The Libertarian Party should be having its runway moment: Ballot access in all 50 states. A plausible front-runner for its nomination who served as an actual governor and ran a profitable business. A deep-pocketed set of billionaires, including the Koch brothers, who would spend money if they thought it would make a difference. Mainstream parties getting ready to select their most unpopular nominees in years. Massive squalls of internet-fueled indignation over the seeming failure of the Democratic and Republican parties to align themselves with Americans' sensibilities. The Wall Street bailout. The failure of government at all levels in Flint, Michigan.
And yet, not even Donald Trump, and the hole that his nomination blows out of the center of the Republican Party, has been enough to convince voters to give the party a second look. The media has begun to write its cursory stories, which only serves to convince libertarians that the fix is in: As long as you've checked the "we did cover the libertarians, once!" box, you can go back to the click-bait and ratings vehicle that is Donald J. Trump. Still, libertarians are worried that they're going to mess up their biggest chance in years to earn eyeballs.
One long-time party activist told me that he wonders whether the party is ready for prime-time.
The party poo-bahs — yes, even the Libertarians have poo-bahs — want former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson to be their nominee when the party conferences in Orlando later this month. He is facing several spirited and interesting challengers, including John McAfee, the computer researcher who has to tell people that he didn't murder his neighbor, usually on first reference. McAfee spent a while on the lam, and is using his bid to gain influence and a measure of respect. He wants to re-legitimize himself, but he's a bit of an anarchist gadfly. That helps people take Johnson more seriously.
So there was Johnson, on ABC's This Week, making the case. "Be Libertarian with me," is his slogan. He doesn't poll well because he's not in the polls, he says. If only the pollsters would include his name. Americans by many measures are clustering around positions traditionally considered to be libertarian: stronger support for gun rights, an openness to drug legalization, a wide recognition that prison and sentencing reform are civil rights issues, a recoil over government surveillance. We may have always been libertarian by temperament, but now we are becoming operationally, functionally, more libertarian too.
This should give the party a deep well of voters to pick off. A plurality of Americans identifies as independents. It seems like a lot of them would be libertarians if they had a winning chance; those who supported Ron and Rand Paul in successive Republican primaries; college kids with time on their hands and money to donate; even Republican financial and business types who can't stomach Donald Trump's anti-trade venom. And what about gays? Only one party has supported gay rights since Stonewall, and it hasn't been the Democrats.
Alas, the party has had trouble organizing seriously around any principle other than pot. Johnson was a successful governor by any measure. He is now the CEO of a company that sells primo cannabis. He is also a bit unpredictable, which by the standards of this cycle, isn't disqualifying at all, but weirdness without sizzle is just not very compelling.
The party's fiscal conservative policy planks, always fuzzier than — and downplayed in favor of — its leave-us-alone-stands on social issues, are out of synch of with what Americans say they want from government. There is no real "Libertarian" view on foreign policy; Johnson seems to be all over the map.
It is absolutely true that the two-party system has rigged the game. The Commission on Presidential Debates has no legal authority, and its 15 percent polling standard for making it onto the rostrum is absurdly high.
But the Libertarians aren't well-suited to American politics. Politics is transactional; goods, services, and rights are distributed and redistributed to satisfy competing demands and pressures. We elect people to give us the stuff we want, whether that's stuff that makes our lives easier or makes life harder for the guys we don't like. Drugs aside, libertarians reject interest-group politics on principle, which makes them ill-suited to argue that gay voters might enjoy a better world in the near-term if they supported libertarians. Yes, Hillary Clinton evolved later on gay marriage than, say, the libertarian nominee each year her husband ran for office, but gays have done well by Democrats and Democrats have done well by gays, and that's pretty much that.
We may be living in a libertarian moment. But so far, it's not the Libertarians' moment.