As much as anything else, strong personalities drive contemporary American politics and the accompanying 24-hour news cycle. The compelling life stories of both Barack Obama and John McCain helped them package their messages and win their parties’ presidential nominations, and certainly President Obama’s charisma and personal mannerisms contributed to his triumph in the general election. Other political figures such as Sarah Palin, Al Franken, Dick Cheney, and Jesse Jackson owe much of their support and notoriety to their styles of campaigning and speaking. Political ideas without compelling advocates tend to go nowhere, and this especially holds true for ideas and philosophies which fall between the cracks of our limiting two-party system. The media elites and intelligentsia, as well as the greater public, also dismiss as crazy those causes which are associated exclusively with a single offbeat public figure.
Following his 2008 libertarian campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Congressman Ron Paul of Texas, one of the few politicians I support on most issues, has used his newfound celebrity to promote a number of causes, including his signature battle against the powerful Federal Reserve system. In light of the financial crisis, his ideas, particularly his push for a transparent and full audit of the Fed, have now gained significantly more grassroots and congressional support than in previous years. However, to the media, Ron Paul and libertarianism have become one and the same phenomenon. Even as Paul’s celebrity forces the media to mention libertarianism as an alternative to liberalism and conservatism, their unfair portrayal of Dr. Paul as a conspiracy theorist, a racist, and a crazy, cranky old man allows them to quickly dismiss his ideas and the diverse and much broader libertarian movement.
Liberals and conservatives have dozens of articulate and popular spokespersons with national profiles, who each appeal to different demographic and cultural groups within the American public. Libertarians like myself seem to have only Dr. Paul, who has done an amazing job in terms of securing media appearances and communicating a consistent message that makes his opponents in both parties look like hypocrites. America would be a better place if more political alternatives were discussed in the public arena, and libertarianism will only be able to challenge the more established philosophies if the public can recognize more than one public figure as a libertarian.
Fortunately for the sake of political diversity, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson has formed a new non-profit, the Our America Initiative, to create a national platform for advocating libertarian approaches to public policy. Like Dr. Paul, Johnson represents the small and long ignored libertarian wing of the Republican Party. However, Johnson has the potential to reach Americans who are turned off by Dr. Paul’s economics lectures that I love so dearly. For starters, the former governor has eight years of executive experience with a record of making New Mexico’s government smaller and more efficient. He also benefits from being more than twenty years younger than the good doctor and having spent most of his life in the private sector building up his construction business. Most importantly, he climbed Mount Everest with a broken leg.
I had a chance to hear Governor Johnson speak at a conference recently, and he has an understated, calm, and straightforward approach which will help advocate for libertarian issues nationally. Johnson agrees with Dr. Paul on most issues and endorsed him in the 2008 race, but the governor communicates these ideas in a fresh way. He also appeals more to liberals and others wary who might view libertarianism as a right-wing reactionary cult. For example, he was the only sitting Republican governor in 2000 not to endorse George W. Bush for president, and he remains the highest ranking government official in American history to call for an end to the racist, unsuccessful, and costly “war on drugs.” Unlike Dr. Paul, Johnson also supports increased legal immigration rather than focusing on harsher border enforcement.
The American libertarian movement draws on multiple and occasionally even contradictory philosophical, cultural, and political traditions. While Dr. Paul has greatly swelled the ranks of political active libertarians and created new organizations to channel our energy, he still represents only part of the larger movement. Johnson’s return to the American political arena for the first time since he was term-limited out of office in 2003 will give the public another figure to associate with the ideas of liberty, one who cannot be so easily ignored.
Of course, part of the problem libertarianism faces will not be solved by having more nationally known libertarian figures, and that is that many people, probably including some reading this column, do not fully understand what the philosophy is all about. Johnson’s communication style will also help here, as he gave the simplest and most effective summary of libertarian beliefs I have yet heard: “I want to empower you to do your thing.” I only hope that we can hear that message from more and more new voices in the coming years.
by Andrew Marshall