Why Have So Many Former Bernie Supporters Flocked To Gary Johnson?

2 years ago Matthew Taylor

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This agonizing round of the U.S. electoral spectacle is almost behind us. Given how exceptionally bizarre the national political landscape has been since mid-2015, however, we have plenty still to ruminate on and make sense of in the coming months. And one of the most baffling (and relatively unremarked upon) phenomena is the support among purported progressives for Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson.

In August, a CNN poll found that 13 percent of respondents who voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary now favored Johnson. Sure, that isn’t exactly a staggering number. But it’s more than double the 5-6 percent range where Johnson hovers among voters nationally. And according to ThinkProgressthe core of “Johnson’s support comes disproportionately from young Democrats and Independents who supported Bernie Sanders in the primary.”

Even a basic familiarity, however, with Johnson’s policy proposals and his political history as Governor of New Mexico from 1995-2003 makes it clear that his views are antithetical to Sanders’ work in Congress and the collective interests he represents. It’s puzzling that more than one in ten people who voted for the furthest left viable candidate that this country has seen in recent memory would identify their next best option as a man and a party that are diametrically opposed to the Left’s agenda.

Bernie & Gary On The Issues

In his presidential campaign, Bernie advocated raising taxes on the wealthy to help reduce the increasing disparity between America’s rich and poor and to bolster education, health care, and other public services. Johnson would prefer to eliminate income tax altogether, instead throwing his support behind a version of the so-called FairTax (now there’s an Orwellian name!) favored by such national treasures as Mike Huckabee.

The plan would replace income tax with a “consumption tax,” essentially a national sales tax that would drastically raise the prices of goods and services. This isn’t the venue for delving too deeply into the proposed plan, especially since Johnson himself doesn’t seem to fully understand it. (He reprimanded CNN’s Chris Cuomo for “getting a little too into the weeds” when the reporter asked about the finer details of the plan at a Libertarian Town Hall. Willful ignorance is evidently the Johnson protocol not only on international politics but also on his own plans and policies. To be fair, libertarian ideas do seem far more appealing when you don’t think about them too deeply.)

The issues with the consumption tax are manifold. It would disproportionately benefit the wealthy, since they have the luxury of saving large portions of their money. The middle-class and poor spend far more (or even all) of their earnings, meaning that the effective tax on their income would be significantly higher than it is now and higher than it is on the rich. It would also hurt the elderly and incentivize the flourishing of “underground markets” that could circumvent the sales tax altogether.

We can continue to enumerate the ways that Johnson prioritizes individual wealth and property over the collective interests of workers. He was virulently anti-union as Governor, even vetoing a bill that would have extended public employee unions’ rights to collectively bargain. While Sanders fights to raise the federal minimum wage, Johnson hopes to abolish it. He favors a laissez faire economy, naively advancing the notion that a deregulated “free market” would result in fairness and prosperity.

Government deregulation does, of course, have a precedent in America. Most recently, it has led to such economic triumphs as Enron and the Wall Street crash of 2008. Sanders rightly declared that “The greed of the billionaire class, the greed of Wall Street, is destroying this economy. And it’s destroying the lives of millions of Americans.” Johnson assures us that if we just let the reins off of those billionaires entirely, the invisible hand of the free market will guide us to equilibrium.

Johnson did stop stroking himself with that invisible hand for long enough to establish the first private prisons in New Mexico during his gubernatorial terms. He eventually made New Mexico the national leader in for-profit prisons, with a staggering 44% of inmates housed in private facilities. Compare that to Alaska, the state with the dubious honor of being in second place with 31%.

The prison industrial complex—with its emphasis on keeping cells full to maximize corporate profits and helping to facilitate a well-documented school-to-prison pipeline for poor and racially marginalized youth populations—is one of the worst indictments of contemporary America. Bernie has fought adamantly to stop the use of for-profit prisons. Johnson, meanwhile, has busied himself with sweeping their all too common human rights violations under the table, outlawing early parole even for nonviolent offenders and running an ad in which he guaranteed that all criminals would serve “every lousy second” of their terms. His hard stance on discipline and punishment for all law-breakers makes the social justice element of his recent push to legalize marijuana seem significantly more disingenuous.

Jacobin‘s Nick Tabor notes that another highlight of Johnson’s work as Governor included his slashing of “funding for programs that subsidized drugs for AIDS patients, for domestic-violence victims, for home-care services, and for a toll-free line to the legislature.”

