On the night of the first ever nationally televised Libertarian Party presidential debate, myself and a small group of fellow writers, editors, and activists were invited by Libertarian Party candidate Austin Petersen to an after party of sorts in downtown New York City. It was history in the making – for the first time, national news had covered a debate between candidates seeking a nomination for this party, which was not one of the two viable political parties in the Republicans and Democrats (though if the state of those factions as of 2016 counts as “viable” today, I’m not sure how much credence we should give that definition). What this meant was that the mainstream news media was finally willing to take a third party ticket seriously, or at the very least, seriously enough to bother paying attention to us.
This should have been a cause for celebration for us, and yet, an attitude of cautious optimism seemed to permeate the air in the room instead. Austin Petersen made his case to me – for the first time in-person – about how and why he truly believed an appeal to disenfranchised Republican voters was more of an imminent priority for him this election due to the crumbling state of the GOP. I’ve always said that liberals should be taken more seriously as allies to the liberty movement than they currently are, and Austin knows this. But he was so passionate about his campaign being the only one in the race left that could serve as a sensible alternative to true conservatives after Trump’s impending nomination, and he was so genuine in his view that such an alternative needed to exist, that for the first time, I took the Petersen campaign 100% seriously.
And then I watched the debate itself once it aired. And I was blown away once again by Austin’s passion, genuineness, and strength. Watching the debate with a friend who is also active in the movement but I will not name, and each of us previously being more or less Gary Johnson supporters by default, we both had to admit the unthinkable: Austin Petersen won the debate. And not by subjective standards in which many people could potentially still find room to argue, but in a way that any unbiased observer would clearly concede. There’s no question.
What this really comes down to is consistency. Petersen was the most consistent throughout the whole night. He was consistently fearless and aggressive in his rhetoric; he was consistently reverent to the U.S. Constitution and the founders; he was consistently clear on all his positions, even those that weren’t as popular as Johnson or McAfee’s. I’m pro-choice and totally agree with Johnson’s answer to the gay marriage question, but despite being out-of-step with him on those particular issues, I still have to say that Petersen still sounded the most like he knew what he was talking about up there overall. Because of the aforementioned consistency in the quality of his message and stage presence. Austin is the best debater – does that mean he’s actually the most qualified of the candidates? No. But it does mean that he should be taken more seriously than many in the Libertarian Party itself seem to.
Why? Well, it depends on who you ask. Petersen’s most rabid of supporters all but claim the Petersen hate is a conspiracy against him at the hands of the Johnson campaign because he’s seen as a threat. The Johnson supporters, however, claim that it’s because Petersen is too prideful and underhanded in his own campaigning tactics.
Let’s take on both accusations one at a time: first, the claim about Petersen being, in plain English, a douche bag. Say what you will about his online identity (and you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong), but when it comes to the issues and the policies, Petersen is the strongest candidate on stage. Period. And whether or not the Johnson supporters want to admit it, that matters. A lot. Johnson himself is suing to be able to allow a third party candidate on the main debate stage and take on the Republican and Democrat nominees – if that ever becomes a reality, we will need a candidate on the stage capable of appearing strong and consistent in his positions, and who can be aggressive and unrelenting in his ability to rebut his opponents. Petersen has already proven he can do both of these things in equal measure; Johnson, frankly, has not.
Now, the alleged underhandedness – Petersen had alleged a few weeks ago that 1) The head of the McAfee campaign had left, and 2) the Johnson campaign was trying to ingratiate votes and delegates by offering free perks to those willing to do the footwork to come out and show their support at his events. Both pieces of information originated with the McAfee campaign, not Petersen. Now the first point Petersen got a little wrong – the McAfee campaign director hadn’t left outright, but merely stepped down from that position and relocated to another. But the end result was still the same in that the McAfee campaign was without a director at that point in time. As for the allegations of Johnsons’ bribery, that was a claim made by McAfee’s VP running mate, Judd Weiss, on his respective social media outlets. Ultimately, it comes down to a he-said-he-said kind of argument, as neither side has evidence to prove or disprove the claims. However, it should be noted that the dispute was between the Johnson and McAfee campaigns, and Petersen was merely reporting on it.
