Last month, election researchers estimated that 1.5 million people under the age of 30 voted for Bernie Sanders in primaries, a number more than double the youth turnout for both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. It’s no secret that the 74-year-old democratic socialist energized millennial voters by challenging the political establishment, and third-party players are betting that these voters will be up for grabs if Clinton secures the Democratic nomination. Green Party front-runner Jill Stein is campaigning as the progressive “plan B,” and Libertarian candidates have not been shy about appearing cutting edge.
Libertarian front-runner and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson is touting his support for LGBTQ rights, medical marijuana and ending the war on drugs. A promotional video for rival John McAfee features young marijuana smokers, antiwar hippies and Burning Man revelers alongside Steve Jobs and the controversial CEO of Whole Foods, a tableau of counterculture and techno-capitalism that seems to summarize the software tycoon’s personal identity.
These Libertarians apparently want millennial voters to know that their party is not just for aging white guys with backgrounds in venture capitalism — even when that’s exactly what they are. However, a much younger and more conservative candidate, Austin Petersen, is challenging both of them from the right, and he’s bringing a sizable chunk of the party’s youthful base with him.
This could be a big year for a Libertarian candidate. Trump and Clinton are deeply unpopular, and a recent poll found that nearly half of all voters would consider supporting a third-party candidate if Trump and Clinton are the nominees. The Libertarians already credit Trump for a surge in new party memberships and are eager to pull in disappointed Sanders fans.
To an outsider, Johnson seems like a shoo-in. He is the only candidate mentioned in major polls and recently took 10 percent of the vote when pitted against Clinton and Trump, including 18 percent of participants under the age of 35. An ongoing poll on the Libertarian Party’s website, however, shows Petersen way ahead of both Johnson and McAfee, suggesting that he may have the support of the party’s rank and file — or at least its legions of online activists — as the Libertarians prepare to nominate a candidate at their convention this weekend.
At 35 years old, Petersen is by far the youngest candidate receiving national attention. The Libertarian Party operative and former TV producer claims to have inherited the movement of young voters that propelled Ron Paul’s brand of libertarianism into the national conversation during the 2012 primaries. Nonreligious but oddly pro-life, against drug prohibition but also against environmental regulation, Petersen reminds me of the Ayn Rand-worshipping Young Republicans I knew in college, who were totally cool with drug users and queer people as long as we weren’t asking for handouts.
Petersen may be best known for asking Johnson if he would require a Jewish baker to bake a wedding cake for Nazis during a debate over anti-discrimination laws. Johnson fumbled and, perhaps sensing the political gravity of young Sanders fans, later issued a statement dismissing “religious freedom” as code words for discriminating against LGBTQ people. I recently got Petersen on the phone to talk “Nazi cakes” and other hypotheticals, including the volcanoes causing climate change and the specter of state-mandated bong rips in California.
Mike Ludwig: One of the things that I like about Libertarians is that they describe themselves as the opposite of authoritarians, but we have a candidate, Donald Trump, who has been called an authoritarian in the media. Do you think Donald Trump is an authoritarian?
Austin Petersen: Yes I do, and I feel that he doesn’t quite understand the limitations of power on the executive branch. A lot of promises being made about building walls or forcing companies to repatriate to the United States are far and beyond anything that the founders laid out in the [US] Constitution for the executive branch. I think he just doesn’t understand the law; the president is required to obey the law and have strict limited powers, and I think he would seek to expand the powers of the presidency far beyond what constitutional authority the president should have.
What about Hillary Clinton? Is she an authoritarian?
I would say so. They are both progressives. Both believe in a progressive income tax, both believe in redistribution of wealth. Hillary Clinton supported the war in Iraq. To me, I feel like they are two sides to the same coin.
There are going to be a lot of disaffected voters because people just are not happy about Clinton and Trump in general. You feel like you will probably peel more voters off the Trump side?
I think I am going to pull equally from both because I’m a 35-year-old millennial running for president who wants to end the war on drugs, end crony capitalism, get government out of our lives and allow gay people to get married if they please, but also wants to cut the IRS … you don’t get much better than a Libertarian at pulling from both left and right.
So do I think I will pull from Trump? Absolutely. Am I going to pull from Hillary Clinton? Darn right. We may see a revolution this year if I can put together a coalition of people who are disaffected.
Gotcha. You’re a critic of big government … you’ve proposed to slim it down. What would be your priorities for cuts?
Well, my spending plan actually cuts everything. The spending plan I am proposing is a 1 percent, across-the-board, total cut to spending from every single federal program. That also comes alongside a balanced budget amendment that would hopefully be passed by Congress as well. That means that every program would get one penny out of every federal dollar spent cut, so that we would have that total overall cut, that’s everybody. DOD, DOJ, CIA, DIA, every single alphabet agency would receive the same cut, so that way there is no crying from the special interests. Everybody has to do more with less, and if they cannot give me one penny, just one penny out of every federal dollar, then I will veto every single bill that comes across my desk until they give me the cuts that I demand.
Well, one of those agencies is the EPA, and the Obama administration is using the EPA to tackle climate change by placing regulations on power plants and the amount of carbon they produce. Those are the biggest sources of carbon in the United States … what are your thoughts on climate change, and what are your thoughts on the federal government tackling it as an issue?
Actually, the biggest sources of carbon are active volcanoes,* so maybe the president can figure out how we can put a cap on all the active volcanoes in the world so we can stop carbon. I think it’s ridiculous to think that through central planning we are going to solve a crisis as large as climate change. Most of the problems that we face in the United States have absolutely to do with the climate … The hubris that a small group of bureaucrats in the United States are going to solve the global problem is ridiculous. And the United States is not even the greatest polluter in the world. You can look to China for that. So, perhaps we need to start looking at how we can tackle climate change in third world countries. If you think that the federal government can’t deliver the mail properly, then just how in the hell are they going to solve climate change?
