I really wanted to believe in Gary Johnson.
That might sound questionable to anyone who’s watched him. He is far from perfect, usually doesn’t make any sense in live interviews, and seems to see no problem with hedging on his positions till they’re not even really libertarian anymore. At the same time, he has an impressive gubernatorial record and a fondness for referring to the states as “50 laboratories of innovation and best practices,” which speaks to my own ideals for what this country is and should be. When he first ran for president in 2012, my thought was that while of course no overlord would be better than the best overlord, if there is going to be one, maybe it should be Gary.
Four years later, Johnson and his vice-presidential pick, Bill Weld, will be on the ballot in all 50 states. That checks off a goal toward which the Libertarian Party has been striving for years. Obviously, it guarantees nothing, but to strategists and true believers it signifies a shift in public opinion toward policies—and policymakers—conducive to the resurrection of a free society in America.
Terry Michael, senior media advisor for the Johnson campaign, told me that the primary aim now is to throw the election to the House of Representatives by taking enough electoral votes to prevent both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton from tallying up the necessary 270. “If we can’t achieve that first goal, we want to win at least 5 percent of the popular vote,” he said, “which will make the Libertarian Party eligible for federal matching funds in 2020 and put the Party on the road to ‘major’ status.”
While I wish them the best of luck, none of that matters to me now. Like Johnson and the LP, I’ve come a long way since 2012: even though I’ll have the option of neatly checking his name off on the ballot, I likely won’t be voting for him. In fact, after attending his rally inside Boulevard3, a chi-chi bar in Hollywood, on the night of the last debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, I’m even more convinced there’s no one worth my vote this year. I’ve more or less resigned myself to the fact that there’s just no point in dirtying my hands to participate in a broken system that amounts to personality-cult fanaticism.
If I had any hope that the Libertarian Party maintained a shred of immunity to popular passions, that hope left me that afternoon. While everyone waited inside the lounge for Johnson to make his appearance, campaign staff would occasionally come onstage and whip the crowd into a hollering frenzy. As a natural skeptic of groupthink, I found this call-and-response behavior unbecoming of a movement that claims to value individuality and anti-authoritarianism.
Things got worse when the first speaker came out: Juan Hernandez, a self-stylized Latino Republican who jumped ship to support Gary Johnson and has opined that there simply must be a better choice for the electorate than Donald or Hillary. “Be a Gary,” he shouted to the audience, which whooped in approval. “Be a Gary!”
Be a Gary? What about individualism? What about making one’s own choices? What about what Johnson himself told me at a speaking event at George Washington University in 2013: “It’s your movie”? On Wednesday night, I did not see fit to “be a Gary.”
That’s because, as much as he may be doing to spread the message of liberty to a wider audience, Gary Johnson is still human, and therefore he’s nothing to aspire to. The only person one can admirably aim to be is oneself; that’s it. The audience cheered wildly when Johnson talked about cannabis legalization and noninterventionism. Fair enough, but no one batted an eye when he said of the death penalty, “In theory, an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth sounds great, but in reality it’s flawed public policy.” A truly libertarian attitude would disparage even the theoretical assertion that the state might rightfully choose who lives and who dies in a society. Yet there they all were, waving Libertarian Party campaign signs and casting their hopes on this man.
At that point I settled more firmly on a belief I’ve toyed with for some time: that elections, in our system as it currently exists, are nothing more than unprincipled popularity contests. I once really wanted to believe in Johnson as these people seem to, but I just can’t bring myself to pledge fealty to any politician.
Earlier in the day, before I left for the event, I’d texted a local fellow believer, asking if she would be going. She replied that she’d rather receive a bowel cleansing in front of everyone at a D.C. cocktail party than go to a libertarian rally in Hollywood. That sounded a little harsh at 2:30 p.m., but several hours later, at the rally, listening to a roomful of followers gleefully giving themselves to their preferred overlord, I felt I might rather be at that other party, too.
It’s not really Gary’s fault, or anyone’s in particular. This whole election cycle has just been so horribly disillusioning. I don’t know where I’ll be on November 8, but at this rate I’m just as likely to be curled up in a ball underneath the coffee table as to be down the street at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, standing behind some curtains and praying over a ballot for the right name to check off.
Julie Ershadi is an independent correspondent based in Los Angeles. She covers politics, pop culture, and Iran. She can be reached at [email protected].