Liberty, Senate and the Future: An Interview With Austin Petersen

This interview with Austin Petersen took place by phone on January 11, 2017.

LibertyBuzz: Rumor has it that you are considering running for Claire McCaskill’s Senate seat in 2018. Have you decided definitely?

Austin Petersen: I have not decided definitely. But I will be making that decision. I’ve set a deadline for myself to decide for this coming June. So If I decide to do it, we’ll know by then.

LB: What sort of criteria are you using to decide?

AP: Well, (I have to see) to see if there’s any interest, really. I know the Libertarian community is really excited about it, but I wonder just how much the citizens of Missouri have an interest in someone… who represents the values that I have of limited government.

There’s probably a lot of interest for it, but I really want to spend some time doing a little bit of traveling around my state and finding out just how interested people might be.

LB: Are you going to be running as a Libertarian, a Republican, Independent, or a member of some other party?

AP: Well, you know it’s funny, I actually got a phone call from a new party the other day. The Federalist Party…

LB: Oh, my!

AP: They’re interested in having me under their line. I know the Libertarians would absolutely love to have me do it. The Republicans have reached out to me as well.

And I don’t know if you all know the Republican Liberty Caucus – they’re courting me as well. And then if the Democrats do the same thing, maybe I could just run on all the party lines. (laughs)

LB: (laughing) Is that allowed?

AP: No, I don’t think so, and I wouldn’t want that, just because I don’t think that’s good for democracy. Everybody should have a little bit of competition, but I just haven’t made a decision yet.

LB: Okay. Are you disappointed in the Libertarian Party after coming in second in the race for the presidential nomination in 2016?

AP: Yeah. I think I am. Obviously, I’m disappointed. I won’t lie and say that I’m not. I think the problem lies with the misunderstanding of Libertarians of what the general public really wants in candidates.

You know, I was much more popular with muggles, than I was with the Libertarians. The problem is that we so frequently try and determine what it is that the average voter wants, but we always get it wrong. And many times I think it’s because of selfishness on our parts. We make the decision based on what we think is best for ourselves, rather than out of what is best for the country, and that’s not good. For electoral politics, it’s about serving your citizens and serving the country.

And so, if you thought that Gary Johnson was the best person for that, well, it seems like your radar was a bit off there, because not only was he not good for the average citizens, in that they didn’t vote for him in enough numbers to make a difference, but he also didn’t serve the Libertarian cause.

So I ran, because even if the general public didn’t choose me or didn’t vote for me in great numbers, at a minimum I would be benefiting the Libertarian movement, and that’s what really needs to be happening with our Libertarian candidates, is that if they don’t have a chance to win, if their chances are slim, at least they should be advancing the cause of the Liberty movement.

LB: Right. So what is it that makes you popular with the “muggles” and not so popular with Libertarians?

AP: You know, that’s a good question. If I really had to break that down, let me think of it for a second. I think it’s probably my communication style. A lot of people called me the Donald Trump of the Libertarian Party, as if that was a bad thing. Because Donald Trump has a way of communicating in simple, little short phrases.

It really rings hollow to Libertarians. They don’t like that, because they’re the type of person that will sit down and watch a two hour lecture about de-centralizing monetary units of third world countries. And the average American does not do something like that. So if I want to talk about free banking or things like that, I am going to have to explain it in a series of slogans that the American people can latch onto so we can progress our ideas.

So it’s sort of counter-intuitive, because what works for libertarianism is not what Libertarianism has been doing to sell their ideas. So I think normal people like me, because I communicate in way that is acceptable. But some Libertarians see that as selling out, watering down ideas, when really all you’re doing is condensing ideas into simple ideas and slogans – or as some people call them, bumper stickers. But that’s the path to success, and I won’t back down from Libertarians who oppose me on that, just because.

The problem with Libertarians is that they like to think that they’re smarter than everyone else – and they may be – but the problem with that is, if you have that attitude, then people are not going to like you. So when I come in, and I try to reform the liberty movement to make it more effective, Libertarians don’t like that, because, you know, some Libertarians do not want to have the Libertarian Party to be a platform to have real electoral success. Some of them don’t want a Libertarian to preside over the decline and then be responsible for having to apologize for someone who would get elected and then not govern according to Libertarian principles.

We saw that in Nevada recently where they had a state legislator, assemblyman John Moore, who actually as a Libertarian voted in favor of a large stadium at taxpayer expense. Some of those concerns are founded, but some of them are not.

