Don't expect Rep. Justin Amash to shatter the political duopoly and make the Libertarian Party competitive in national elections. But don't be surprised if Amash becomes the prototype for a new breed of American conservative.
The Michigan congressman who left the Republican Party last July is exploring a libertarian presidential bid. He's drawn the ire of President Donald Trump's critics, who fear an Amash candidacy could play a spoiler role by drawing never-Trump Republicans away from presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, helping the president win a second term.
Despite his star power, Amash isn't a lock for the libertarian nomination. Attorney and author Jacob Hornberger is the party's front-runner, with seven primary wins, and the second-place candidate is Vermin Supreme, the satirist and performance artist known for wearing a boot on his head.
Thomas L. Knapp, a pundit who runs a libertarian think tank, wrote that he's tired of his party picking recently Republican politicians as its standard-bearers. Reinforcing that trend could scare off left-leaning independents.
A founding member of the House Freedom Caucus, Amash has made a consistent case for limited government, personal freedom and budgetary restraint. He's Ron Paul's ideological heir, and while he won't lead libertarians to the promised land, he may be the future of post-Trump Republicanism.
"His experience of leaving the Republican Party and joining the Libertarian Party speaks more about internal Republican Party politics in that the party seems to have gone from a principled policy orientation to a 'politics of personality' orientation," explained Michael Bitzer, professor of politics and history at Catawba College.
I phoned Bitzer, a leading political scientist in North Carolina, to gauge the impact of Amash's insurgent campaign. He reads the tea leaves as well as anyone but said it's too early to tell whether an Amash candidacy would help Trump by capturing crossover Republicans who'd otherwise support Biden.
"The standard I teach is third parties are typically spoilers," Bitzer said, noting that Green Party hopeful Ralph Nader is thought to have hobbled Democratic nominee Al Gore in the 2000 election and independent Ross Perot likely cost President George H.W. Bush a second term in 1992.
While some conservatives and right-leaning independents may flirt with Amash in early polls, Bitzer expects most voters to pick the major-party candidate whose views best align with their own.
"I think in this hyperpolarized environment, the two parties are going to be consistent," he said. "Third parties will try and break through, but the two parties have control of the political system in a variety of ways."
The silver lining for Amash's admirers is that future GOP candidates may be molded in his image.
The modern Republican Party is essentially a coalition of social conservatives and economic libertarians. As the former group ages and sees its influence wane, the party could be recast as a home for classical liberals who care more about preserving individual freedom than dictating a collective morality.
Across the board, Bitzer notes, millennials are supportive of gay marriage and equal rights for women and minorities. Young conservatives may be religious, but they're skeptical of government having a role in spiritual matters. For the first time in 2018, polls showed a majority of Republicans now favor legalizing marijuana.
"This conflict is inevitable," Bitzer said. "That's where things are headed. That could redefine the conservative movement in a way we have not seen in the past 40-50 years. Reagan really formed the religious right in modern American politics. But this generational shift is saying, 'We're fine with same-sex marriage. Just leave us alone.'"
Millennial Republicans are more in line with Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson than Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. They champion free speech, which has fallen out of favor on the far left, particularly when that speech offends members of minority groups.
Amash may be too conservative for Libertarian Party purists who want a doctrinaire candidate thundering, "Taxation is theft," but he'll be libertarian enough for a retooled Republican Party that's socially tolerant and hews close to pocketbook politics.
When will that culture shift begin in earnest? If Trump is ousted and Democrats recapture the White House in November, maybe sooner than later.
Corey Friedman is an opinion journalist who explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter @coreywrites. To find out more about Corey Friedman and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore