The Difficulty of Mainstreaming Libertarianism

Like a lot of disaffected Republicans, I spent some time watching the Libertarian Party’s Presidential debate last night. I say “some” time, but that might have been a little bit of an exaggeration – really, I managed to survive about 10 minutes of a deeply disconcerting experience that nonetheless completely met my expectations.

Of the five candidates on stage, only Gary Johnson and Austin Petersen were the only two who you would even consider inviting to any sort of occasion at which you had to impress your boss or some prospective future in-laws or something. Both John McAfee and Darryl Perry looked like they were auditioning for the part of a badly conceived villain for a C-list cable space procedural. But not, like, the main villain, just one of his henchmen who stands in the background and looks creepy for effect, just to drive home the point: “How insane is our villain that he hangs out with these people on purpose?”

The crowd, though, seemed to eat it up. At the end of the day, staying for an extended length of time in a political party that does nothing but lose badly in the name of making a point tends to self-select a crowd that… well, let’s just say that rejecting social convention comes naturally to them in politics because it’s their default way of living life. And I do admire the dedication they have to a sort of militaristic instinct to slash the size and scope of the Federal government; frankly, the Republican party needed to learn from the Libertarians a long time before Trump came along.

But still, their ideological rigidity on these issues makes Ted Cruz look downright moderate, to the average voter. And as a movement, they seem to have always struggled with the tension between burning at the stake anyone who demonstrates ideology flexibility and desperation to increase the party’s appeal.

The latter instinct is likely what led Libertarians to select Gary Johnson as the party’s nominee in 2012, and the former may be what ends up showing him the door in 2016. There seems to be genuine anger amongst LP convention goers about Johnson’s decision to pre-select former Republican governor William Weld (who really is not a Libertarian at all, just a liberal Republican) as his running mate. Johnson did himself no favors with this pick among Libertarians, because he cemented the perception among his LP critics that he isn’t a Libertarian at all, just a Republican who’s trying to hang on to relevance.

The Trump/Clinton phenomenon has given the Libertarian Party an unprecedented chance at national relevance; especially since it looks like neither a conservative nor liberal independent bid is coming down the pike. If yesterday’s convention is any indication, the Party still can’t decide whether they want to take it, or to hold onto principles that will never appeal to more than about 2% of the population with a deathlike vise grip.

And they seem like they’re completely fine with that.