And there’s a kind of hipster attitude sometimes among Libertarians, which many of them are overwhelmingly very young. And there’s a very strong attitude of, you know, I want to be a Libertarian before it was cool.

And if everybody else is doing it, then it’s not cool. So there’s the desire on the part of Libertarians to be counter-cultural, rather than to take the ideas to the mainstream, which I completely reject.

LB: You have quite a national following and had endorsements or near endorsements when you were running in the presidential nominating process. Will this help you running in a more local race, like for US Senator from Missouri? Or are you going to have to change the flavor of your campaign to appeal specifically to Missouri voters?

AP: I think you do have to appeal specifically to Missouri voters. That is an important part of campaigning. But having a national following is definitely in no way, shape or form a bad thing. You have to look at it like this. I mean, Senator Rand Paul was not the establishment’s pick. He was actually opposed severely by the establishment of his own party. He had never held elective office before. And so they told him he was unqualified. And they did everything they could to stop him.

But the reason why Senator Paul was able to win was not just because of the Kentucky voters who did ultimately vote for him, but it was because of the fact that he had a national network, of course, provided to him by his father, and that national network was what provided him with the grass roots with the skill that he needed or the talents to get out the vote and to overcome the establishment in his state in order for him to get on the ballot. So if I were to run for senate then having a national network would certainly be a big deal. And Missourians are a go-along, get-along type of people.

They’re not the type that are super suspicious type of people who – they don’t like carpetbaggers, I know, but if somebody had a national following, like myself, I don’t see Missourians as the type of people to resent that. As they say, Missouri likes company. (laughs)

LB: Do you think what happened to Todd Akin when he was running against McCaskill and also Libertarian Jonathan Dine in the 2012 election could happen to you? He said something really stupid about rape, but the real issue behind that loss was abortion, don’t you think so? How would you answer the question that lost him the election?

AP: Yeah. Well, first of all, I would never be in the business of telling someone that a rapist was legitimate or not. That is to me a tad egregious. But he wasn’t the best campaigner, either, and he was up against a very wily opponent. I mean, Claire McCaskill admitted in her book that she helped him win. That’s who she wanted to run against.

And I do not think that Senator Claire McCaskill would want to run against me, because my views as a libertarian can tend to be attractive to Democrats, as well. So while my libertarian views might be harmful in a primary or might be difficult for me in a primary, they would definitely be helpful in a general election, because Todd Akin’s social conservatism was so rabid that it turned off Missouri voters who are blue. Because Missouri may be a red state, but we have lots of urban areas that are Democrat strongholds.

My home town of Kansas City and Springfield, where I went to university, and St. Louis – you’ve got to be able to win those voters as well. You’ve got to be able to get Democrats to vote for you, rather than their own ticket. So that’s really what Todd Akin’s problem was – that he was unpalatable to anyone other than Republican voters.

LB: What is your stance on Planned Parenthood and the Federal government’s involvement in abortion?

AP: I think that funding Planned Parenthood is in fact a form of corporate welfare, and I’m opposed to that in principle. So yes, I would oppose Federal funding of Planned Parenthood. And I do think that these type of extremely personal decisions need to be handled at the state level and not at the Federal.

LB: Well, speaking of Claire McCaskill’s deciding who her opponent is going to be, do you think she has the power to do that this time?

AP: I don’t honestly know. That’s something that I’m going to have to do a little more research on, because I read only parts of her book. And it’s on my end table now, so I can finish it, but I don’t know that she necessarily would. I think that we live in the age of Donald Trump now. And you know, what’s funny is that, as horrible as what Todd Akin said, I mean, compared to any of the things that Donald Trump has said… Missouri is not like the country. Missouri may not be ready to accept that statement. It’s sort of a wild, wild west of electoral politics these days in the age of Trump.

LB: What do you think about the current controversy about Nick Sarwark, the Libertarian Party Chair? He made some critical remarks about Ron Paul. Do you agree with Sarwark or with his detractors on this issue?

