Interviewing Gary Johnson is not like interviewing other presidential candidates. For one thing, he shows up unaccompanied by security, joined instead by a libertarian political strategist and the strategist’s small and very polite son. For another, he is wearing running shoes and a very nice jacket.
Johnson is the former governor of New Mexico, and he is running for the Libertarian Party nomination. He is likely to win it, as he did in 2012. While governor, Johnson vetoed 200 bills within his first six months in office, and eventually vetoed more bills than every other governor combined (while also cutting taxes 14 times). He is pro-choice, supportive of marijuana legalization nationwide, a supporter of marriage equality, and the recipient of the American Civil Liberties Union’s highest rating during the 2012 presidential campaign. He has climbed all of the Seven Summits, competes in triathlons, and briefly headed a medical marijuana company.
Gary Johnson is not like other presidential candidates. And that’s part of the point.
“I think perhaps the two most polarizing political figures in this country -- Hillary [Clinton] and Donald Trump -- are going to be the nominees,” Johnson told MTV News. With the combination of fiscal conservatism and a view on social policy to the left of, well, a lot of people,* Johnson believes that he can be a third -- and better -- option. “I think most Americans are libertarian, they just don’t know it,” he said. “That is being classically liberal -- fiscally conservative, because that’s the way we have to live our lives, and socially liberal -- who cares what anyone else does with their life as long as it doesn’t harm mine?”
Let’s face it: Gary Johnson won’t win the presidency in 2016. In 2012, he won 0.99 percent of the national vote (still the second-best performance ever by a Libertarian candidate). But in an age of two behemoth political parties, it’s easy to think that there are only a few ideas being proposed by potential candidates. Enter the Libertarian Party. The Libertarian credo (at least according to the party’s website) is “maximum freedom, minimum government.” As Libertarian Party chairman Nicholas Sarwark puts it, “only the Libertarian Party stands for the rights of the individual, as long as they don’t hurt anyone or take their stuff.”
On social issues, Johnson finds himself on the far left. He recently took an online quiz and found that the person he was closest to politically was Bernie Sanders, something that was not especially surprising. “I believe I’m about as conservative as it gets when it comes to dollars and cents, but on the social side, well, it just -- I get the Bernie appeal,” he said. He is particularly vocal about marijuana and marijuana legalization. “In 1999, I was the highest elected official in the United States to call for the legalization of marijuana,” Johnson told MTV News, adding that the revenue from taxes on legalized marijuana is “dwarfed” by the savings in law enforcement, courts, and prisons. Marijuana is safer than alcohol and prescription drugs, Johnson said, adding that he had broken his back in an accident and found the recovery from prescription drugs to be more difficult than the injury itself. “Statistically, there has not been a recorded death due to marijuana.”
It isn’t just marijuana; Johnson believes that people should be able to do whatever they want with their bodies, even if it’s demonstrably bad for them. And while he says he does not stand for the legalization of all drugs, he does believe that “if we legalized all drugs tomorrow, the world would be a much better place,” and that “90 percent of the drug problem is prohibition-related, not use related … prohibition is what kills.” (Johnson is not worried about a rise in opiate addiction nationwide, saying that the increase in overdoses was relatively minuscule. “The fact that heroin use is going up 30, 40 percent? They’re talking about statistics in states where deaths are going from 180 to 220! Come on!”)
On fiscal issues, Johnson believes in the power of the free market above all. On the whole, libertarians believe that the individual should be the arbiter of the market -- and that businesses should compete with one another directly, regulation-free. Johnson agrees, and mentions Uber and Airbnb as examples of businesses that have allowed individuals to take charge without government interference. “My idea of the future is Uber everything, that it’s Uber lawyers, it’s Uber plumber, it’s Uber electrician. Eliminating the middle man. You reap the rewards of your individual efforts.”
In Johnson’s opinion, “nobody’s giving a voice to the free market” in this election. A truly free market under a Gary Johnson presidency would mean pay-as-you-go health care (“you’d have Stitches 'R' Us!”), embracing immigration and making it easier, and eliminating corporate taxes so that “in my opinion, you would create tens of millions of jobs, just because you’d be getting out of the way.” He said that the power of corporations in America was a direct result of government involvement, incentivizing thousands of lobbyists to curry special favors from lawmakers in Washington. “If there were no special favor to be granted, if everybody were on an equal playing field,” he said, “[lobbyists] all go away.”
However, as Johnson’s campaign prepares to pivot toward challenging both the Democratic and Republican Parties, it -- and the Libertarian movement as a whole -- faces an interesting challenge: Both those voters supporting Donald Trump and those supporting Bernie Sanders want the government to take more action, not less. They want jobs to come back from overseas. They want a higher minimum wage. Some, like Sanders told a crowd in 1981, want the government to do what charitable organizations do now.
But according to Sarwark, libertarians have a response ready: “What we're proposing is that when you take government out of the picture, when you allow more individual freedom, you get those outcomes,” he told MTV News. “We agree on what the voters want; we disagree on what the solution is.” And the solution is: no government intervention in business -- or most anywhere else, for that matter.
During our interview, Johnson stopped to take a selfie with a New Mexico native who wished him luck on his presidential campaign; he may no longer be governor, but he’s still popular. And if he wins the Libertarian nomination for president, he will be the only third-party candidate on the ballot in every state. To Republicans, Johnson says that he is “fiscally, the most conservative candidate you’ve ever come across. I’m all about smaller government and my history as governor demonstrates that in spades.” To Democrats, Johnson touts his high rating from the ACLU and says that based on what he did while in office in New Mexico to further civil liberties, “I’m the guy.”
In 2016, both Republicans and Democrats have said that, with few attractive options available, they’re looking for a third party. Johnson says that there already is one. The odds are against him to win more than the approximately 1.3 million votes he earned in 2012. But he’ll let individuals make their own decisions -- he is a Libertarian, after all.