As for climate change? Well, Johnson isn’t too concerned about it, eschewing what he calls “the long-term view” on the issue to justify not taking any action. In 2011, he made his own version of the quintessential ‘college freshman in Philosophy 101’ argument that nothing we do matters because we’re all gonna die and fade into dust, man.  “In billions of years the sun is going to actually grow and encompass the Earth, right? So global warming is in our future.” Truly insightful commentary, Gary.

One could be forgiven for harboring the seemingly paranoid suspicion that Johnson is ignoring climate change because a response to it would, in the libertarian view, be another instance of the nasty overbearing government infringing on individual and corporate liberties. Namely, in this case, the liberty to pollute the planet as much as they damn well please. As ThinkProgress  editor-in-chief Judd Legum points out, “In Johnson’s America, corporations will be completely in charge of the environment, health care, retirement, trade and wages. This should not be appealing to former Bernie Sanders supporters.” But for some reason, “it has been.”

Sanders and Johnson could plausibly find some common ground in advocating for a less interventionist foreign policy (though again, Johnson truly has no idea what’s going on in the world) as well as social issues such as legalizing marijuana and ending mass surveillance. And those are admirable stances on important topics. But Johnson is still no friend of the Left. Sanders himself has said that any of his supporters who “take a hard look” at Johnson would be hard-pressed to find reasons to vote for him.

Given all of this, why does the core of Johnson’s support still consist so heavily of young “progressives?” Some attribute it to the Democratic party’s ever rightward path, which is increasingly hostile to the interests of those it claims to represent. But while that is surely a factor, it can’t be the entire story. To get to the heart of the matter, we’ll have to look at the worldview of this uniquely American strain of libertarianism.

What The Hell Do Libertarians Believe?

To call libertarianism a cohesive philosophy is a misrepresentation. Like so many political terms, its meaning is context-dependent, and its use can signify radically different things. The Oxford English Dictionary defines libertarianism as “Advocacy of, support for, or exercise of liberty, esp. in political contexts.” Its earliest uses are found in the 19th century, where it was generally contrasted with authoritarianism and was used to describe leftist anarchist thought. (In fact, many anarchists still hope to reclaim the term.)

My, how the times have changed! The OED‘s definition of libertarianism as a specifically American term is “A political philosophy advocating protection or expansion of individual rights, especially those connected with the operation of a free market, and minimization of the role of the state.” A footnote adds, “This philosophy is generally associated with the political right.” The American Libertarian party formed in the 1970s, and that’s when the term began to signify what it does today in this country.

The imprecision of the terminology is important, but we’ll get back to that later. While it has many similarities to ‘classical liberalism’ as it originated in Europe and specifically the Austrian School, right libertarianism is a distinctly American phenomenon that originated from a combination of forces and conditions unique to the US. Specifically,

  1. The American predisposition to near-cultic worship of business founders and the obscenely wealthy. This gets right at one of the paradoxes of American life and values. While we ostensibly value kindness and sharing, we lionize the people who build their success off of monopolizing goods and assets to hoard wealth. John Steinbeck put it well in Cannery Row when he wrote, “It has always seemed strange to me…The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.” And for libertarians, wealth equates to liberty. Any government regulations on business or social programs that aim to mandate a minimum standard for employment conditions and compensation for workers are coercive infringements on individual liberty. Which leads to:
  2. Persisting narratives of rugged American individualism. This facilitates the emphasis on unrestrained individual freedoms over collective interests as well as the continuation of the archaic “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps” Horatio Alger stories of rags to riches. It has been proven repeatedly that the poor and otherwise marginalized do not have the same opportunities for success as the rich and that societal structures and existing forms of power ensure that few transcend their social class. But acknowledging that is to reject a cherished American narrative. Finally,
  3. The move from Republican anti-intellectualism to libertarian pseudo-intellectualism. Libertarians don’t share with Republicans the distrust of the elite and the idealization of “common folk.” Instead, they strictly adhere to a notion of themselves as rational above all else, despite the fact that ‘rationality’ is another nebulous, contested term. Libertarians believe that state-mandated laws (such as taxation) and regulations on businesses (such as minimum wage or overtime requirements) are coercive and that the unregulated free market would make better decisions by allowing deliberation and free contracts between autonomous individuals.

Of course, much of this is irreconcilable even with its own internal logic, and none of it holds up under scrutiny. Needless to say, an unregulated free market would make for an even worse state of affairs for those already marginalized and struggling in contemporary America. Social programs exist to help the oppressed meet their basic needs and not suffer from the avarice of those who would use them for their labor and abuse them. Any society that discards programs is not about liberty, but rather about protecting wealth and private property. As Rob Hunter writes in an excellent piece for Jacobin, “Libertarianism — even in its most seemingly benign forms — is a reactionary rejection of political struggle and an affirmation of the private abuse of power.”

