Gary Johnson’s not your friend: Why voting Libertarian isn’t progressive

Fed up with Trump and Clinton? Racist border walls and deleted email scandals got you down? Millions of Americans detest both of the major party candidates – at least according to all the “likeability” polls the TV talking heads drone on about constantly. One of the alternatives that some disillusioned voters are considering is Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party nominee.

With their constant harping on how miserably the war on drugs has failed and their call for full nationwide legalization of marijuana, Johnson and his running mate Bill Weld sound almost like a couple of hippies at times. Pair that with with their criticism of the “imperialistic foreign policy” of the United States and their pledge to cut the bloated defense budget and these guys seem like a pair of lefties you’d expect to see down at the next peace rally.

The Libertarian “minimum government, maximum freedom” tagline presents the image of a party dedicated to rolling back an out-of-control government. In the era of Edward Snowden, Wikileaks, and the surveillance state, it’s probably an easy sell among certain crowds. Polls put the party in the 8 percent range lately. In some places, the ticket is garnering as much as 25 percent.

But if you’re starting to wonder whether Johnson and the Libertarians might just be a third party worth your vote, read on. Gary Johnson’s not your friend. And that party of his – it isn’t progressive, left-wing, or democratic.

Reaction dons a centrist façade

For Republican voters uncomfortable with the open racism and international isolationism proffered by Trump and the GOP this year, Johnson puts himself forward as the conscionable conservative ballot choice. By acting more and more like George Wallace these days, Trump is making that particular pitch a lot easier. Already, some stalwart conservative newspapers are throwing their endorsements to Johnson.

But the Libertarians are not dumb (Johnson’s recent “What’s Aleppo?” flub notwithstanding). They know that to get even close to Ross Perot levels of support (think 1992 where Perot got 19 percent against Bill Clinton and Bush I), they’ll need to get some voters who might otherwise lean Democratic. That’s part of why pot legalization and cutting the military are at the top of their talking points list.

But those two planks are just small pieces of the Libertarian platform. Underneath their “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” banner, there is a litany of reactionary policies that cater to the interests of the 1 percent. At the core of the party’s ideology is the notion that collective decisions and democratic processes (and thus government itself in any form) is bad.

On the Libertarians’ wish list in this election is the abolition of environmental regulation and efforts to address climate change (Johnson said the sun is going to swallow us anyway). Income taxes and all federal programs not specifically listed in the Constitution have got to go. Since Medicare and Medicaid weren’t around in 1787, they’ll be on the nix list. Public sector labor unions and defined benefit pensions must be phased out. In the private sector, employers alone will decide whether they want to negotiate with a union (never mind what the workers want or vote on).

Banking and financial sector regulations will be removed in favor of “unrestricted competition among banks and depository institutions.” Public schools shall be replaced by “free market” education.

Health care would be totally privatized, as it is “up to individuals to decide…the level of health care they want.” Social Security would be privatized under a Johnson administration and welfare and public assistance for the poor would be replaced by “the voluntary efforts of private groups and individuals.” And this is all topped off with a commitment to a “budget balanced exclusively by cutting expenditures.”

So the gist of the Libertarian program goes something like this: Government – bad. Collectivity and caring for each other – bad. The right of the well-heeled individual to rake in the cash and never have to give back – good. The unhindered power of corporations to gobble up public resources and services for a profit – good.

As the Libertarian statement of principles says, individuals “should be left free by government to deal with one another as free traders; and the resultant economic system, the only one compatible with the protection of individual rights, is the free market.” Laissez faire capitalism is the only game in town; we should all just be “free traders.”

Once you get past the appealing civil liberties talk, it’s just reactionary politics with a cleaned-up centrist façade.

Who is Gary Johnson?

Now that we’ve picked through the bones of the Libertarian platform, what about the standard-bearer himself? From 1995 to 2003, he served as the Republican governor of New Mexico where he pushed a lot of these same policies.

Johnson’s top target in office was New Mexico’s public school system. He proposed the establishment of the nation’s first statewide school voucher program. It was only the resistance of the Democratic legislature, backed by parents and teachers, which scuttled his plans. If elected president, he wants to introduce that system to the whole country. He recently told CNN, “We should bring competition to public education. I would like to get the federal government out of education.”

Back when Newt Gingrich and the GOP shut down the federal government in 1995, Johnson was one of those who told the Speaker of the House to get a balanced budget and cut entitlement spending – consequences for the public be damned.

He brought privatized jails to New Mexico, fired government workers, and dogmatically cut spending in every way he could. In 2001, the libertarian magazine Reason was gushing about Johnson’s achievements of “no tax increases in six years…shifting Medicaid to managed care, constructing two new private prisons, canning 1,200 state employees, and vetoing a record number of bills.”

Justifying his anti-government crusade, Johnson said, “Every time you pass a law, it is a little bite out of freedom.” Freedom, freedom, freedom! The Libertarians’ favorite word. But freedom for whom? Not for you and me. Not for the 99 percent.

Don’t let the marijuana and the military cuts fool you. Johnson’s no progressive.

Photo: Gary Johnson speaks at Duke University in Durham, NC on September 20, 2012. | Bernard Thomas / AP 


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People's World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.