“I think the biggest unifying piece for Libertarians is just the principle of non-aggression,” says Jeramiah Wegner, treasurer for the Columbia University Libertarians and a second-year at the School of General Studies. “It’s essentially: Be free to do what you want as long as it doesn’t affect others.”
In an election where both major party candidates have left many Americans dissatisfied, the Libertarian Party seems to have garnered more attention than usual; the third parties have had their own town hall on CNN, and Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson has made headlines in recent months for both not being able to answer key questions about global affairs, and for being endorsed by nationally read newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune.
It’s clear that a third party candidate likely won’t win the election next week, which begs the question: What’s at stake for Libertarians this election season?
As I joined a meeting of and spoke with the board of the Columbia University Libertarians a couple of weeks ago in Uris Deli, I noticed that Columbia’s Libertarians have different reasons for identifying with the Libertarian Party, and not all of them include support for Gary Johnson. So what, then, is at the heart of the CU Libertarians’ worldview? The students I met with said that they appreciate common Libertarian values like small government and non-interventionism, as well as the party’s combination of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism.
The party has integrity, they say, because it’s consistent. “I feel like it’s the only political arena of thought that holds a consistent value across all issues. It holds one moral application, whether it’s social issues, fiscal issues,” says Meredith Dubree, a senior in Columbia College and the president of CU Libertarians. “We’re always looking to maximize individual agencies as long as we’re still protecting everyone from harm.”
Some members of the organization also see the Libertarian Party as a necessary “balance” between the two parties. “More and more, you see the two parties kind of polarizing themselves and they’re going to both extremes,” Margaret Corn, Columbia College sophomore and CU Libertarians media director, says. “And the Libertarian Party is the one party that kind of bridges those extremes.”
Members of CU Libertarians all learned about and came to Libertarianism from a wide array of sources, including friends, the internet, and famous objectivist author Ayn Rand. Dubree, who is double majoring in political science and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, now finds many of Rand’s ideas problematic. Still, she credits them with rousing her interest in the third party when she was growing up in “deep-red America.”
“I read Atlas Shrugged when I was 14 and my life was changed,” she laughs, only half joking. “I was an intelligent woman in rural Kentucky, where that wasn’t OK, and Atlas Shrugged was the first thing I ever read in my life that was like, ‘Excellence should be rewarded.’”
Hans Gao, a Columbia College senior and the vice president of CU Libertarians, took to the internet as a high schooler to learn more about Libertarian policies when he found himself dissatisfied by both of the major parties’ shortsighted policies. Corn similarly attributes her involvement to the current election, and to the lack of viable candidates from either major party. She says that this is the first political party with which she has been seriously involved.
Columbia’s Libertarians come to the party with different backgrounds and for different reasons, and many say that they appreciate not being forced to conform to any party principles once they join.
Corn describes the group’s ideological diversity as one of its greatest assets. Because Libertarians are set apart by their adherence to utilitarian principles, people tend to think of the Libertarian Party as uniform, she says. However, she emphasizes that opinions within the party do vary quite significantly. “There definitely is fluctuation within the party,” she says. “There are moderates, there are extremists—I mean, there’s everything.”
For Dubree, this large variance is something to be valued. She points out that ideological variance isn’t so apparent in every political organization. “When you go to a lot of political groups, you’re not going to find it where you have a lot of dissension but you all still have a common ideology,” she says. “We all understand that within our ideology we can interpret that in different ways, and that’s not a problem for us.”
Dubree describes the group as quite moderate overall, and Adkins points out that Johnson’s supporters come from all across the political spectrum, ranging from ex-Ted Cruz supporters to ex-Bernie Sanders supporters.
With a wide variety of political opinions represented within the party, it makes sense that the CU Libertarians also have different plans for the elections. For starters, not every Libertarian intends to vote for their party’s presidential nominee.
Corn says that she’s not entirely sold on Johnson. She and Dubree agree that Johnson’s “a quirky dude,” and Corn is especially concerned by “his inability to vocalize things about foreign affairs.”
A few of the students I spoke with admitted that they struggled with the reality of the two-party status quo. “Everything is two-party in this country,” Corn says. “While some people can definitely see [Johnson] as a viable alternative to both candidates … the fact of the matter is that he’s unfortunately not going to win. He just doesn’t have the support because he’s a third-party candidate, and you have to work within that.”
