Justin Amash has announced that he’s running for president as a Libertarian. The sitting five-term congressman from Michigan quit the Republican party on July 4 last year and was the sole non-Democratic vote to impeach Donald Trump in December. Amash won’t win in the fall, but like Gov. Gary Johnson, the LP’s 2016 candidate who earned 4.5 million votes, his presence could easily throw the election to either Donald Trump or Joe Biden.
Far more important, especially to the plurality of Americans who consider themselves politically independent, the 40-year-old son of Middle Eastern immigrants from Palestine and Syria has the potential to radically change what Americans expect — or demand — from their national politicians. Trump and Biden are a combined 150 years old, deeply compromised in personal and public ways and incapable of talking for more than a few minutes without descending into cringe-inducing word salads. They represent not just the past, but something approaching the worst version of the past.
Trump is unabashedly nostalgic for an America that was demographically monotonous, sexist and elitist, overflowing with smoked-filled rooms in which businessmen and politicians cut shady deals. Over the course of nearly 50 years in the Senate, Biden was one of the architects of mass incarceration, imperial overreach abroad and the drug war. He coined the term drug czar in 1982 and sponsored legislation that led to the creation of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Biden’s feminist bona fides, under question at least since his handling of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in the 1990s, are under new scrutiny due to increasingly credible resurfaced allegations of assault from a former staffer.
In contrast, Amash carries none of that baggage. Like his progressive congressional counterpart, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the libertarian is young, idealistic and looks like the multi-ethnic future of America. Trained as a lawyer, he explains every vote he casts on Facebook and Twitter in clear, unambiguous language and shows up for work every day. When he missed his first vote after six years in office, he reportedly broke down and cried. He left the Republican party on the Fourth of July as a rejection of what he called ‘a partisan death spiral’ that fuels ‘mistrust and anger, leading millions of people to take to social media to express contempt for their political opponents, with the media magnifying the most extreme voices’. Amash’s stance on the Trump impeachment only came after he studiously read the Mueller report in its entirety, not because of leadership diktat that he vote one way or the other. His vote to impeach earned him the ire not just of the president (who has called him ‘a total loser’) but the GOP establishment, which is pouring money into the effort to unseat him.
Since entering Congress in 2011, Amash has without exception voted against corporate bailouts, increases in debt-financed government spending, overseas military interventions and the prosecution of the federal drug war. Almost alone among (former) Republicans, he is pro-immigration. Back in 2017, when Rep. Steve King asserted that ‘we can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies’, Amash retorted, ‘I’m an American no less than you are. I love our Constitution and traditions. Am I “somebody else’s” baby because my parents are immigrants?’
During the coronavirus pandemic, Amash has castigated federal agencies such as the CDC and the FDA, first for botching containment efforts and then asserting monopoly control over testing. He was one of a handful of no votes on the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, arguing that all relief payments should go directly and quickly to individuals and households rather than corporations, nonprofits, or government agencies. ‘Congress will make things worse by empowering government to make decisions individuals and businesses are best equipped to make themselves,’ he wrote. ‘They want to limit flexibility when we need it most — as we try to weather a crisis and eventually rebuild.’ Amash is not a burnt-it-all-down anarcho-capitalist. He is a small-government libertarian who believes the state should do fewer things more effectively.
His candidacy couldn’t come at a more pressing moment. Over the past half-century, trust and confidence in government has cratered as partisanship and polarization has kicked into high gear and federal spending has become unrestrained. Last September, according to Gallup, a slim majority of us had a great deal or fair amount of trust and confidence in elected officials and people running for office. That compares to 65 percent back in 1972. The government’s halting and mostly incompetent response to the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing medical, economic and social chaos can only drive trust and confidence, especially in the executive branch, further down.
Amash must first win the Libertarian nomination at the party’s convention, which is scheduled for late May. That’s hardly a done deal, as the roughly 1,000 delegates responsible for selecting a candidate are an unpredictable lot who might see the congressman, who only recently joined the LP, as a carpetbagger unworthy of support. But Republican and Democratic loyalists are already attacking Amash as a narcissistic spoiler, which is a strong sign that he has the potential to reframe the national discussion in ideological and generational terms. Neither Trump nor Biden has a clear path to victory. The president has struggled to drag his approval rating over the 50 percent threshold his entire time in office and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic is leaving voters numb and unimpressed. Even before the allegations of sexual assault, Joe Biden had ‘only a bare majority support within his party and a massive enthusiasm gap in a November matchup’ against Trump.
Whether he ends up improving on the LP’s 3.3 percent of the popular vote in 2016 — far more than enough to cover the spread between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — Amash will provide a striking contrast to the incumbent and his Democratic challenger. At the very least, he will pump fresh blood and fresh ideas into a race notable for a lack of enthusiasm for its geriatric candidates.
Nick Gillespie is an editor-at-large for Reason and the co-author of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America.