So, considering all this information, which was readily available at the time for those willing to look, any honest journalist who only cares about straight reporting would have presented all the facts. However, a hit piece was written against Petersen instead that omitted all the details I just cited that told the full story. What was left instead was a highly skewed, obfuscated narrative clearly aimed at making Petersen look like a liar.
Most recently, a fellow writer at this very publication decided to take a humorous, private, and years-old dating profile once held by Petersen and turn into a subject of high scrutiny and dissection, in order that Petersen’s image be once again tarnished and we all judge him for having a sex life. Yes, because what someone does in his romantic life, who with, and by what means, should totally be our concern. How “libertarian” of my fellow writer for barging into Petersen’s business in this way in order to embarrass and judge him. Class act.
I think my other Liberty Conservatives cohort, and also my friend, Lee Enochs, already said it best in his own response to this vacuous nonsense: “Before Mr. Lucente attempts to burn Austin Petersen as a witch for using a dating website, I suggest he look in the mirror to see if there is anything in his own life worth rectifying.” Indeed, we all do things in our pasts and private lives that we would never wish to share in a professional context – unless such actions directly affect how we would behave as political leaders, no true Constitutionalist should give a damn about them. So why does that same principle suddenly not apply with Petersen? Is taking personal umbrage to his sometimes off-putting personality really justification for this kind of witch hunt?
I am not saying that these few instances prove on their own that the LP is out to get Petersen in a devious, calculated way. But I am saying that they do at least prove that there are certain individuals who seem to have a personal vendetta against the man. And Petersen’s own PR sins (and he’s committed plenty) should be enough to stand on their own and show whether or not he’s fit for the nomination – anything done in addition to simply presenting them objectively, and anything that amounts to obfuscation, embellishment, or any otherwise dubious behavior should be called out and discouraged. Petersen is just as welcome as anyone else to run for the LP nomination, and if libertarians are really as intelligent as they fancy themselves, they will stop all the in-fighting and stand together, strong, as a unit.
This is especially true now that Ted Cruz has dropped out of the GOP primary race. As pointed out at the top if this article, the Petersen campaign has the most appeal to fed up conservatives who now have nowhere else to turn. It might behoove the LP to start taking him more seriously now more than ever.
Because that’s how real activism works. Real activism tries to build alliances on common ground and build strength through numbers to actually change things. Yet most of what I see from libertarians these days, especially those in the LP, is a bunch of elitists superfluously mulling over who they are going to kick out of their exclusive, pissy little club today, and on what basis. That behavior was shameful enough when it was aimed at people outside of the LP – but now it’s also being directed at people within the party that are trying to change things and make a difference. And I don’t care whether that person happens to be Petersen, McAfee, Johnson, or any of the other candidates – if they perform well on stage and have a large following, and Petersen can certainly claim both, then perhaps the time has now come to stop attacking and start embracing – agree to disagree and unite on the common ground we all share. For the good of the LP’s future, this must be done.
I am not a card carrying member of the Libertarian Party. I hold no allegiances to any particular faction in this way. I will likely not be voting LP unless Bernie Sanders doesn’t make it to the main election (Cruz is now gone, or else I would have also held out hope for him). This is not an attempt to get Petersen elected or even nominated in the LP since I have no dog in that fight and still have another candidate to root for in the battle of the ubiquitously recognized parties. On top of that, I don’t even agree with Austin Petersen on too much. He and I are almost opposites when it comes to our opinions on social policy. He’s a climate “skeptic” who favors individual, controversial studies rather than consensus on the climate change debate. He’s pro-life. He favors a battle of personalities and utilizes aggressive vernacular when he debates. And because of this, I would admit he still has some PR tweaking to do. Almost none of this stuff immediately strikes me as exactly relatable, and yet, for all the reasons listed above, I still stand by my position that Petersen is one of the more viable candidates in the LP race this cycle.
In the end, I frankly don’t care who wins the LP nomination. I’m not taking anyone’s side, nor am I making this post in an attempt to disparage anyone or endorse any of the shady behavior that has come from any side. I’m simply sick of seeing this grade school level pile-ons coming from a political body that strives to be taken seriously on the national stage. If that truly is the end goal, then the Libertarian Party much earn it.
So please, large-L Libertarians, stop behaving like children and move forward – consistent, strong, and united. I fear you will go absolutely nowhere until you do.