When the Left Goes Libertarian: the Dangers of Political Flexing
I’m feeling extra political right now. Perhaps because every time I dare to think about the election in November I feel hints of cautious optimism quickly replaced by waves of nauseating dread. The vivid flashbacks to November 8, 2016 don’t help.
I spend every day of my continued furlough pouring over COVID-19 stats and desperately researching how other countries have been entirely more successful than the United States in managing or even containing the virus. With each success story I read, I have become increasingly frustrated with our federal government’s entirely botched response to this serious crisis, which has quite literally cost lives.
Every single one of these days I find myself wondering why during a confusing, challenging, and scary global pandemic — as well as a time when racial injustice issues have been thrust into the forefront — we are stuck with the absolute worst fucking president imaginable.
And so I’ve decided to use my pre-election fretting period, which at this point feels interminable, more productively. Thus begins a series of political op-eds that I hope will bring a little perspective, rationality, and level-headedness to a hyperpartisan, hyperbolized conversation.
From #NeverHillary to #NeverBiden
First I want to address a trend that has flummoxed me since the 2016 election: diehard Bernie supporters throwing their support behind Libertarian candidates. As we all remember leading up to the 2016 Democratic National Convention, it seemed that Bernie Sanders actually had a shot, even if small, at securing the nomination after a huge surge of grassroots and youth support. That hope dwindled for his supporters as it became increasingly clear Hillary Clinton was primed to clinch the Democratic nomination — and consequently be forced to engage in awkward debates against Trump, during which he yelled a bunch of nonsense and hovered creepily over her. (Sorry Hillary, I still feel for you.)
Many Sanders supporters viewed Clinton as too moderate, too much a part of the system, not a true progressive, and then there was something about some emails. Of course plenty of his voters understood the danger Trump posed to our country and opted to support Hillary even if she wasn’t their first choice. But a sizable, even if not the majority, were #neverhillary advocates and opted not to vote, to vote for Trump, or interestingly enough, to put their support behind a libertarian candidate — Gary Johnson. Leading up to the 2016 election at one point as many as 18% said they would flip from Sanders to Johnson, even as Sanders himself urged them not to.
We’re witnessing some familiar patters from 2016 as the 2020 election looms near. (Can you believe it’s a mere nail-biting four months away?) Even with a large field of Democratic candidates and packed debate stages, it appeared as though Bernie had even more of a fighting chance this time. He won some early caucuses and momentum swung in his favor. But the tides quickly turned and Joe Biden pulled ahead as the clear and decisive Democratic nominee. Again Bernie supporters find themselves left with a candidate they deem an establishment Democrat that they don’t believe aligns with their progressive vision for the Democratic Party.
During the last three years, and more dramatically over the last few months, we have witnessed how truly dangerous it is to have a president in office whose decisions are based largely on whether or not it can benefit him personally and politically, and who just downright lacks the character and competency for the enormous responsibility of the office. This isn’t hyperbolic: we saw Trump forsake our national interest for campaign assistance from Ukraine, and we’ve seen how he has downplayed the realities of the coronavirus pandemic because it could threaten his chance at re-election.
I would need an entire book to describe the countless ways in which Trump has continued to serve his needs over those of the American people, how he lacks the morality, mental capacity, or leadership abilities to run a country — and how he has tried in nearly every way to rip apart the recent progress we have made as a nation. In light of this harsh reality, there is one glaring fact that can’t be denied, and for those who are disappointed by the current options provided by the major parties, it is a hard pill to swallow: a vote for anyone but Joe Biden in the 2020 election means you are voting for another four years of this hell.
Far Left to Right: An Unlikely Leap
Regardless of this uncomfortable truth, I am again seeing Facebook posts from both friends and strangers who seem hellbent on not voting for Biden. Once again some of those most disaffected from American politics — many of whom appreciated Sanders and his grassroots, populist style — are now throwing around the idea of voting Libertarian. This time around Jo Jorgenson is the Libertarian frontrunner gaining the attention of some of these fringe voters, but seemingly with less of a following than Johnson enjoyed.
