For the many Americans who are appalled by the prospect of having to choose between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the debate about November revolves around potential alternatives and moral votes. While most of the talk about whether there are viable choices for president not named Trump or Clinton seems to be rooted in fantasy more than reality, the question about whether it is right to vote for a candidate you believe would be a disaster for the republic and/or for the principles you espouse is one with which all voters must wrestle. But as attention shifted to the Libertarian Party over the weekend, it seems to me that the same moral prism that applies to those pondering which of the two major party candidates is the lesser of two evils — and whether such a choice is moral — ought to also apply to those considering voting for a third party candidate.
For those searching for an alternative to the two parties, the Memorial Day weekend brought mixed results. On the one hand, William Kristol teased his Twitter followers by announcing that “There will be an independent candidate — an impressive one, with a strong team and a real chance.” Given the fact that such a candidate seems nowhere in sight and that it is already too late to get a new party on the ballot in all 50 states, it’s hard to place much faith in that assurance. In due time, we’ll see whether it turns out to be bravado or an accurate prediction.
By contrast, the Libertarian Party ticket of former Governors Gary Johnson and William Weld for president and vice president will be on the ballot everywhere. In theory, that might provide some voters, especially conservatives that believe in limited government, with a chance to cast a vote that would salve their consciences. For many disillusioned citizens, voting Libertarian may seem less absurd than writing in the name of someone they admire or, for the satirically minded, a favorite fictional or cartoon character like Mickey Mouse. It also seems better than not voting for president at all — a move that would offend the sensibilities of civic-minded Americans, who have always cast a ballot for that office even if they weren’t in love with the choices.
Assuming that Kristol’s theoretical realistic conservative alternative is never going to happen and that voting for the far-left Green Party isn’t an option, all three of those options (Libertarians, writing in Mickey Mouse, and not voting) should be subjected to the test that some conservatives are posing for those seeking a moral guide to voting. That test amounts to asking yourself, as Rachel Lu wrote in National Review last week, what would Thomas More have done?
Lu and Jonah Goldberg, who wrote a similar piece in NR about his opposition to joining the Trump train while also refusing to back Clinton, believe that moral seriousness requires us to avoid casting votes that compromise our integrity. Like the question of whether it is permissible to murder an innocent man if it means that nine others will live, the notion that one must make that kind of a choice while voting (i.e. stopping Hillary is so important that it requires conservatives to back someone who is unfit for high office and whose election will do great and perhaps irreparable harm to conservatism as well as the country) is not an option for a moral individual. Each voter is not, as Goldberg writes, personally appointing the president. Rather, they are making a personal statement of preference and, like More’s unwillingness to sanction King Henry VIII’s conduct and policies, must account to their consciences, if not to Heaven, for their endorsement. Others, like Dennis Prager, claim the opposite and see the election as a purely binary choice in which the presumptive Republican nominee is, for all of his faults, what he believes to be the lesser of the two evils.
This is an interesting debate about which serious people may differ. I would add to that debate by pointing out that voters seeking third party alternatives should apply the same standards to their choices. Which is to say that if you vote for the Libertarians, you should be willing to say that you actually think having Gary Johnson sit in the Oval Office is a good idea — or, at least, a better one than planting Trump or Clinton there — and be willing to be held accountable for your part in his actions if he became commander-in-chief.
That’s an interesting question. If one is going to answer it affirmatively, you need to have paid attention to the nature of the debates that were held at the Libertarian convention and what Johnson has been saying. As our Noah Rothman pointed out yesterday, the Libertarian candidate’s unwillingness to endorse U.S. intervention in either the First or the Second World Wars at a party forum tells you pretty much all you need to know about the Libertarians. Their isolationism is not so much a function of a critique of the failures of American foreign policy in the last decade as it is an exercise in moral obtuseness. It purports to stand for individual liberty, but it is a political faith that amounts to a refusal to defend American liberty against clear and immediate threats to humanity and freedom, past or present.
The Libertarians’ hodgepodge of domestic stands are vaguely attractive to conservatives, who are predisposed to assume that the government that governs least governs best, and anyone who shares their aversion to the growing power of the federal government under President Obama must be a kindred spirit if not an ally. But, as their convention made clear, the Libertarians’ policy positions demonstrate the gap between those who wish for responsible government and limited federal power and those whose abhorrence for all forms of government borders on anarchism. The scene in which Johnson was booed when he retroactively endorsed the 1964 Civil Rights Act speaks for itself.
As for Johnson and Weld, given the fact that they both seemed to be in many ways the embodiment of big government Republicanism during their tenures in office as governors, they make for an odd choice for conservatives to consider as an acceptable alternative to Trump and Clinton. Indeed, one wonders what possible point there could be to a Johnson presidency that the election of the equally unstable and mercurial Trump couldn’t satisfy.
Labeling the Libertarians as out of touch with the realities of either foreign or domestic policy may seem to be merely stating the obvious. But if a large number of Americans are actually going to consider voting for them, it becomes necessary. If such a ragtag collection of extremists enjoy the sort of legitimacy and respect that a surge of support from non-Trump and non-Clinton voters might give them, that would be every bit as depressing as the success of those two unacceptable major party candidates.
Americans can choose to vote for Trump or Clinton because they support them or because the other candidate is even more odious in their opinions. They are entitled to opt out of that choice by going the Thomas More route and not voting or by being wiseacres and writing in the Mouse, Donald Duck, or the ghost of John Quincy Adams for that matter. But if they are going to vote for Johnson and his Libertarians, they should not do so because they think this party is the equivalent of casting a ballot for “none of the above.”
The ideas promoted at the Libertarian convention and the utterances of their candidates mark them as a party that is as dangerously isolationist as Trump or the worst of the Bernie Sanders crowd, while also promoting choices on social issues that are indistinguishable from those of the far left of the Democratic Party. Elevating such a group to something that would approach major party status if enough #neverTrump and #neverHillary voters flocked to them is not a choice without consequences for our political discourse.