If there were ever an election year when the Libertarian Party could make significant gains, this is the year.
The Bernie Sanders campaign caught fire and inspired a new generation of young people and rallied a cohort of progressives frustrated with eight years of cautious Obama politics.
Many of Bernie’s most ardent supporters were looking for a new champion when Bernie failed to win the nomination.
Donald Trump’s xenophobic populism abandoned traditional Republicans and their concerns about fiscal conservatism and government overreach.
The contest between Clinton and Trump quickly became a personality referendum. Issues took a back seat to an endless cycle of school-yard taunts, shocking revelations of personal weakness, and a deeply disturbing lord of the flies “kill the pig” frenzy.
Libertarianism had the perfect opportunity to assert its simple philosophy that people are perfectly able to make their own decisions and better decisions will be made if people are allowed to experience the consequences of their actions.
This also applies to governments. The world would be a better place, libertarians contend, if governments were less concerned with individual rights and more concerned with national defense.
So why is the Libertarian Party polling at less than 5% of the total vote?
My sense is that when push came to shove, the libertarian faithful including big money sources like David Koch, failed the Trump test.
Trump successfully turned this election into a reality show. Clinton became the villain. Trump became his own hero. His whole campaign is an effort to fan the flames of tribalism by drawing clear lines between us and them. Facts took a beating as every event was re-interpreted within the context of how “they” were biased, crooked, and untrustworthy and “we” were the only choice to save the nation from “them”.
The media, every established political party, the Clinton campaign, and the public have been challenged to respond.
The Libertarians had the opportunity to demonstrate that their philosophy was a better way.
Instead, their leaders and their followers could not resist the temptation to participate in this personality contest in hopes of attracting those who claimed that they disliked BOTH Trump and Clinton.
The issues with Clinton and the FBI are a perfect example. Early on both Johnson and Weld agreed with the FBI’s recommendation not to prosecute. This was consistent with the philosophy that individuals are smart enough to make their own decisions and don’t need government’s help. But when the FBI reopened the investigation, Weld was the only one who continued to stand on principle suggesting the FBI was “off the reservation”. Johnson followed Trump’s line in an effort to pick up some disheartened Clinton supporters. Weld on the other hand received the full wrath of the libertarian faithful.
On social media sites it is hard to distinguish the Trump trolls from the libertarian trolls when it comes to flaming anti-Clinton posts.
The challenge libertarians have always had is walking the talk.
Here’s a classic example from a book by a behavioral economist. The University of Chicago is a bastion of libertarian economists. Milton Friedman was their leader. When the University built a new office building for the economics faulty, there was the obvious challenge of how to allocate office space. Rather than setup a marketplace which would have resolved the issue using the principles that each of these academics spent a lifetime promoting, they essentially appointed a bureaucrat. He created a formula based on things like tenure, seniority, and individual contributions to the institution. That same person then applied the formula in a controlled fashion in an effort to reduce conflict. At the moment when these leaders of libertarian thought could actually put their theories to the test in their own lives, they trusted a government solution.
There are a lot of voters in this election cycle looking for a better choice. Libertarianism failed to gain their votes because libertarians lost track of their major asset which is their simple set of principles. Instead of demonstrating how principles can overcome tribalism, they became just as tribal, just as intolerant, and just as opportunistic as everyone else.