Libertarians’ constant emphasis on “rationality” is especially amusing given how naively utopian their worldview is. They evince an ignorant faith in the free market as a panacea, which belies their claims to measured, rational thinking. It is also a deeply unimaginative conception of society and humanity, as it doesn’t take much critical evaluation to see that the free market isn’t a “natural” way to balance forces and strive for liberty. In fact, it achieves neither.

“Rationality” is a dangerous word. Because it does not have an agreed-upon definition, it has come to be used as justification for a wide range of movements and philosophies, many of which seem utterly repugnant and even harmful to others who would surely consider themselves rational. Hunter writes that libertarians see “calculated self-interest in the pursuit of surplus value…as the innate, natural core of human rationality.” Others might disagree.

So rationality is not in fact the defining feature of American libertarianism. Rather, as Peter Frase observed, libertarians have “built an entire ideology around the worldview of twelve-year-old boys.” For any thinking person, their ideas really are remarkably pathetic. They believe that conservative economic policy can coexist with freedom for all in society. They don’t want to prevent the LGBT community from marrying or stop anyone from smoking a joint like traditional conservatives. But operating on the premise that economics can function as a discrete category and that giving more power to capitalist interests wouldn’t have a negative bearing on the already disenfranchised is, frankly, stupid.

It takes only an elementary awareness of US history to know that government intervention has often been necessary for real social change. There are plenty of instances of private abuse and corruption. Jim Crow laws, housing and employment discrimination, companies monopolizing industries and distorting prices, food and drug companies putting misleading labels or lying about ingredients…the list is inexhaustible. And the federal government has proved remarkably adept at counteracting these problems and helping usher in real social change.

Unsurprisingly, libertarians have historically argued against emancipatory social change, seeing it as government coercion that restricts personal liberty. And so they have historically “denounced the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and other expansions of civic freedoms as unjust.” In an even more pronounced instance of unintentional and outlandish self-parody, Murray Rothbard, a writer and well-regarded figure in American libertarianism, argued that parents should not be compelled by law “to feed a child or to keep it alive.” In Rothbard’s own words, “the parent should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights.” I don’t think any further commentary is necessary.

I’m all for envisioning radically new social and economic systems that reconsider power dynamics and focus on collective interests and liberty for all people. Libertarianism is not one of them.

Back To Why

By now it should be glaringly obvious that Sanders supporters should not be backing Gary Johnson or the Libertarian Party. So why is that not the case?

I would argue that a major element is what I noted at the beginning of the last section, which is the imprecision of our political terms. Words like libertarian, liberal, progressive, and conservative are all nebulous, and we often use them lazily rather than deliberately.

In the US, we don’t live politics the way that many other parts of the world do. Our politics is a spectacle, and the two-party system feels entrenched enough that other possibilities and configurations seem to exist only on distant horizons. This is admittedly anecdotal, but when I have traveled to developing or less stable countries, I’ve also observed far more sophistication in everyday political discourse. Citizens of those countries tend to define their political orientation with more exactness than we do in the US, because their systems are not taken for granted in the same way.

Here, political sophistication is relegated mostly to the periphery (the radical Left and far Right) and to politicians or pundits themselves. You are either a Democrat or a Republican or you’re fed up with both (though you can’t exactly articulate the reasons why), and delving into the nuance of the often dramatic differences between any alternatives is a rare endeavor. It leads to a politically confused society and people who don’t examine the inherent contradictions at the core of violently opposing beliefs that they hold simultaneously.

It’s why people who like weed, think gay people should get married, and don’t like that the NSA spies on us can call themselves nominally progressive. And those people can easily cheer on either Bernie Sanders or Gary Johnson, even though—as Rob Hunter articulates—libertarianism’s “superficial solidarity with contemporary social liberalism on issues like drug policy or gay marriage cannot conceal its foundational disregard for the poor and the unpropertied.”

I’m not trying to be overly cynical. There are certainly brilliant minds in our country, great political thinkers and important cultural critics. But in the US that is shaped by mass culture, thinking too much about politics is superfluous if what really matters is starting a business or working on an app or developing your personal brand. We are after all a society of people who by and large envision themselves as entrepreneurs, no matter how far from reality that is on an individual basis. And that’s also why libertarianism can seem relatively benign…so long as you don’t look into it too much.

We are a new blog intelligently reporting and analyzing current events through a leftist lens. We are trying to combat the digital media trends of clickbait and reporting with no substance. If you want to see more journalism like this, please like us on Facebook.