I am not dismissing the valid concerns of people frustrated by American politics or the two-party system, or those that feel they cannot find a candidate that represents their views. I can also understand not being thrilled by the idea of choosing between two white male septuagenarians (though I firmly believe the similarities between the two candidates ends there).
While it’s not a surprise to anyone that knows me personally, I am not the biggest supporter of Bernie Sanders. Regardless, I can appreciate his aspirations for America. But as a person who is typically logical to a fault, I find the idea of jumping from supporting Sanders to Jorgenson, or any other Libertarian for that matter, irreconcilable. It leaves me wringing my hands wondering how you can switch from arguably the candidate who favors the most government intervention in public affairs to a candidate who believes in extremely limited government involvement in basically anything.
In fact to quote Jo Jorgensen’s own website she promises as president to “work tirelessly to slash federal spending, make government much, much smaller, and let you keep what you earn.” If we cut taxes and government spending even further how could we expect to fund programs such as Medicare for All, debt-free tuition, or the Green New Deal, which will undoubtedly, and I’m making no comment on their value, require taxes to be increased and an enormous expansion of government spending.
Many of Bernie Sanders supporters have undoubtedly found resonance with his anti-corporate messaging. They believe both the Democratic and Republican establishments are sold out to corporate interests and applaud his crusade against large companies and billionaires. If you can’t stomach the idea of voting for the “corporate” Democrats as I’ve heard both Clinton and Biden described, how could you vote for the Libertarian Party that supports almost complete deregulation? This would effectively allow corporations to operate with even more power and impunity.
For me it’s an insurmountable leap to say, well this Democrat candidate, i.e. Biden or Clinton, isn’t willing to swing far enough to the left on my policy goals, so instead I will vote on the entirely opposite end of the spectrum. Instead of choosing a candidate who at least shares in a vision of expanding education, healthcare, and environmental protection (even if not quite as fast or sweeping as the more progressive left), this is a vote for a candidate who will do absolutely nothing to achieve those ideals and may even actively work against them.
Looking back to the Obama years, the Affordable Care Act expanded healthcare access to millions of people. Biden wants to shore it up after it has been assaulted by the Trump administration, and go even further to create a public option. Even if it falls short of the Bernie “Medicare for All” plan, for millions of Americans who can sign up for health insurance, it is very real. You know what Jo Jorgensen wants to do? Privatize healthcare completely. This is diametrically opposed to the expansion of government-sponsored access to healthcare that is at the core of Bernie’s platform.
What is a libertarian anyways?
I generally don’t identify with the core premise of Libertarianism to begin with — that individual liberty requires minimizing the size of the government. At the end of the 19th century as America rapidly industrialized we learned the hard way that when corporations have no restrictions and the government does not intervene on behalf of workers, it becomes unsustainable. Teddy Roosevelt went from being a proponent of the dominating laissez faire economic theories to realizing that the government must step in and create regulations to protect labor.
His cousin FDR later learned a similar lesson about leaving free markets to handle everything during the Great Depression. As the economy tanked, businesses shuttered their doors and millions of jobs were lost; senior Americans were hit particularly hard. And so FDR and Congress created unemployment insurance as well as Social Security.
Does smaller government for the sake of smaller government actually increase individual liberty? If you are subject to horrid working conditions with no power to change it and no government regulation to keep you safe and fairly compensated does that make you more free? Does having no income when you lose your job due to economic downturn, or say a global pandemic, give you more liberty? Does not being able to retire because you haven’t saved quite enough even after 50 years of hard work create freedom?
The old American adage that anyone can pull themselves up by the bootstraps is a myth. If you are born to economic or other disadvantages you are not competing on a level playing field. This may not jive with this Libertarian notion that everyone can achieve equal success if they work really, really hard and the government just leaves us alone.
