In the aftermath of the Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clinton may have a commanding lead, but it’s clear that she won’t be able to win over segments of Bernie Sanders supporters and other independents.
Many Americans — repulsed by both Clinton and Trump — are eager to cast a protest vote for a third party. Predictably, mainstream commentators have roundly criticized these candidacies, evoking the memory of Ralph Nader’s Green Party run in 2000 and the specter of “election spoiling.”
Much of this hysteria has centered around the “Bernie or Bust” campaign, which is increasingly associated with the Green Party candidacy of Jill Stein. But despite the liberal press’s endless hand-wringing over the remote possibility of Stein spoiling the race for Clinton, the fact is that the Green Party is by no means the largest third party in American politics.
That distinction belongs to the Libertarian Party, whose presidential candidate — Gary Johnson, the former Republican governor of New Mexico — has seized on this election season’s unique political climate. There is a wise strategy behind Johnson’s attempt to promote the libertarian brand of “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” policy.
But Johnson isn’t just repeating tired libertarian talking points. He’s flipping the script on the traditional role of third parties in the United States. Instead of staking his territory far to the right of the Republican nominee so as to appeal to a base of true believers, he’s lunging towards the center in the hopes of attracting bipartisan support. He’s behaving like a major party candidate in a year when the Republican nominee consistently acts like a third party candidate.
Trump has already achieved great success using the third party playbook. Consider the similarities between Trump and prominent right-wing figures who have run outside the two party system. In 1968, George Wallace — running as a member of the segregationist American Independent Party — won 13 percent of the popular vote by insisting that Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” wasn’t reactionary enough, while refusing to condemn open white supremacists who offered him their support.
In more recent memory, Ross Perot — running as a right-wing independent — polled as high as 39 percent in 1992, ahead of both Bush and Clinton; his success came from his persona as a political outsider as well as his anti–free trade platform, which resonated well with recession-hit voters.
Combining the racist rhetoric of Wallace with Perot’s isolationism, Trump is certainly not making the traditional general election lunge to the center. Instead, he’s establishing himself as the right-wing pole of the electoral landscape. This has cleared space for Gary Johnson to present the Libertarian Party as a progressive alternative to Trump’s Republicanism.
It isn’t, of course — the Libertarian Party’s extreme laissez-faire ideology is the epitome of reaction.
Since its founding forty-five years ago, the Libertarian Party has served as a right-wing protest party, whose main task has been to badger the GOP into continuing to repeal scarce state protections for ordinary people each time Republican enthusiasm wavers.
It is no coincidence that the party effort was launched in 1971, when even Republicans acknowledged that the political climate precluded an open assault on government regulation and social intervention. After all, this was the era of the Nixon administration, when left-wing forces were able to pressure the president into creating the Environmental Protection Agency and signing the Occupational Safety and Health Act into law.
While Johnson may make embarrassing appeals to progressive-minded youth voters, he can’t escape the fact that the libertarian program is inherently antagonistic to the majority of people, both in the United States and globally.
The Libertarians want to completely demolish the already weak federal protections for organized labor. They want to abolish all minimum wage laws. They promote open borders, but for the cynical reason of providing a more flexible labor force for American business. Since their inception, they have worked actively to abolish the limited social-safety net that protects some of the most vulnerable workers.
Such an extreme right-wing platform leaves Johnson with few options when it comes to presenting the Libertarian Party as some kind of progressive force, capable of snagging both moderate Republicans appalled by Trump and dissident Democrats disillusioned with Clinton.
Johnson only has two talking points to appeal to this crowd — decriminalization of drugs and cutbacks to military spending.
By emphasizing these isolated elements of his platform, he has sought to position himself to the left of Clinton — who remains associated with the tough-on-crime extremism of the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill and the military interventionism that characterized her tenure as secretary of state. At the same time, Johnson has sought to present himself as the rational opposite of Trump’s erratic persona.
By focusing in this way on two of the US state’s most nefarious manifestations — military interventionism and the drug war — Johnson does make a believable argument that the state is far too big and powerful. And it is by hammering home this point that Johnson hopes to build a successful third party campaign that appeals to the right, left, and center.
This year, the Libertarians are most concerned with getting their message to an untapped audience — their main goal is to achieve the 15 percent polling support that would allow their candidate to participate in the televised general election debates. In a debate setting, Johnson would be able to hit Clinton from the left while bringing the soothing words of balanced budget and fiscal responsibility to the ears of traditional Republicans worried by Trump’s grandiose plans.
In fact, by incorporating pieces of libertarian ideology into Republican rhetoric over the past several decades, the GOP has helped prime the pump for Johnson’s rise. Johnson has every reason to believe that his message will resonate with Republican voters who have consistently cast their ballots with the conviction that government intervention is the sole source of economic problems — a key plank of the libertarian ideology that has become an element of mainstream Republican orthodoxy in recent years.
It is safe to assume that anticapitalists are not finding themselves drawn towards the Johnson campaign in droves. The real concern is that the 2016 campaign may drive the worst aspects of “anti-state politics” among young progressive voters — an especially dangerous prospect in an election where capital is overwhelmingly backing Hillary Clinton, and so opposing big government can be easily confused with opposing big business.
Socialists must make the case that libertarianism gravely misunderstands the real dynamics of power in society. Power isn’t just embodied by the state — and an uninhibited market competition can never structure a just society.
But it’s not just that the Libertarian Party disingenuously frames market competition as a mechanism of equality — more importantly, their hardline stance against the federal government completely ignores the role the state has played in the history of social progress in the United States.
It is a libertarian delusion that the state can only act as an institution of oppression. Throughout American history, socialists and movement activists have understood that the state — despite its class nature in a capitalist society — can also be used as an instrument of progress. Such an understanding came from an analysis of the dynamics of working-class struggle.
The 1935 Wagner Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act (which famed libertarian Rand Paul described as an example of government overreach) are just two examples of times when exploited people were able to influence the state with enough force to implement real social change.
From Reconstruction through World War II–era federal employment legislation to modern day antidiscrimination laws, the most exploited segments of the working class have often used collective action in order to bring pressure on the federal government in order to make real gains.
At its root, the fundamental social analysis of libertarianism has much in common with the social analysis of anarchism — equality can only exist between individuals outside of an organizational setting. But workers are born into a society that operates through the constant reproduction of imbalanced power relationships. It is only collectively, not individually, that they are able to rebalance the scales — for this reason, collective action is the beating heart of any progressive politics worth defending.
Despite all his faux-progressive window dressing, this kind of collectivity is anathema to the politics of Gary Johnson and his libertarian brand. And for this reason, the Libertarian Party will never be a progressive force and doesn’t deserve our protest vote.