Gary Johnson vs. Ron Paul Revisited

Will Wilkinson of the Economist has written a thoughtful response to my argument that Gary Johnson is both more libertarian and more politically viable than Ron Paul. Will seems to agree with me that Johnson is preferable to Paul on the issues, and he also praises Johnson’s record as governor of New Mexico. But he argues that Johnson is less politically viable than Paul precisely because of the very things that I see as his political negatives:

[N]either full-blooded libertarians nor allegedly liberty-loving tea-party enthusiasts really care much about governing. Libertarians, accustomed to dwelling on the margins of American politics, participate in elections without hope of electoral success, if they participate at all. For them, presidential campaigns offer at best an occasion to preach the libertarian gospel to the wary public, and the more table-pounding the better. As for the tea partiers, they seem less interested in practical policy solutions to America’s problems and rather more interested in fighting a culture war over what it means to be authentically American…..

The elements of Mr Paul’s past and creed that Mr Somin, Ms [Shikha] Dalmia, and I find objectionable are not really liabilities. They are an important part of what makes “Dr No” a candidate capable of generating surprising amounts of enthusiasm and campaign cash, if not votes. Mr Paul and the tea-party movement are each in their separate ways creatures of Cold War-era conservative-libertarian “fusionism”, which remains a powerful ideological and institutional force on the right. In contrast, Mr Johnson comes off as a post-fusionist, libertarian-leaning fiscal conservative. The very existence of such a creature heartens me, but it remains that there exists in our culture no popular, pre-packaged political identity that celebrates and defines itself in terms of these laudable tendencies.

If the issue is “table-pounding,” it’s hard to deny that Johnson is more than willing to pound the table in denouncing big government and statist politicians in both parties. The question is whether libertarian-leaning voters will find the table-pounding more appealing if it comes from a candidate who can’t easily be portrayed as a conspiracy-monger tainted by past associations with racism (both political weaknesses of Paul’s that I discussed in my earlier post). The data suggest that roughly ten percent of Americans are libertarian in the sense that they generally want to reduce government intervention in both the economic and social realms. Overall, these people have significantly higher education and income levels than the average citizen (see here and here). People with that profile are likely to be repulsed by racism and conspiracy-mongering rather than attracted to it.

It is true, of course, that conservative voters whose main objective is to fight a “culture war” are unlikely to support Johnson and would probably prefer Paul over him. But, realistically, such voters probably won’t support any candidate whose main cache is being known as a libertarian. Conservative culture warriors will have lots of options in the Republican primary that look more attractive to them than either Paul or Johnson (Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin if she runs, etc.). Yet Will is wrong to assume that all or most Tea Partiers (a group distinct from libertarian-leaning voters, though there is important overlap) are primarily culture warriors. Such people certainly are well-represented in the movement. However, survey data that I compiled in this article show that some 51% of Tea Party activists endorse the view that “Government should not promote any particular set of values,” compared to 46% who say that “Government should promote traditional family values in our society.” Other polls I cited in the same piece show that a surprising 40% of self-identified Tea Party supporters agree with the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, and 57% endorse either gay marriage (16%) or civil unions (41%) for gays. Thus, there is a large minority, by some measures even a slight majority, of Tea Partiers who are more libertarian than conservative. Given the choice, these people could well prefer Johnson to Paul for some of the same reasons as I do. Those Tea Party activists who are primarily conservative culture warriors, by contrast, are unlikely to choose any libertarian-seeming candidate over a conservative one.

Why then, Will asks, haven’t libertarian-leaning voters flocked to Johnson’s standard? The obvious answer is that most of them don’t know who he is. This March Gallup poll shows that only 11% of Republicans say they recognize Gary Johnson’s name, while 76% recognize Paul. The 11% figure probably overstates Johnson’s true name recognition because some survey respondents are loathe to admit ignorance to pollsters. Even many of those who have heard of Johnson may not be familiar with the differences between him and Paul. Given widespread rational political ignorance, Johnson’s low level of recognition is not surprising. Paul has the advantage of a previous presidential run in 2008 that got a lot of media coverage and he has been a fixture on the national political scene for over twenty years (albeit a relatively minor one). By contrast, Johnson is still little-known outside New Mexico.

As I admitted in my original post, it’s quite possible that Johnson’s candidacy will wither on the vine simply because most of his natural constituency will remain ignorant about him. On the other hand, the comparatively high education and political knowledge levels of libertarian-leaning voters makes it easier to reach them than many other groups. For that reason, I continue to believe that Johnson has a real chance to surpass Paul if, as I said in my earlier post, “libertarian activists, donors, and intellectuals become aware of the ways in which [he] is the superior candidate.” If these opinion leaders spread the word, libertarian-leaning voters might well follow. As a well-known libertarian writer himself, Will can potentially help solve the the very problem that he laments.