Disadvantages deriving from discrimination, poverty, poorly funded school systems, or inability to afford rocketing college tuition costs, to name a few, can be corrected with effective government policy. Only then can everyone truly compete on an equal footing for their opportunity at the so-called American dream.
I appreciate that Libertarians do not want to interfere in your daily life anymore than they have to when it comes to issues like rights to gay marriage or access to abortion. But non-intervention doesn’t always equate to more civil liberties. As we have learned throughout our troubled history of race relations in the United States, a mere constitutional amendment expressing that we’re all equal and free doesn’t always cut it.
Often the government has to step in to ensure equal rights are actual protected. Ulysses Grant realized back in the late 1860s, as the KKK ran rampant in Southern states, that the federal government would have to intercede to protect the rights and safety of freed black people that were enumerated in the 13th through 15th Amendments. Today we find ourselves in a similar situation as we realize as a nation that we will need more proactive government policies to ensure that police brutality doesn’t deprive black citizens of their right to live and exercise their freedoms.
I genuinely believe capitalism is important in driving growth, fostering innovation, and creating wealth and jobs. But as I learned in Economics 101, businesses create negative externalities i.e. pollution, dangerous working conditions, not paying enough to live. They will also fail to provide enough positive externalities such as offering healthcare to everyone, setting up a safety net when someone loses their job, putting resources into disadvantaged communities, or enforcing equal protection under the law. Given that this economic theory has proven true time and time again it’s laughable that Jorgerson had the audacity to claim, “if you look at the globe, you’ll see wherever there’s bigger government, there’s more pollution. Wherever there’s more freedom, there’s less pollution.”
This is why I identify as a Democrat: I believe in an expanded definition of freedom. Not one that says you’re free to do whatever you damn well please but you’re completely on your own in a crisis or if you are born to challenging circumstances. Ultimately, I purport that we will be most free when everyone has access to housing, healthcare, the same quality of education, a protected environment, and support during hard times — and when there is no discrimination based on race, gender, or sexuality. I know it’s a dirty word but this may actually require “bigger” government, albeit one that is wielded smartly.
Let’s Be Reasonable
What aligns my views more with moderate Democrats (I know this is an evil word for some) is that I am ultimately pragmatic and realistic about reaching longterm goals. I don’t see incrementalism as the enemy if it’s the only way we can get measures passed through an often gridlocked Congress. I understand even small changes, to go back to my ACA example, can have a very real impact on people’s lives and provide stepping stones for further progress. I also firmly believe in striking a balance between private and public enterprise that utilizes the best of both.
What I do not support is stamping our feet and walking out of the room just because we can’t get policies enacted exactly how we envision or because our perfect candidate isn’t on the ballot. This is what some people on the far left are unfortunately doing when they refuse to support Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden. When they abstain from voting, write in a candidate, or even worse flip to the opposite extreme and vote for the Libertarian candidate, it comes across as a temper tantrum.
More so, if people are willing to make the enormous ideological jump from the progressive left to the far right because they couldn’t get 100% of what they wanted in a candidate, it demonstrates they weren’t too committed to the issues anyways. I tend to believe this reveals a person is more interested in proving how anti-establishment or woke they are than actually wanting to participate meaningfully in the political process.
The Stakes Are Too High
If you are attracted to the personal liberty value of libertarianism — the right to do whatever you would like without interference — think about Trump’s attacks on the transgender community. If you support the progressive left because you believe in healthcare for all or stopping climate change, remember everything Trump has done or is doing to dismantle environmental regulations and the Affordable Care Act. Trump stands for none of these values on either side, he stands for himself. Period.
While it’s subject for debate how much of a role third-party candidates played in Clinton’s shocking 2016 defeat, the stakes are far too high right now to take any risk in 2020. Given that we are staring down the possibility of spending four more unmanageable years under the nightmare of Trump’s administration, I think it’s time to take a long hard look inward and decide if this is the right time to use your vote to make a point about the American political system or to actually move the country in a better direction. People’s lives and sanity (very much including mine) depend on it.