With national polling numbers hovering around 12%, the Libertarian ticket of Gary Johnson and William Weld has the potential to be a real spoiler in the presidential election. But whose candidacy are they most likely to spoil?
Most people think of libertarianism as a kind of right-wing ideology, with its intellectual origins in the free-market economics of Milton Friedman and the unabashed egoism and anti-communism of Ayn Rand. And it's certainly true that for most of its existence, the Libertarian Party has drawn more heavily from the political right than from the political left.
But Gary Johnson is actually drawing just as much support
from self-identified Democrats as he does from Republicans. And polls that include Johnson actually show a slight decrease
in Clinton's lead over Trump.
On the surface, this might seem surprising. Johnson does, after all, advocate
eliminating payroll taxes and capital gains taxes, and dramatically reducing government regulation of the economy -- all positions that sit much better with right-leaning conservatives than with political progressives.
But a deeper understanding of Johnson's Libertarian ideas, and the history of how those ideas have evolved over time, make Johnson's appeal to Clinton voters clearer.
First, libertarianism is more than just an economic ideology. It's a social one. And many Libertarian social positions -- an openness to immigration, an embrace of equal rights for gay, lesbian, and transgender persons, a hostility toward the war on drugs and American militarism abroad, and support for women's reproductive rights -- are arguably more progressive than the average Democrat. Libertarians were supporting marriage equality and marijuana legalization, for instance, long before any mainstream politician -- Clinton included -- would touch those issues.
Second, even on strictly economic issues, Libertarians have a lot to say that should appeal to those on the left. Libertarians have long been sharply critical, for instance, of the ways regulations such as occupational licensing requirements
are used to protect the economically powerful at the expense of the poor and marginalized. They've fought against subsidies, bailouts, and other forms of "crony capitalism" that benefit the few at the expense of the masses. And -- contrary to popular perception -- Libertarians have often argued in favor of a well-designed social safety net to protect those who fail to benefit from the economic dynamism of a free economy. Both Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, for instance, supported what many regard as a radically progressive policy -- a basic income guarantee
. And Gary Johnson has suggested
that he is open to the idea as well.
If this story is unfamiliar, that's because for most of the 20th century, Libertarians were enmeshed in a kind of tacit alliance with political conservatives, united by their common opposition to the perceived threat of international communism. That threat pushed the social liberalism that Libertarians developed in their 19th century struggles against racism, imperialism and slavery to the background, and led them to resist, on economic issues, taking a single step down any road that remotely resembled the way toward socialism.
With the fall of international communism and the discrediting of socialist economics, however, Libertarians are slowly starting to return to their progressive roots. And the Johnson campaign is probably the most progressive-friendly Libertarian ticket in recent decades. No doubt many moderate conservatives who cannot bring themselves to support Trump will turn to Johnson as a show of protest, if nothing more. But it would not be surprising if Johnson's strongest support came from the legions of progressives who were moved by Bernie Sanders' radical critique of American military and economic policy. In many ways, that progressive sentiment will find a much more natural home in Johnson's libertarianism than in the Democratic candidacy of Hillary Clinton.