I believe that anyone who writes regularly—or even occasionally—about politics should be up front about his or her biases, so here’s mine: I like Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate for president, and will probably vote for him. When I went to New York University on Tuesday to hear him give his normal stump speech and he said, “I’m the only candidate who wants to end the drug war” and “I am the only candidate that wants to repeal the Patriot Act,” I thought stuff like Right on, man, which I don’t usually think during political rallies. When Johnson speaks, he goes from a cool dad type of figure—jeans, suit jacket, a T-shirt with the peace sign on it—to an angry man straining at the podium. Obama channels hope and uplift when he talks (mixed, at this point, with a fair amount of world-weariness); Romney’s delivery reminds me of Don Draper in one of those Mad Men episodes that’s OK but not great; by contrast, Johnson sounds like someone on the street corner trying to get passersby to stop and listen to him. Like every politician, he tells you how great he is (he built a handyman business from the ground up, he was governor of New Mexico and people there still like him, and so on), but he also communicates more desperation than most candidates for national office—he calls the Federal Reserve a “Ponzi scheme” and emphasizes the need to cut Medicare while warning about a monetary collapse (like what happened to Russia in ‘98).
In case the phrases “emphasizes the need to cut Medicare” and “end the drug war” didn’t clue you in, Johnson is unelectable. He’s not just unelectable because his positions are positions you can’t currently hold if you want to hold national office (sigh), he also has this problem where most people haven’t heard of him. He’s on the ballot in 47 states—and says he’s going to make that 50 by election day—but he can’t afford to advertise on nearly the scale that the major parties can, so unless you’ve gone out of your way to find out about him, you probably don’t know he’s running for president. The best free publicity he could get would be to get into the presidential debates, but since those are essentially run by the two major parties, Johnson’s not going to get in anytime soon. (One requirement to be invited to the debates is to be polling at more than 15 percent, and a lot of polls don’t even include Johnson’s name on them.)
Still, he’s the most viable third-party candidate at least since Ralph Nader in 2000; Polls that do include his name have him at about 4 percent, and he’s been drawing media attention from what I would call semi-mainstream places—the Atlantic ran a profile of him this week, and the media outlets that were at the NYU event included Reason, Buzzfeed, and NPR. Bloomberg Businessweek also just ran a piece on Johnson that mentioned all the press he was getting (and even included the fact that VICE interviewed him).
There’s a big difference between the Nader and Johnson campaigns though: Back in 2000, the Green Party was just running to the left of the Democrats and trying to get liberals to peel off of boring ole Gore; the Libertarian Party has a more diverse menu of policies. Johnson is running on an anti-war, pro-gay marriage, pro-choice, anti-tax, anti-Fed, pro-pot, pro-gun, anti-government platform. Parts of that appeal to conservative, parts appeal to liberals, and parts scare the hell out of one side or the other or both. The Fair Tax, for instance, which is a plan to eliminate the IRS and replace the tax code with a federal consumption tax that wouldn’t distinguish between income levels, is pretty goddamn alarming to any Democrats tempted to vote for Johnson.
The NYU event, like pretty much any rally for an alternative political party, was a mixed bag of nuts. The speakers included former MTV VJ Kennedy, Fox News regular Judge Napolitano, former governor/professional wrestler Jesse Ventura (who all but announced he’ll run on the Libertarian Party ticket in 2016 with Howard Stern), and Kristin Davis, the “Manhattan Madam” who ran a prostitution ring that Elliot Spitzer was a fan of back in the day (she’s running for mayor of New York and was by far the worst speaker; she looks like she’s made out of plastic). The causes the speakers advocated were varied too—the audience cheered everything from repealing Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on big soda to ending the Fed to overturning Citizens United. There’s a pretty wide spectrum of people who are libertarians, but most of them are sort of crazy and want a bunch of things to happen that aren’t likely to happen—which is why I like them.
