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Could this be the Libertarian Party's year?

Jack Lessenberry

For many years I’ve predicted, so far incorrectly, that one of these years the Libertarian Party would achieve a breakthrough on the national political scene.

Not that they would elect a president, but that they would become a serious force to be reckoned with. After all, the Libertarians have a message that ought to resonate with both the millennials and many of us aging, self-obsessed baby boomers.

They say you should be able to do whatever you want in your private life. Smoke pot, have sex with consenting adults of whatever flavor you fancy -- that should be none of the government’s business.

But except for some minimal functions like national defense, don’t expect the government to be the nanny state that provides for you. Libertarians say you’d pay a lot less in taxes if they were in charge, and get absolutely no wars unless this nation were attacked.

That’s a philosophy tailor-made to appeal to any fairly affluent 20-something who has read The Fountainhead. But for some reason, the Libertarians have never really managed to be taken seriously. Oh, they’ve elected a state legislator here and there.

The Michigan Libertarian Party proudly brags they have city council members in South Haven and Hazel Park, but that’s about as successful as they’ve got. Part of the problem is that Libertarians are often seen as, well, one bubble off plumb, as a carpenter I know might say.

Take James Weeks, a Libertarian candidate for Livingston County sheriff. He won national notice last month at the party’s convention in Florida, but not for his eloquence.

Weeks stripped his clothes off at the podium and did a little dance, wearing only a thong. Unfortunately, as Detroit’s Metro Times put it, he has "an unconventional body type for a strip-tease performer."

This did not help the party’s overall image.

Nevertheless, there are signs the Libertarians may do better this year than ever before. Michigan was one of only two states where they weren’t on the ballot last time.

This year they are, and the party seems on course to winning ballot access on all 50 states. Flying pretty much under the radar, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson four years ago became the first Libertarian presidential candidate to get more than a million votes.

This year, Johnson is running again, this time with William Weld, a former liberal Republican governor of Massachusetts as his running mate.

They are running as high as 11% in some national polls, and Johnson’s goal is to get that up to 15%, which would mean he’d be included in televised debates. That’s unlikely to happen. But with this year’s deep dissatisfaction with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Libertarians get five million votes or more.

The conventional wisdom is that they will damage Trump, though Johnson himself thinks he may take more votes from Clinton. Even 10% wouldn’t be enough to establish them as a legitimate political party; that would take a lot of victories for lower level offices.

Yet this is a year when the Libertarians may finally have a chance to get the nation to take their views seriously. Provided, that they keep their pants on.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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