Tuesday 21 January 2020

Can this political underdog win US voters' hearts?

Neither Clinton nor Trump are convincing the masses - so can Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson take advantage, asks Joe Corcoran

Middle ground: Gary Johnson, Libertarian Party presidential nominee
Middle ground: Gary Johnson, Libertarian Party presidential nominee

Joe Corcoran

The question is an absurd one to try to answer. In a time of global political turbulence, unparalleled by anything post-1945, who is best suited to lead forward the free world? Is it a so-called 'corrupt and duplicitous liar' or a 'bigoted egomaniacal buffoon'? The dodger of incitement or the builder of walls? The woman whose only redeemable feature is not being Donald Trump, or the man whose only redeemable feature is not being Hillary Clinton?

As it stands today the American voter would appear to be trapped in the perfect rock/hard place scenario. However, there is a third option on the table and it is one to which significant numbers of disenfranchised Republicans and Democrats are now flocking in the wake of both party's abysmal national conventions.

That option is Gary Johnson, a man who most have never heard of, but who may well prove to be the most important man in American politics over the next few months.

Who is Gary Johnson? Well, aside from managing commendably to be neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump, he is also the former governor of New Mexico and the current Libertarian Party nominee for president of the United States. The Libertarians are a fiscally conservative but socially liberal party founded in 1971 on the core tenants of classic liberalism, as interpreted and popularised in America by the likes of writer and philosopher Ayn Rand and Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman.

They champion small government and the freedom of the individual to do as they please within society, so long as it does not infringe upon the rights of others, along with advocating free market solutions to a large majority of the current economic problems facing the US.

Aside from the vested interest both the Republican and Democrat parties have in maintaining a duopoly on political discourse in the US, one of the main reasons the Libertarians have had such a problem establishing themselves as a major force over the past 35 years, is a tendency in their ranks to get caught up debating among themselves the finer points of their own ideology, rather than uniting and forcefully establishing their positions on hot button issues.

This is where Johnson, himself a former Republican, has proved immensely important. Joining the party in late 2011, he has made significant strides towards increasing his mainstream appeal by expressing a willingness to compromise over the size of government and the degree to which it may implement itself, while also maintaining a strong and consistent set of ideals when compared to the other frontrunners.

His campaign is primarily focused on reducing national debt through drastic cuts in government spending and taxation. He advocates the privatisation of healthcare and the competitive pricing of low cost procedures, like X-rays, which have been previously provided through insurance companies; the implementations of a state-run voucher system for schools; a broadly non-interventionist foreign policy; an opt in-opt out social security system and an end to the drug war. He is an equal defender of LGBTQ and gun owners' rights, is pro-choice and sees racial profiling as an infringement on civil liberties. He has also lambasted Donald Trump for his views on illegal immigrants, and would seek to reduce illegal immigration by making the process for attaining work visas easier, rather than harder.

In the current US political climate he might then be viewed as a sort of radical antidote to the increasing polarisation of both the left and right wings, attracting a substantial body of supporters from both ends of the political spectrum.

He has courted a section of the traditional Republican contingency which has been alienated by Trump's demagoguery as well as a considerable movement of formerly moderate left wing voters, who have grown dissatisfied with what they perceive as the failure of progressives to speak honestly about the problem of Islamic extremism and the radicalisation of political correctness.

Recently, in the wake of email leaks showing an active establishment bias towards Hillary Clinton during the primaries, he has also benefited from the migration of disenfranchised Bernie Sanders supporters away from the Democratic party.

This support has seen Johnson's poll numbers rise as high as 12pc as of June, a number just 3pc off the requirement for admittance into the presidential debates. Such an admittance would be a huge victory for Johnson, and could drastically alter the landscape of this, a totally unpredictable election cycle. It would give Johnson the chance to spread his ideas to the largest audience possible and to contrast them directly with those of Trump and Clinton, something a third-party candidate hasn't been able to do since the independent Ross Perot in 1992.

That year Perot ended up winning 19pc of the vote. This time around Johnson need not achieve even that to force a significant change in US politics. In fact, he need only win one state. Johnson is only a few points behind Trump in the traditionally Republican-locked state of Utah.

This is due to a large contingency of Mormon voters who openly despise Trump. If Johnson were to take Utah in what is sure to be an incredibly tight election, it is possible that he would prevent either candidate from winning an overall majority of the electorate, thereby leaving the decision of who gets to be president with the House of Representatives.

Right now the House is held by a Republican majority, meaning Clinton winning here would be out of the question. Given the manner in which Trump has polarised the Republicans though, Johnson might very well be able to steal enough of their vote to win the presidency when combined with a sizeable Democrat minority.

A Johnson presidency then, is not as far fetched as it might seem at first glance. Such a major realignment of the US political establishment would not exactly be unprecedented either. It happened last just over 150 years ago, following an eerily similar fracturing of the Democratic party to the one we witnessed during last week's convention. Then it was the relatively minor Republican party, spearheaded by one Abraham Lincoln, which took advantage of a polarised pre-civil war nation to rise past more established names. Whether Johnson can do the same remains to be seen - but the established powers can no longer afford to overlook him.

Sunday Independent

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