In Orlando this weekend, the Libertarian Party will settle on their standard bearer for 2016. Not since 2004 has there been such intrigue at a Libertarian Party convention, and with the traditional two-party system as weak as it has ever been, it’s the first time in decades the Libertarian Party nomination may have impact outside the LP. For this reason, I think it’s worthwhile to highlight what I see as the different tactics of the various camps, and what I think each nominee would mean to the future of the Libertarian Party, and Ron Paul’s “liberty movement” as a whole.
In a way, the LP nomination battle has a similar story to what has played out in the two larger parties: the battle between the establishment and the outsiders.
The LP establishment is obviously embodied by Gary Johnson, last year’s nominee and the long preferred “libertarian” politician of David Boaz and the beltwayatarian elite. Johnson’s appeal to the Cato-crowd is obvious, he embodies the brand of libertarianism that would rather talk about legalizing gay marriage than ending the Fed, and is more comfortable positioning libertarianism as a moderate, middle ground between the right and left – rather than a radical philosophy of first principles. This is why Johnson may have a hard time defining what a “right” is, but has no problem advocating for anti-discrimination that would eliminate a business owner’s right of conscience in serving customers. For Johnson, property rights are less importance than the sugary concept of “tolerance.”
Everyone else in the race has fought for the coveted role of outsider, and though I’m sure there are virtues to be found in all the candidates who will show up in Orlando, the main battle for the title has been between the baby-faced, click-bait author Austin Petersen, and cyber security pioneer John McAfee. Both men have campaigned on the promise of growing the party, Petersen counts on appealing to Ted Cruz-type conservatives who may be open to his nominally pro-life position, youthful optimism, and Midwestern roots, while John McAfee offers a unique brand of personality cult: a combination of cyberpunk and booze soaked anarchy. It’s as easy to imagine Petersen at a Young Republican Lincoln-Reagan Day dinner as it is John McAfee chain smoking Marlboro reds between tequila shots in a Tijuana pool hall.
While the difference in style between all three men may seem largely superficial – and all three will admit they have more in common than they do not – I think these stylistic differences could fundamentally shape where the Libertarian Party goes next.
To put it simply, this is how I view the three candidates:
Gary Johnson is the campaign trying to court Bill Kristol.
Austin Petersen is the campaign trying to court Glenn Beck.
John McAfee is the campaign trying to court anarchists.
While some may suggest I am being unfair to Governor Johnson by lumping him in with the infamous Bill Kristol, his decision to add former Massachusetts’ Governor William Weld is an obvious play to “Serious Republicans” in Washington, DC. Kristol, of course, has been the high profile leader of the self-proclaimed “renegade party”, a desperate Hail Mary to attract a non-Trump “conservative” candidate to run for the White House. While it’s increasingly unlikely that Kristol will succeed, he now has the potential to have a long-time Mitt Romney-ally and Jeb Bush supporter as the Libertarian Party Vice President. Further, the National Review, the other DC Republican rag that has found itself entirely irrelevant this election season, has already acknowledged that Gary Johnson is “not as extreme as some libertarians” on foreign policy. Considering it only took the Kony 2012 Facebook campaign to get Johnson to endorse sending American troops to Africa, should Gary Johnson be the Libertarian nominee, we would be living in a bizarre world where Bill Kristol would undoubtedly see greater potential in influencing the LP ticket than the Republican one.
By comparison, Austin Petersen’s strategy to court Glenn Beck and his fellow Ted Cruz’s supporters seems perfectly reasonable. As a Ron Paul libertarian who shares his pro-life views, there is certainly something appealing about Petersen on paper. The problem is Austin Petersen isn’t confined to paper, and the man’s character should leave voters wanting. He has an earned reputation being someone you don’t want to do business with – a big reason why he has not received any endorsement from any of his high profile past clients. Undercutting his argument that he can serve as a polished spokesman for libertarianism is his overreliance on well-worn libertarian memes his history of public sophomoric behavior.
Perhaps most damaging from a strategy standpoint is the inherent difficulty for Petersen to succeed in appealing to Never Trump-Cruz voters while being an outspoken atheist with a sugardaddie.com account.
Admittedly, Petersen’s baggage is miniscule compared to the legendary John McAfee, but McAfee isn’t trying to sell himself as an all-American farm boy from Missouri. Instead, McAfee has owned his Most Interesting Man in the World persona, with most of the campaign material he’s shared featuring him bare chested and armed. No one has done a better job of using the media to sell his campaign than McAfee, be it capitalizing on the San Bernardino iPhone story, his various profiles on his time in Belize, or his series of Business Insider articles, McAfee is comfortable with who he is and appreciates the power of personality.
While his grasp on policy can leave fans of Ron Paul wanting, the man has appealed to anarchists and radicals through the power of his personal narrative. Hate the state? Here is a man who went to war with the Belizean government. Care about the lives of sex workers? The man married a prostitute after rescuing her from her pimp. Want to end the drug war? McAfee would probably fail an inauguration day drug test if elected.
While this may strike some as an argument against McAfee, I think his ability to appeal to radical libertarians is exactly why he is the best choice for the Libertarian Party. If we are willing to concede that none of these candidates will actually be in the White House come next January, the real goal of the LP should be to grow the party and cultivate talent within. While Gary Johnson may succeed in getting Mitt Romney to vote for the Libertarian Party in 2016, his appeal to these voters is dependent upon Trump being the Republican nominee. His campaign requires sacrificing core principles in exchange for one-time votes. McAfee, by appealing to the more radical and anarchist wing of the libertarian movement, has the chance to bring in the number of libertarians who started reading Rothbard after Googling Ron Paul. This, and not DC Republicans or Glenn Beck listeners, is the natural base of the Libertarian Party and the one it should prioritize cultivating.
The Libertarian Party will never succeed by trying to defeat the two main parties playing traditional politics, and John McAfee’s campaign seems to be the only one who understands this. All one has to do is compare the campaign videos of Gary Johnson and John McAfee to see the difference inherently different views of how to advance liberty in politics.
At the Libertarian Party convention this weekend, the LP has the potential to introduce a wildcard into one of the most unpredictable election seasons in recent memory.
Will Libertarians embrace it? Or will they simply maintain their inept status quo?