. Johnson’s simple 2016 task was twofold: First, present libertarianism coherently, and hopefully, make it look appealing to the largest common denominator. Second, don’t look like an idiot.
He failed both miserably.