What do you think about bathroom laws and legislating who can use what bathroom? I am thinking about transgender people here especially.
Everybody has a right to use the bathroom regardless of your biological sex or your gender or whatever you call yourself. Everybody has to go the bathroom, and I am absolutely sickened by people who would use the force of government to try to force people to use bathrooms according to their biological sex. And there is no way you can enforce that. It’s absolutely ludicrous, and I think that [the state of North Carolina] and the federal government are both wrong, and I would fight for the right for people to be able to use whatever bathroom they please; if it’s a public restroom, it should be gender neutral; if it’s a private restroom, then it shouldn’t be anybody’s business. The private facility can decide who can or cannot use the private facilities … It seems to me that a bunch of rabid social conservatives have taken up one of their favorite cudgels, and now a bunch of rabid leftists are trying to use their favorite cudgel; both want to force everyone to comply with their idea of what is moral, true and right. Libertarians, they keep government the hell out, and mind your own damn business.
I know Libertarians often disagree on abortion. What is your position?
I am a rare unicorn in that position. I am a secular, pro-life humanist. I do believe that it is a human child, that we should find ways to limit abortions and we should take a moral stance against abortion. I don’t think there is anybody who is really pro-abortion, except the worst eugenicists, Hitler wannabes perhaps. I think everyone can agree that we want fewer abortions, but how we get that is tricky.
The number one solution I am advocating for as the most noncoercive way for us to reduce abortion is to legalize birth control over the counter, and I think I can get a wide consensus on that. And I think that just statistically that will result in fewer abortions. But I believe it is a child, it is a human child, it has separate DNA, and Libertarians believe in personal responsibility. There is nothing that will piss people off more than telling them that they have to be personally responsible. So, we need more education on birth control methods, and we need that birth control [to be] more readily available.
When you invest in reproductive health care, and you make medicines like birth control available, you have better health outcomes, and you can reduce the number of [unwanted pregnancies]. Is it the government’s job to ban abortion, or just to help reduce it?
It’s not the federal government’s job. States have already done things like banning “partial birth” abortions, and I definitely support that. So when it comes to the approach of the president, the president has no authority. In a perfect world, where we have no Roe v. Wade, absolutely. Do I think there is going to be a move to overturn it? Probably not. But I still think that it’s wrong, and I am going to fight as a moral leader against abortion because I think we need to create a culture of life.
We need to start looking at abortions as a problem that needs to be solved. Government isn’t always the best tool for things like that, as a Libertarian I understand that, but government can do certain things, and the number one thing they can do is get out of the war on drugs and reduce the number of abortions, that’s number one for me, and otherwise my hands are tied, because my job is to fight ISIS and protect national security, not to get involved in legislating women’s private lives.
You mentioned the war on drugs. The movement for Black lives has drawn a lot of attention to police profiling and violence. As president, what would you do to ensure that the police state does not unfairly encroach on the lives of people of color?
Well, I would end the war on drugs. The fish rots from the top down. So, I would instruct all of my officers under my control and all of my appointments, they will obey the Constitution and the law and they will respect citizens’ civil rights. I will end the war on drugs by instructing the chief of the DEA to set the federal drug schedule of all drugs to zero. We will end the federal war on drugs on day one.
Now, this means that the states could be radically separate on drug policy, and that could involve some problems, and I will explain that to the American people. Texas could theoretically execute you just for looking at a joint of marijuana, and California might make it mandatory to wake and bake. So these are theoretically problems we could face. But when it comes to a war on drugs, I will end the federal war on drugs immediately.
What sets you apart from your opponents in the Libertarian Party, since you are going to be heading to the convention next weekend?
Well, I am obviously the only pro-life candidate. I think it’s really a two-man race, and I think McAfee is a great guy but he doesn’t have a shot …
I am the only candidate that is viable in the party that is fighting to defend religious freedom. And when it comes to the Second Amendment, Gov. Gary Johnson has waffled on Second Amendment rights. His VP pick, Bill Weld, a former governor, has also not only waffled on the Second Amendment, but been a Democrat and advocated for assault weapon bans …
I challenged Gov. Gary Johnson on whether pastors should be forced to marry gay couples, and he refused to answer “no.” He refused to answer whether he would require people of the cloth to marry people that they disagree with. That is just an absolutely abhorrent twisting of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 … I asked, “Gov. Johnson, do you believe Jews should be asked to bake cakes for Nazis?” And he said, “That would be my contention, yes.” So, his position is more authoritarian than both of the Democratic front-runners…. Even Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton would have said “no” because at minimum they understand the law.
After our interview, I thought long and hard about the hypothetical world that Petersen is ready to defend us against. I imagined marijuana death squads in Texas, government weed brownies in San Francisco and a towering wedding cake adorned with swastikas made of icing. ISIS (also known as Daesh) was lurking around somewhere, I’m sure.
I opened iTunes and looked up “California Uber Alles” by the Dead Kennedys, a punk song from 1980 that describes then (and now) California Gov. Jerry Brown launching a hippie-Nazi takeover from the Left Coast. “Zen fascists will control you,” singer Jello Biafra warns, and everything will be “100 percent natural.” Your kids will be forced to “meditate in school,” so “mellow out or you will pay.”
Luckily for Californians and the rest of us, “California Uber Alles” was pure punk rock satire, not even a hypothetical situation to be considered by high school debate teams. Yet, of course, campaigns love hypotheticals — often more than they like reality. I don’t know how many young Libertarians listen to the Dead Kennedys, but if enough of them turn out for Petersen at the party’s convention this weekend, then he may have his hypothetical cake, and eat it too.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.