AP: I sort of see both sides of the issue right now, and I really think it is much of a tempest in a teapot. I think probably what’s happening is that too many people across the United States are cooped up inside because of the freezing cold weather, so they have nothing better to do, they get bored and they want to argue on Facebook. But Ron Paul, to me, has always been someone who’s advocated for the principles of liberty, to me. And when we’re talking about the issue of States’ Rights, he was probably using States’ Rights as an example of Federalism, but the problem is that in that terminology, I think it’s a bit misleading. And what Nick Sarwark was attempting to do is something that I do frequently in trying to explain to people that states do not have rights. States have powers. Which is very important, because only individuals have rights. If you think that a state has rights, that means that a state has a guarantee to something. And to me, that is sort of the antithesis of libertarianism. So I think that what they really were arguing is semantics, but people love drama, Aya. So I think that everyone was just looking for something to argue about. I see both sides, and certainly it is not a good idea to criticize Ron Paul. If you’re going to do something like that, you’d better be willing to take the heat. And if you are going to do something like that, I would probably not praise Bill Weld in the same interview. ‘

And what Nick Sarwark was attempting to do is something that I do frequently in trying to explain to people that states do not have rights. States have powers. Which is very important, because only individuals have rights. If you think that a state has rights, that means that a state has a guarantee to something. And to me, that is sort of the antithesis of libertarianism. So I think that what they really were arguing is semantics, but people love drama, Aya. So I think that everyone was just looking for something to argue about. I see both sides, and certainly it is not a good idea to criticize Ron Paul. If you’re going to do something like that, you’d better be willing to take the heat. And if you are going to do something like that, I would probably not praise Bill Weld in the same interview. ‘

LB: Do you feel a certain amount of sympathy for Nick Sarwark being attacked because you were once publicly critical of Ron Paul? 

AP: I do. I think there is a bit of clash of personality. And the problem was that the liberty movement in 2008 and 2012 was mostly unified behind Ron Paul, and so everyone had a sense of purpose, it was much more of a kumbaya, but then as Ron Paul stepped down or faded from the national stage, people feel a little bit lost. A lot of people in the liberty movement don’t like me, and a lot of people in the liberty movement don’t like Ron Paul. And I think that’s fine, but I think that’s what occurring is that we’re sort of seeing a shift and a realignment in American politics right now, specifically in the liberty movement, where people are trying to find leaders that can unify almost all of us, but, again, like libertarians always say, it’s like herding cats.

LB: How will you be able to win a majority for the Senate as a professed atheist in the Republican party?

AP: You know what’s funny is libertarians are – many of them – socially liberal, rather than social conservative. And social conservatives tend to be overwhelmingly religious. But I did an interview with Glenn Beck, and we had a conversation about it, and he didn’t have a problem with it.

As a matter of fact, I would say nine times out of ten, the social conservatives had absolutely no problem with that, and it was because, as a Libertarian, I was pretty much the only person who was defending religious liberty in the presidential debate.

And so I think that social conservatives looked at me and said: “Hey, here’s a young man who doesn’t share our belief system, but who will defend our belief system.” And I think that that’s really what’s important.

I hear so many evangelicals telling me all the time: they say they’re praying for me, which I, you know, gladly accept, and I’m grateful for, but what they say is, they like an honest agnostic over a lying Christian. So I think that people are starting to be a little bit… I think that people like to have someone tell them the truth about what they really believe. And, you know what?

I have experienced much more bigotry in the libertarian movement against the religious than I have seen the other way around. And that is a problem, because I believe that social conservatives make up almost 50% of the liberty movement, and a lot more religious people would be willing to call themselves libertarians, if there was not so much baseless bigotry against them.

You know, I have my problems with organized religion. Certainly, I think that Islam has undergone a dangerous transformation in the last hundred years, and those are issues that we can discuss in regard to national security. But in terms of religious liberty in the United States, that is sacrosanct, and I don’t think that the Missouri voters are going to listen to what I have to say and think: “This is someone who wants to take my religious freedom away.”

As a matter of fact, I think the opposite. Because I’ve been nothing but gone on record defending them. And again, what would you rather have: an honest agnostic or a lying Christian. I think that people probably prefer someone who is honest

LB: Thanks so much for talking to me, and I hope that we find out that you do run.

AP: Thank you, Aya, I look forward to speaking with you again soon.

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  • Chris Powell

    Gary Johnson, despite his faults, beat all previous LP presidential candidates by leaps and bounds. The party retained ballot status in more states than any alternative party ever has(partly because printed ballots have not been around forever). One can make a reasonable argument that Johnson failed to exploit the opportunity fully or even well, but a results-based claim that he wasn’t good for the Libertarian Party is simply false.
    I also think it’s interesting that Petersen claims he did better with the muggles than with the Libertarians. It’s almost as if he is admitting that Johnson made better libertarian arguments than he did. I didn’t follow the nomination race very closely as I was committed to supporting whomever was nominated, but that’s not quite how I recall it.

    • Aya Katz

      I think what Petersen meant with that muggles versus Libertarians comment was that he did not get the LP nomination, but he did get endorsements or near endorsements from major conservative leaders, such as Glenn Beck and Mary Matalin.