Despite acknowledging the fact that Johnson exists outside of this two-party system, some of Columbia’s Libertarians still plan on voting for him based on principle.
“I did consider voting for Clinton because I think that Trump is the most despicable human being that’s ever lived, but I do believe that it’s important to stand by your principles,” Dubree says. “I do really think that this is a prime opportunity for people who do feel like in one way, they don’t necessarily get to vote by their convictions, to sort of stand up and get to do so.”
Adkins will also stand with Johnson and the Libertarian Party in November, despite receiving frequent encouragements to reconsider his vote. “People have actually confronted me saying that that is a racist thing to do,” he says, in the context of discussing voting for Johnson in a swing state. “I think demanding someone [to] vote your way is fascist groupthink.”
Although Adkins says he will vote for Johnson, and that Clinton is the “better alternative” of the two major party candidates, he sees value in a Trump presidency: People would pay more attention to the president’s actions and hold the government accountable. Whereas Clinton would “be defended every step of the way” on positions she shares with Trump, including foreign interventionism, expanding the debt, and restricting free trade, Adkins opines that “with Trump, he'd be torn a new one.”
Following Dubree and Corn’s characterization of Johnson as quirky, I wondered if his supporters were rallying more behind the Libertarian party than its candidate.
While Dubree says that she’s voting more for the Libertarian Party, and would prefer to have vice-presidential nominee Bill Weld at the top of the ticket, Adkins stands firmly by Johnson. “I would vote for anyone the Libertarians put out, but Johnson specifically I like a lot as a candidate,” Adkins says, noting that he specifically appreciates Johnson’s pragmatism and can see him actually being a good president. He can’t say the same for other popular Libertarian politicians such as Austin Petersen and John McAfee.
The term “protest vote” has been derogatorily evoked by Bernie Sanders, Michelle Obama, the founders of Republicans for Clinton, and the opinion section of the New York Times to describe anyone who chooses to vote a third-party candidate instead of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Libertarian students at Columbia have mixed opinions about the term.
“It’s not illegitimate to call some people who are voting for the third party protest voters,” Corn says. “But I think if you apply that label to the whole party, in a way that almost delegitimizes the ideology, because it’s not necessarily a protest vote.” She says that there are voters “who fully believe in the party and believe in the candidates it nominates.”
Still, some see protesting as an essential part of being Libertarian. “When you’re a
Libertarian, every single thought in your head is a protest to something,” Adkins says. “So it's impossible to function and not inherently just be a protestor.”
Gao agrees, but says that it’s not enough to protest. “If you’re just protesting an election, after the election, what are you going to do?” he asks. “We want to get people to be informed about what we believe in and that’s ultimately how we can win the future, because we don’t want to rely on the temporary hatred of candidates.”
And so, although most students believe that Johnson will almost definitely not win the presidential nomination, Columbia’s Libertarians believe that the election will positively impact the future of the Libertarian Party, pointing out the press that Johnson has generated and his higher polling numbers, especially in his home state of New Mexico. “Some people are projecting that maybe he could potentially win New Mexico,” Corn says, “and if he wins New Mexico, that obviously affects the overall election.”
They are confident that the party will grow as more young people learn about Libertarianism. In fact, CU Libertarians itself has already started increasing its membership and visibility on campus, possibly foreshadowing an increase in Libertarian Party membership overall.
“I think this is our most active year yet, from the first month, in terms of participating in more events, talking to more people,” Dubree says. The group hosted a speaker, Larry Sharpe, during October’s voting week and was included in Columbia Political Union’s first debate of the year, alongside the Democrats, the Republicans, and the Roosevelt Institute. Plans are in the work to start debating the Columbia University College Republicans.
“There does seem to be a high level of turnover, which in the past has led to some issues of continuity,” Dubree says. “However, we are getting bigger—I’m a senior, I’ve been on the board for four years, and this is the biggest year we’ve had in the first month.”
Their first meeting of the year drew about 30 students, and now they average about 15 students per meeting, five more than the average from last year.
Adkins says, “People are starting to realize just the fundamental similarities and differences between the parties—that the things that they agree on are the things that most people don't like, so that definitely drives people towards the Libertarian Party.”
The group also acknowledges that heightened interest could come from the fact that this is an election year. “If you think about it, this is a lot of people’s first time voting here and they want to be informed,” Corn says. “They want to be in a place where they can talk about their ideas and feel supported or challenged.”