Sunday, June 5, 2016

Ron Paul's Unwillingness To Endorse Johnson Is A Teachable Moment For Libertarians

Photo: TheBlaze
The ideological purists in the party were no doubt thrilled when Ron Paul stuck tenaciously to his principles and refused to endorse our candidate. He said that lovers of Liberty should look to our party this year, but as far as endorsing our candidate, he is not prepared to do so. 

This turn of events is disappointing, but not shocking. He didn’t endorse Gary in 2012, and wouldn't have been expected to do so this time. In his (conspicuously pre-recorded) speech to us delegates at the convention was a thinly-veiled admonition against nominating Gary again. He warned us not to go with a moderate that would “water down” our message. 

We all knew what he meant, but we chose Gary anyway. We effectively said, “With all due respect, Dr. Paul, you do not speak for us.” Ron Paul kept saying during both of his campaigns, "I've been a Republican all my life." So why would we even expect him to endorse one of our own?

I believe Ron Paul played a vital role in rolling out the carpet for our ideology, and he did so at a time when so many people were eager to hear it. The people that supported him didn’t really care about his chances of actually winning. They just liked what he had to say. 

I liked what he had to say. 

I am one of the many people to join this movement as a direct result of Ron Paul. Seeing an anti-war, socially liberal Republican debating several establishment types really stood out to me, and I wanted more of that. 

I willingly overlooked many of his missteps, because I thought he represented something bigger. I was aware that he had a messaging problem early on, but chose not to see it. 

During the first debates, he made a lot of good points about the role our foreign policy played in the events leading up to 9/11, and he had the 9/11 Commission Report to back him up. He eventually named this report in a press conference after being confronted by Guiliani during a debate, but this would come far too late. The exchange did not make Paul look good at all. 

Many of my Republican friends and family concluded from the exchange that Ron Paul is a loon, even though he had all of his facts correct. It didn't matter, because Guiliani was able to reframe everything he said in a simple way, and simplicity always wins. 

Ron Paul figured out later that there are better ways to respond, and he began using them. Things like appeal to authority ("That's not me saying that, that's the conclusion of the 9/11 Commission Report..."), and analogy ("If you're investigating a murder, you have to think like a murderer. But that doesn't mean we condone killing..."). 

Gary Johnson will probably have similar missteps, so the point is not to hold this against Ron Paul, but to point out that his messaging has never been perfect either. 

Actually, a clearer example came when Ron Paul was asked about whether the 5 year old child of an immigrant parent should receive emergency care in a hospital. He could have said, “Of course, but…” and then describe a Libertarian solution that would be better. Instead, his answer went on and on, and it made him look uncaring and too ideological. It was the basis of ridicule by the media, Jon Stewart included. It’s the reason people think Libertarians are vampires.

I’m sure many Libertarians cheered when he said these things, because on the grounds of ideology alone, they are great. But from a messaging standpoint, it just bombs. 

This is why I am so perplexed to see him refuse to endorse Gary Johnson on the grounds that his messaging is unclear. Even when Ron Paul was explaining every detail of Libertarianism correctly and clearly, it still looked confusing to a lot of people. I would find myself nodding along, thinking he’s saying everything perfectly, only to find my friend sitting next to me scratching his head and asking a ton of questions.

For this reason, I argue that Gary Johnson’s messaging is probably better than Ron Paul. 

Case in point: Me.

Back in 2008, I listened to a lot of talk radio. One of my favorites was Jerry Doyle, and one day he was playing some clips from the debates, and they featured Ron Paul. At the time, I was just ecstatic to hear someone playing Ron Paul clips and speaking favorably about them. 

Someone on his show (guest, co-host, I can’t remember which) said, “He sounds like a liberal.” To which Jerry responded, “No, he’s a Libertarian. That’s what I am.”

He was asked to explain what Libertarianism is, and he said, “Generally, they are fiscally conservative and socially liberal on the issues.” His guest was sold on it based on that description, and so was I.

That’s the moment I started calling myself a Libertarian. 

Granted, I’m just one guy and this story is anecdotal, but there are facts to back it up. According to a Reason-Rupe poll, Libertarians overwhelmingly identify as fiscally conservative and socially liberal. Millennials were asked if they would support a candidate that said he was fiscally conservative and socially liberal, and 80% of those that identified as Libertarians said yes — way higher than any other label.

I’m technically a Millennial, so I guess that explains why Jerry Doyle’s generalized characterization of Libertarianism appealed to me. 

So when Gary Johnson says, “Painting with a broad brush stroke, Libertarians tend to be socially liberal and fiscally conservative,” he’s making a mostly true statement.

