A wrap-up of The Jack News Guide to the Libertarian Party Presidential Race in 2020.
Editor’s Note: The introduction to this series includes links to each of the nine profiles.
For The Jack News guide to potential candidates for the 2020 presidential nomination, we’ve sought to include a representative cross-sample of the party’s possible contenders. Underlying the series of articles are deeper divides within the party.
While the presidential nomination in each electoral cycle becomes the most high-profile embodiment of such disputes, these undercurrents also shape the field of potential candidates.
The nine individuals profiled are admittedly a highly speculative list. If you asked a dozen Libertarians to provide tick off potential nominees, you’d probably get a hundred different names. To win a majority of the nearly one thousand state party delegates will require bridging those divides.
Radicals vs. pragmatists
The most persistent division within the party is between hardline radicals and moderate pragmatists. This has become more formal and brittle in recent years.
In 2016, the relaunched Libertarian Party Radical Caucus was visible at the convention, though their candidate won only five percent of the delegates. The Libertarian Pragmatist Caucus was founded on the occasion of the 2016 election, and has become increasingly active. This group of Libertarians heavily supported Gov. Gary Johnson in his two runs for president, in 2012 and 2016.
While split into two opposed camps, in reality there is more of a spectrum between these positions. And, when it comes to the presidential nominations, usually the pragmatists win out. The core of the party generally sees the advantage of high-profile and credible candidates carrying the Libertarian banner.
However, that hasn’t always been the case. In the lead-up to 1984, a schism split radicals from a faction that included the billionaire Koch brothers, who walked out of the LP convention in 1983. Charles and David Koch went on to focus political activities within the GOP.
Such a scenario could play out again in 2020, with hardline Libertarians left in control of a smaller party. Alternately, the party could look at the relative success of the two recent Johnson campaigns and decide to build on that strategy.
Social conservatives vs. classical liberals
Another division centers around Libertarians who lean more towards social conservatism. The most visible manifestation of this is the debate about abortion, which has in some ways become a “draw” within the party. But the split also plays out on issues like immigration, and the proper role of religion in the public square.
Many see the official party platform positions against government restrictions on abortion, and opposed to quantitative limits on the number of immigrants, as crucial aspects for Libertarians to position themselves as equidistant between the left and the right.
At the same time, Libertarians have long sought to accommodate a substantial pro-life minority, including 1988 candidate Ron Paul, and the 2008 candidate Bob Barr. Paul, of course, continued to rally the libertarian cause as the insurgent Republican candidate for president in 2008 and 2012.
Ironically, in seeking to appeal to the center and reject associations with the far-right, the party’s more pragmatist elements become relative purists on these issues. And the radicals tend to agree with them.
Still, there is a certain intersection,known as “paleo-libertarianism,” where self-professed radical anarchists strangely align themselves with the populist and Christian right.
This tension escalated in Florida last year over an alleged takeover of the state party by alt-right white nationalists, with Augustus Invictus’ failed campaign for the 2016 U.S. Senate nomination. Invictus himself has since renounced the party. But many in his orbit continue to cause drama. Pragmatists, and some radicals, oppose these dalliances with the alt-right.
The Florida contretemps have sparked nationwide demands from Libertarians for the national party to disavow its Florida affiliate. So far, the national committee has shied away from such a drastic measure.
How to react and respond to Trump
Like much of the nation, Libertarians have also been divided in their reaction to the rise of President Donald Trump. Running against him in 2016, Gary Johnson and vice presidential candidate Bill Weld frequently and directly criticized a man they regarded as uniquely unqualified and bigoted.
Others, particularly after the fact, have been inclined to see a silver lining in Trump’s victory. Cabinet appointments like Betsy DeVos, a school-choice advocate now secretary of education, and Mick Mulvaney, a libertarian-minded congressman now leading the Office of Management and Budget, are among the causes for hope.
On deregulation, free markets, tax reform, and fiscal restraint, Trump could conceivably do substantial good for the libertarian cause.
But another point of contention has been Trump’s sporadic and inconsistent advocacy for a less-interventionist foreign policy. Official Washington has been aghast at Trump’s questioning of the NATO alliance; longtime Libertarian critics of NATO saw these perspectives as new opportunities to change the consistent trajectory of America’s bi-partisan strategy of military intervention. Additionally, during the campaign Trump was remarkably unrestrained in condemnations of the Iraq War, to the point of claiming that he had opposed it in 2003.
But Libertarian hopes for a new direction on foreign policy may be vanishing. Trump has doubled down on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, sparked a scare over North Korea, and launched a cruise missile strike against Syria. He’s also called for a massive increase in military spending.
Should the Libertarian Party of 2020 oppose Trump completely and unequivocally? Or should it instead find and praise his admittedly sporadic positive inclinations? The answer may depend on whether Trump himself is running.
But before it can present an alternative to the American people, the Libertarian Party must continue its own process self-evaluation. With four and half million votes for the Johnson/Weld ticket in 2016, the road to the White House in 2020 may well rely upon which party can appeal to the libertarian tendencies of a plausible plurality of American voters.
At a time when our nation’s “two-party” system has never been more unpopular, the delegates attending the convention of the America’s largest third political party in 2020 may well face another big opportunity to affect the future of American politics.