In a survey released last month by the Black Youth Project and the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 51 percent of white millennials who supported Bernie Sanders—not surprisingly—backed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. What was surprising was who came in second.
Not Donald Trump, with his paltry 2 percent. Not Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who, despite charging hard after disenchanted Sanders voters, amassed just 9 percent. No, that distinction belongs to Gary Johnson, a former Republican governor of New Mexico and currently the Libertarian Party candidate, who picked up 20 percent.
Johnson's base is not progressive millennials, but rather self-identified libertarians and Never Trump Republicans. Still, in a close enough contest, one in five millennial Sanders supporters opting for Johnson could be enough to tip the election. And even if that weren't the case, the fact that Johnson has scooped up even a scintilla of support from young progressives is baffling.
- Gary Johnson
If any year was ripe for a third-party candidate, it'd be 2016, with both major-party candidate and Congress widely disliked and distrusted, especially among younger voters. Clinton represents a dysfunctional, removed political establishment struggling to grapple with the challenges presented by late capitalism; Trump, meanwhile, represents the unbridled id of the GOP—the politics of white aggrievement and fear of the other, unfettered by political norms.
Enter two Republican governors of reliably blue states, who've been endorsed by conservative newspapers and some Trump-hating Republicans. Johnson embraces many of the same economic policies we've come to expect from Republicans, albeit slathered in an Ayn Rand glaze, but he's also pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, and generally critical of the police state. Vice presidential candidate William Weld of Massachusetts has similar libertarian cred. His 1997 nomination to be ambassador to Mexico was blocked by North Carolina's own Jesse Helms, who deemed Weld insufficiently conservative on drugs and gay rights.
Johnson came into office in 1994 amid a Republican wave. He had no prior government experience, having owned a construction company, and it showed. Republican state senator Stuart Ingle told The Washington Post last month that when he first met with Johnson and asked about the new governor's agenda, Johnson mostly responded with "I don't know"—and then said that if any bill grew the state's budget, he would veto it.
Johnson used that veto 739 times in eight years. It wasn't just budget bills, either. Johnson vetoed the creation of an African-American affairs committee and a task force on equal pay for women because "he thought they were a waste of time and money." He also vetoed hate crime legislation, which, earlier this year, he defended at a forum by saying, "I foresaw a situation where I got beat up in a parking lot and, 'Well, gee, you're not gay, you're not black, you're not Hispanic, you're not Jewish, are you sure you want to press charges here? It doesn't seem to be any hate crime.'"
(In contrast, Weld said this at that same forum: "I think a burning cross on the lawn of a black church, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to know there is an overtone there.")
But more than civil rights, Johnson's tenure as governor was dominated by the privatization and destruction of public services. In short, he didn't care much for government. "He made it very clear to me that by the time he graduated from third grade, he knew all there was to know about government," former state House Speaker Raymond Sanchez told Jacobin in September. "He tried to privatize everything he could think of—everything that was in reach."
Indeed, Johnson privatized everything from prisons to schools; he proposed a nationwide voucher program as far back as 1999—an idea North Carolina Republicans have taken up with vigor in recent years. He also eliminated collective bargaining rights for public employees, long before conservative darling Scott Walker caught flak for doing that in Wisconsin. His economic policies are centered on a predictable array of tax cuts and deregulation. If Johnson were somehow elected president, he would shred the social safety net with a gleefulness that would make Paul Ryan blush.
This all leads us to an important point: Johnson, although he may believe in LGBTQ rights and marijuana legalization more than Pat McCrory, is effectively the same brand of conservative as the governor of North Carolina.
Johnson criticized HB 2 and said the state deserves all the scorn it's getting, but if you break the bill down piece by piece, it's hard to see how a law sold as relieving a burden on businesses wouldn't have met with his approval. After all, not only does the law prevent cities from mandating that businesses accommodate LGBTQ customers, it also prevents municipalities from increasing the minimum wage—something that Johnson wants to eliminate altogether. Transphobia aside, it's a libertarian's dream.
And when the Obama administration tried to fix the problem McCrory and the legislature created, Johnson said the government was overstepping its bounds, telling radio host Adam Corolla, "These transgender bathrooms that schools are now being dictated to to provide by the federal government. Well, gee, that's costs that the federal government is mandating to the states. Look, just leave the states alone." (Fact check: there are no "transgender bathrooms," and it doesn't cost the state money to let transgender students use the bathroom that conforms to their gender identity.)
So is there any reason for progressives disillusioned with Clinton to vote for Johnson?
Johnson's noninterventionist foreign policy is probably his strongest suit, but it's offset by his pride in not knowing anything about diplomacy or the way the United States interacts with the global community. Johnson's two biggest gaffes so far this election were not knowing what Aleppo is (it's a city in northwestern Syria that is the site of perhaps the biggest human rights disaster in that country's civil war) and not being able to name a single foreign leader he respects.
Johnson has addressed concerns about his know-nothingness thusly: "But I guess because you can, you can dot the i's and cross the t's on foreign leaders and geographic locations, that now somehow you're qualified to put us in that situation? Hey, if that ends up to be the case, so be it. I guess I wasn't meant to be president."
Well, OK, then.
In fairness, in a New Yorker interview, Johnson also didn't know who Harriet Tubman was, so his lack of interest apparently extends to the rest of the high school social studies curriculum.
Johnson's other claim to the millennial vote involves marijuana, which he admittedly enjoys (although he promised not to toke up while in office). But pot legalization, or at least decriminalization, might well be coming in the next decade no matter who wins next week. Colorado's legalization has been wildly successful. And polling suggests that voters in most or all nine states that have marijuana-related referendums on the ballot—including five that would legalize weed for recreational use—are leaning toward relaxing marijuana restrictions.
At this point, even Weld seems to have given up. In a statement last week about the "final weeks of this election," Weld—who calls Hillary Clinton a friend—said that "every citizen must be aware of the power and responsibility of each individual vote. This is not the time to cast a jocular or feel-good vote for a man whom you may have briefly found entertaining. Donald Trump should not, cannot, and must not be elected President of the United States."
That is hardly a ringing endorsement of his running mate.
But even if progressives didn't feel pressured to rally with moderates and neocons against Trump, and even if Johnson were the Republican nominee and had a legitimate chance at the White House, he doesn't have much to offer young liberals. Unless, of course, those young liberals are into privatization, austerity, the destruction of public schools, the elimination of labor rights, and all of the other corporatist goals that Johnson has championed throughout his career—basically the McCrory governorship on steroids.
If that's your thing, sure, vote for Johnson. But if you do, it's hard to see why you'd ever consider yourself to be a progressive in the first place.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Spoiler"