Yes to Amash’s liberty-oriented rhetoric. No to his ill-timed and ill-considered presidential bid.
Justin Amash’s entry into the race for the Libertarian Party’s presidential nod is ill-timed and ill-advised. As a prominent name in national politics, his presence is sure to siphon media attention away from the party, its candidates (whose months-long efforts Amash has spit on with his timing) and its message. His late entry into the race, suggests one can adopt the mantle of libertarian at-will, using it as a convenience, a stepping stone to greater power. For months, Amash has been an outspoken critic of the president, making principled arguments, rooted in the Constitution, against many of his more outlandish statements. Why, only now that he’s seeking that same office, has he seen fit to associate this rhetoric, which is in keeping with much of what libertarians believe, with the party?
It reeks of opportunism, particularly for those whose investment in the Libertarian Party’s presidential primary has been ongoing. He might have been a great ally to the party, consistently advocating its platform in Congress. Instead, his entry in the race stands to hurt the party. The surfeit of news stories that have suddenly appeared overnight suggest the party’s primary is only worthy of attention when one of its candidates is a mainstream figure in American politics. To focus attention on a party outsider delegitimizes the party’s other candidates and seems to reaffirm the social suspicion that libertarians are cranks and weirdos whose beliefs do not represent a serious approach to governing and should be largely ignored in policy debates.
Amas’s late entry into the race raises a long-standing question: Should the primary ambition of the party really be the presidency?
This is not to say libertarians should have no political ambitions. However, there are other political offices beside the legislature towards which libertarianism is potentially better suited.
It’s a party that puts emphasis on effective government at the local level, where specific solutions to specific problems are crafted by people directly affected by them and who have to live under the authority of the laws they create. This belief is influenced by its epistemological belief in the individual as sovereign owner of himself. It is a political ideology that is uniquely and fundamentally pluralistic: a libertarian may argue for drug legalization because he or she believes an individual should have the right to control his body, even though that same libertarian may personally object to drug use.
The question is: can a party that, somewhat paradoxically, is united in its differences, really wield the government effectively? Should it even desire to? Or are the efforts of politicians like Amash, lucky to have a voice in the mainstream of American politics, better focused on reining in the legislative power?
The presidency is inherently monistic: it channels the opinion of one man and seeks to bend national law to it, even when that power is exercised responsibly by someone respectful of Constitutional bounds.
The legislature, on the other hand, is intensely pluralistic. It is designed to magnify the voices of a multiplicity of factions. In other words, the entire point of the legislative body is for people of differing opinions to argue and squabble and convince others that their way is the best way and should guide public policy.
If libertarians can win here, they can win the policy debate. And that, arguably, is a great deal more important than winning the executive, whose input on legislation is significantly less. Libertarian political ambitions should not stop short of the presidency. But the presidency should not be the sum total of their political ambitions. The legislative branch perhaps provides the richest ground on which libertarians can plant their ideological seeds.
And yet, with Amash’s declaration of his presidential ambitions, he became the first libertarian representative in the nation’s history, which is troubling given that, previous to yesterday, he had no official relationship with the party and did nothing to advance its particular agenda.
For the duration of Trump’s presidency, Amash has regularly made headlines: his principled departure from the Republican Party, as well as his outspoken criticism of President Trump’s transgressions against the Constitution, have injected a liberty-oriented vein of criticism into media discussion.
Why, then, is Amash so anxious to throw away his position in Congress, where he has not only a platform for his principled criticisms of government excess but the ability to put libertarian principles into practice by influencing legislation?
It is true that Amash’s bid to retain his seat in the House of Representatives is something of a long-shot. Even before renouncing his Republican Party membership, Amash’s criticism of Trump had earned him a primary challenger: Trump surrogate Jim Lower.
But, the odds of him winning re-election to Congress are still a lot higher than the chances of a third-party candidate winning the presidency. And the small amount of celebrity Amash enjoys as a Trump critic is unlikely to provide any real boost. Anyone who believes political celebrity translates to election momentum need only recall Ross Perot’s inability to secure a single electoral college vote in 1992. The 19% of the national vote Perot managed to attain seems particularly out of reach in a political climate where the “Stop Trump lest democracy perish” rhetoric is likely to stop many potential swing voters from “wasting” their votes on a third-party candidate. Nor are many right-wing voters upset by some of Trump’s behavior likely to peel away, lest the left be successful in dethroning their “besieged” president.
All the more reason for Amash to delay his libertarian candidacy for another cycle. This would show respect for those in the party who have been tirelessly working to advance its interests and would allow Amash to retain his influence in the place it can do the most good for the liberty movement: Congress.
National attention will be squarely on Amash if he wins the party’s nomination. If he fails to pull out a momentous victory for the party, his political celebrity will be turned against the libertarian cause: seen as yet more proof that this is not a movement that carries any weight in the minds of the electorate.