The booth was bright yellow, designed to attract attention. A large shirt proclaiming “Legalize Marijuana” nearby also helped the draw. This was where the Libertarian Party of Minnesota made itself known at the Minnesota State Fair in the way you might expect for a third party – after all, they need to make themselves known.
If you stepped up to talk to those staffing it, you might be surprised by my friend Joe McKenzie. He’s a Gen-Xer who is always looking for ways to make the world a better place, whether by organizing a winter clothing drive for new refugees almost spontaneously or by simply being mindful and respectful of the people he’s helped to find jobs. You might also be surprised by what the voters were most interested in, too, given how this election is going.
Get government off our backs? Give us an alternative to the “lesser of two evils”? That wasn’t what drove people over to speak with Joe. “What people want is someone to be there to change the dynamic, to change the discourse,” he told me. “They wanted to know if Gary Johnson was at 15% yet, if he is going to be in the debates. They just want another voice.”
Most reporting on the election naturally focuses on the two major parties for a good reason – whether we like it or not, Trump vs Clinton is still the main bill. But with a solid 8.7%, Gary Johnson is making some waves – if not quite enough to step up to the debate podium. More importantly, a comparison to a two-way poll suggests Johnson is pulling from both the top candidates equally.
Joe felt that pull as he was promoting his candidate. “It was intriguing to have these conversations versus just five or ten years ago,” he said. “Issues and platforms weren’t driving people at all. They wanted to know more about Gary Johnson, whether he could get in there and bring something different.”
McKenzie has been there as the unpaid, untitled spokesman for the party at Gay Pride Festival, the State Fair, and even May Day for three years now. He’s contributed to StuffLibertariansLike.com, an effort he started with Millenial Tylor Slinger. “We want to have a conversation, not to shout at people. Dialogue opens people up, but shouting at them shuts them down.” Joe automatically pauses not for effect but to give the statement time to invite a reply. “That is what people want more of and you can see it.”
This isn’t what is normally reported, however. After a long season full of Sanders rallies and a lot of noisy enthusiasm, the often raucous and opinionated Libertarians might the last organization you would expect to be so calm and open. But the message is resonating, if not quite as much in the polls as they might like.
The popular press, however, doesn’t see Johnson that way. To them, he’s the spoiler who makes everything a bit more difficult and messy – and his supporters are nothing more than a protest vote.
That’s understandable, given the way the election is likely to end for Johnson and Weld. But it ignores the most important aspect of what gives the Libertarian Party enough hope to sit out in the hot sun in the waning days of summer to spread their word. There is one thread that reaches past progressive Sanders and authoritarian Trump and clean through to the quiet, pragmatic style of Johnson as channeled through McKenzie.
Voters want new perspectives in their politics. It’s not about issues, it’s about opening up.
For his part, Johnson stumbled badly by asking “What is Aleppo?” in response to a query on his stand on the horrific Syrian civil war. That may not hurt him much, however, given that positions and platforms aren’t what are drawing people to him. Even the New York Times had trouble with the story, offering these two corrections to its own story:
Correction: September 8, 2016
An earlier version of this article misidentified the de facto capital of the Islamic State. It is Raqqa, in northern Syria, not Aleppo.
Correction: September 8, 2016
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of the above correction misidentified the Syrian capital as Aleppo. It is Damascus.
Will voters hold not understanding the details of the Syrian conflict against Johnson? So much which is so far away floods our news that his terrible flub is unlikely to change much. The key for many isn’t what you’re going to do, it’s how you are going to open the system. In asking questions like this and seeking new alternatives voters seem to get the basic principles of Democracy in their guts better than most of the sharp minds reporting on them.
There’s an old saying among Libertarians, “Democrats want to be your mommy, Republicans want to be your daddy – we want you to be an adult.” With the genders of the top two candidates that saying has a better visual appeal than in the past, but what a dysfunctional family we must be to have gotten to where we are. We all have to wonder how adults might actually grow up.
Nevermind, they are here. Joe McKenzie does his part to further the yin of personal responsibility and the yang of public purpose together in one dignified, grown-up package. The message is resonating, too, and will probably reach well beyond the election.
Voters know this is no way to run a nation. They also know that 320 million people need more than two perspectives, especially in rapidly changing times. Joe, for his part, knows that the best thing he can do is to facilitate that transition and help to start a conversation. If you speak with him you can’t help but feel this is all going to work out, somehow, eventually. Even in a world where the attention-hungry Libertarians have at times become the calm voices of reason, dialogue, and inclusion, it’s going to work out.