I get that this oversimplifies what we believe, and I get that it doesn’t have any principles behind it. I get all the issues with this phrase, but we are not talking about ideological consistency, we’re talking about messaging.

Furthermore, I don’t think this phrase is that far off from our ideology either. You might say that you are a socially-conservative-leaning Libertarian because you personally think prostitution is wrong or you think drugs are bad. But as long as you recognize that the state has no authority to say you can’t do these things and that they should be legal, then your position most closely lines up with what is considered the modern liberal position on those issues. 

That’s not how we would like it to be, but that’s how it is. People are used to thinking about things in terms of liberal and conservative, and this orients them in a helpful way. We would not choose these words if it were up to us, but it is not up to us. 

Once people sign up to learn more about Libertarianism, we can explain the nuances. We can say that, not only do we support marriage equality, but we support getting the government out of marriage altogether. This is an entirely new position to most people, neither liberal nor conservative, and technically falls outside that paradigm. But as long as we are forced to use the words of the day to tell people about us, it is ok, as long as it is prefaced with words like “generally speaking” and “speaking with a broad brushstroke.” 

This is why Gary Johnson can reach more people than Ron Paul ever could have. 

Anyone who doubts this should look no further than the concession speech of Larry Sharpe at the convention. All of the anti-Weld people coalesced around a candidate that ended up telling all the delegates that, had it not been for Gary Johnson waking him up, Larry never would have realized he was a Libertarian and end up joining our party. 

Imagine that: the man who is so allegedly terrible at messaging is the one that woke up the guy everyone chose to represent the Libertarian wing of the Libertarian ticket. That is what’s known as irony. 

Believe me, while many Libertarians may not like simplifying their message, that is what has to happen. Not only that, but the issues need to be talked about not just in terms of what ought to happen, but what CAN happen. The latter is what matters more to the average joe that’s been laid off and can’t find a job. 

It’s all well and good to be a perfect spokesperson for our ideology, getting every sentence just right. But we’ve been doing that for decades, and how far has it gotten us? 

Perhaps we need something different. Gary Johnson gave us our best result ever, and our paltry draw had little to do with messaging. It was pure logistics: we are not in the polls, and we are not discussed in the media. Because neither of those things happened in 2012 or in any year before, we struggled. 

But things are already different. People are listening, and taking us seriously. 

Nobody but the most ardent supporters ever took Ron Paul seriously. Part of his problem was an infamously low success rate in Congress, having only ever succeeding in making one bill become law. Just one. It’s a success rate of 0.2%

That’s not taking anything away from Ron Paul, because he did develop a reputation for being one of the lone men of principle in Washington. But it also means that he wasn’t very effective at doing what we’ve all been fighting so hard for: reducing the size of government. 

People would come to expect Ron Paul’s rejection, so much that he would be seen as a contrarian. This is not good, because if someone sees you as either a contrarian or a fanatic, you will no longer be heard. Perhaps that is why he was so unable to build coalitions to get small government reforms to actually pass. 

Perhaps the time for ideological fatalism is over. Maybe we need someone that is willing to meet people halfway, and focus not so much on all the things we believe as much as the things we already agree on. It’s hard to talk about common ground when we are so unwaveringly dogmatic in our principles. 

You can also think about it this way: If everyone questions Weld because he endorsed Kasich, then it’s axiomatic that we question Ron Paul because he endorsed Ted Cruz

Endorsements are always a good thing, but you have to take them with a grain of salt. Nobody’s perfect, and I would never act like Ron Paul is an enemy of freedom the way some detractors are treating Weld. 

I hate to see Ron Paul be so ideological, especially when he has proven to be more open-minded and compromising here and there in the past. I would very much hope that Ron Paul will come around and choose pragmatism over principles, at least this once, and see that there is nothing to lose by endorsing Johnson. 

He could use the same reasoning that Justin Amash used when he endorsed Ted Cruz. That being, to paraphrase, “He’s not a Libertarian, but he’s an ally of freedom, and is the only thing standing in the way of utter tyranny.” You and I may disagree with his assessment of Cruz, but he was able to endorse him without compromising his principles.

How Ron Paul can endorse Ted Cruz but not Gary Johnson is a mystery to many people. I don’t intend to waste anymore time figuring out the answer, and I do hope that Ron Paul will come around. 

Maybe he will. A lot of people are already coming around to Johnson, because he’s taking a different approach. At the very least, we should try it his way and see what happens. If he fails to get heard, we will learn from it. If he succeeds, we will learn from that as well. 

His message will be less Hayek and Rand, and more Penn Jillette and Kurt Russell, and I think that’s a good thing. 

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