Gary Johnson believes that a lot of people are libertarian but just don’t know it, that a lot of Americans are socially liberal and fiscally conservative and therefore should line up behind him. There’s a sort-of confirmed trend that young people are leaning that direction (the NYU libertarian club is now the largest political organization on campus). Maybe it’s because of a generation shift on social issues that has alienated would-be Republicans from the GOP; maybe it’s because libertarians are the only ones who talk about how much entitlement programs favor the elderly and screw young people over. My own feeling is that the Libertarian Party’s appeal is much simpler—a lot of young idealistic kids want to have legal marijuana and don’t like overseas drone bombings or the security state, and just about the only thing the Republicans and Democrats agree on is that the wars on drugs and terror are here to stay. It’s enough to make you feel awfully alienated.
All of this is a way to say: I interviewed Gary Johnson for a few minutes before he addressed the NYU audience, but it wasn’t a very hard-hitting or incisive interview, because I like the guy and have no idea how to talk to a candidate who you (mostly) agree with. But maybe you’ll get persuaded into at least thinking of voting for him, which I think would be a good thing—but then again, I’m biased.
VICE: You ran in the Republican primary, but you left the party afterwards—what do you think of the craziness they have over there right now?
Gary Johnson: Well that it is just that. If you think anything’s going to change by electing a Republican, I don’t think that’s going to be the case. I think we’re going to have continued unsustainable debt and spending, I think we’re going to continue to be in a state of perpetual war. I think that we’re going to continue to have a heightened police state.
And you’ve talked about cutting the budget by 43 percent.
Republicans talk about budget cuts, but they won’t touch defense spending, and you would.
I don’t say cut defense, I say cut military spending because I think we can provide ourselves with a strong national defense, but we can’t continue the offense, we can’t continue the nation-building.
Besides military spending, the other thing neither party wants to talk about and you talk a lot about is marijuana legalization, which is something that over 50 percent of the country says they want at this point.
The reason 50 percent of Americans now support legalization is because we are talking about it. We’re talking about it in numbers that we’ve never talked about it before, and the issue does better and better the more people talk about it.
So why do you think Obama’s silent on this issue?
There’s a real hypocrisy with Obama. He smoked marijuana; given the wrong set of circumstances he would not be president of the United States, he would be a convicted felon.
Let’s talk about the word “libertarian,” which a lot of people associate with the Koch brothers and pro-corporate policies and guys like Paul Ryan—but you’re talking about non-interventionism and drug legalization, which someone like Ryan would never touch.
Given that the most votes a libertarian has ever gotten [in a national election] is one percent, I think the definition of what it means to be a libertarian is really up for grabs. People are really genuinely attracted to the Libertarian Party, which is about non-military intervention, balancing the federal budget, personal freedom, and legalizing drugs.
Who do you see as the libertarian demographic?
I think it’s the majority of Americans. I think the majority of Americans describe themselves as being socially accepting and fiscally responsible. I’m in that category. That’s libertarianism in a broad stroke.
So why don’t people vote that way?
I don’t think they realize it. So today here’s my attire. [shows off his peace T-shirt] Libertarians are for peace. How many people really know that?
I think most of my progressive friends would be on board for peace, but they don’t like the Fair Tax, that national consumption tax plan you endorse, because they say it’s super regressive.
The criticism of a consumption tax being regressive is factual. It’s by its nature regressive. The way the Fair Tax deals with that is that it issues all of us a $200-a-month check so you get $2,400 dollars a year. That allows everybody in the country to pay the Fair Tax up to the point of the poverty level. That’s how the Fair Tax deals with the regressive nature of a consumption tax. Now, is that the best way to deal with that regressive aspect of a consumption tax? Maybe not, but it would be great to have that debate. Part of the Fair Tax is that it would abolishing the IRS. There’d be no more withholding things from your paycheck; Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment will come out of the proceeds of the Fair Tax. And the Fair Tax will be unavoidable. Nobody is going to avoid paying a federal consumption tax. That’ll give pink slips to half of Washington lobbyists, because half of Washington lobbyists are there to create tax loopholes.
What do you think about the theory that young people are more likely to be libertarians these days?
Oh yeah. Well they’re getting screwed. I’m going to retire; I’m going to have health care. But you, young person, are going to work the rest of your life and you’re never going to be able to retire. And by the way, you will never repay the debt that I’m racking up. And kids recognize that.
What’s one policy that you have that would help young people even more than say the Democrats or Republicans?
Non-military intervention. You know ultimately who ends up paying that price [for these wars]? Well, it’s young people that end up dying in these wars or end up coming back with their limbs blown off.
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