Rancor at CPAC shows how libertarians are battling for the soul of the conservative movement.

By John Glaser |  March 29, 2011

The new libertarian youth movement abounds with energy and brazenness, and it has already outraged the Beltway right. CPAC, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., is no longer safe for Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld, thanks to irreverent young activists who this year greeted the Bush alumni with boos and a shout of “war criminal!” Chants of “USA!” from Cheney’s supporters drowned out the libertarian hecklers, but the point was made: the conservative establishment has a battle on its hands.

The hostile reception for Cheney and Rumsfeld—as the former bestowed upon the latter a “Defender of the Constitution” award—was just one symptom of the generation gap. Another was the controversy surrounding the inclusion of gay Republican group GOProud among CPAC’s sponsors. But most telling of all was the exhibition hall, where the most crowded corner was occupied by Ron Paul’s Campaign for Liberty and young activists packed the booths of groups such as Students for Liberty. With this showing, it was no surprise Ron Paul won CPAC’s presidential straw poll for the second year running.

What was unexpected was the old guard’s reaction. As the results were reported, with libertarian-leaning former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson claiming third place in the poll, Young Americans for Freedom—a conservative group founded 50 years ago last fall—announced it was kicking Paul off its board of advisers. YAF denounced Paul and his supporters as “the anti-conservative left within our movement.” An “anti-American, anti-defense, anarchist fringe,” YAF’s open letter warned, “has become more openly evident at CPAC and beyond, where your support base has become synonymous with those who consistently blame America first.”

The fight didn’t stop there. Talk-radio host Kevin McCullough wrote a piece for Fox News entitled “Disrespectful Libertarians Hijack CPAC Poll—And Its Mission,” saying “it has been the inclusion of the libertarian aspects of the past two years that has thrown the message of conservatism askew” thanks to these radicals “combining the desire for economic greed with the amoral desire to promote any behavior regardless of its cost to our culture.”

McCullough may be right to feel threatened. The youthful libertarian movement has experienced rapid growth in recent years. The Students for Liberty campus network expanded from just over 100 groups in 2009 to approximately 430 at the beginning of 2011. Similarly, the two-year-old Young Americans for Liberty—a continuation of Students for Ron Paul, despite its nominal resemblance to YAF—boasts 180 chapters nationwide and 3,000 dues-paying members. YAL recruited more than 700 students to attend CPAC 2011, a presence that certainly contributed to the backlash.

“Liberty-oriented student groups are extremely active on the local campus level—often outpacing the more traditional conservative organizations,” says Bonnie Kristian, YAL’s director of communications, who previously worked for the Leadership Institute, one of the primary centers of conservative activist training. “The libertarian-leaning groups in general seemed to be the busiest on campus” during her time there, she observed.

More established groups on the other side of this rift, like the College Republican National Committee, still hold formidable sway. In the last election, CRNC representatives recruited “14,868 [students] as volunteers who called, door-knocked and rallied Republican candidates to victory all over the country.” In contrast to the fledgling libertarian student groups, the CRNC has been around in some form since the turn of the 20th century and has annual budgets in the millions of dollars. This sort of mainstream muscle can temper feelings of momentum for overexcited young libertarians.

No matter, says editor in chief of Reason.com Nick Gillespie. “Looking at the machinery of Republican activism is one thing,” he contends, “but when you look at the heart and soul of the party, what you see now is a party that is totally bankrupt, literally, figuratively, and spiritually. So whoever are these Republicanoid operatives that are being churned out by some college committee, the party they’re serving is either going to become more libertarian or die.”

This new environment of libertarian ideas and activism among young people is partly a response to mainstream conservatism’s blunders since the 1980s and 1990s. “I think Bush, the financial crisis, and the wars absolutely revived interest in an alternative to a big-government warfare-welfare state,” says Cato Institute Executive Vice President David Boaz. Kristian sees this too. “People my age have grown into political awareness almost exclusively under the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama,” she says. “All we’ve seen is ever-growing debt, war, abuse of our civil liberties, corruption, corporatism, misery-inducing monetary policy, and general irresponsible growth of government. It isn’t difficult for us to understand the two major parties do not have our best interests in mind.”

Notably, what establishment conservatives resent about these young dissenters is exactly what they celebrate. McCullough blasted the libertarian CPAC kids as “not consistent with the average conservative voter in America.” This movement’s response seems to be, “Exactly.”

In mid-February Students for Liberty held its annual conference, which brought together 500 young activists from throughout the country—more than triple the attendance in 2009. Clark Ruper, SFL’s vice president, believes a culture clash with the older right is unavoidable. “At CPAC you had the problem of the old-guard conservatives not liking the fact that young people don’t care about the social-conservative issues. Young people are just more socially tolerant than past generations, and they don’t like this.”

“We live in a time now where you cannot for very long successfully suppress an important American political tendency,” Reason editor in chief Matt Welch told TAC. “And for 15 years, give or take, both sides, and Republicans in particular, suppressed and tried to rout the limited-government tendency within the broad right-wing tent.”

But not everyone sees youth politics as heading in the same direction. Ron Robinson, president of Young America’s Foundation, thinks “the young conservative movement is recovering from the 2008 debacle” that was Obama’s victory. He doesn’t anticipate a shift in sentiments towards more cultural tolerance and political libertarianism, but rather expects a conservative reinvigoration in reaction to the “political correctness and multiculturalism” that have made young people “inordinately susceptible to Obama’s allure.” He believes libertarian youth activism bodes well for the conservative movement, as young liberty activists ultimately “learn we have real enemies in the world, and some personal choices—including abortion, drug use, and promiscuous sex—lead to a destructive and unsustainable lifestyle.” As for increasingly socially liberal attitudes among young people—exemplified by reactions to the GOProud controversy—he says, “I wouldn’t read too much into that.”

Some conservatives take the split with libertarians merely to be so much infighting. They are eager to keep libertarians under the conservative umbrella. Brian Darling, the Heritage Foundation’s director of U.S. Senate relations, tells TAC, “I don’t think that there’s that much of a difference between young libertarians and conservatives.” He argues that the issues on which conservatives and libertarians disagree “are not at the forefront of the national debate” and “should be put aside.”

Neoconservative commentator Charles Krauthammer, appearing on Fox News, said the youth libertarian movement is just “a lot of college students who want to be Ayn Rand. And, you know, soon they will grow up and become conservatives.” Darling concurs: “People who consider themselves conservatives find a lot of synergy with libertarians. I mean, maybe some of them were libertarians in college and then just shifted a little bit.”

But the youthful hordes disrupting CPAC and building libertarian organizations from the ground up roundly disagree. “Older generations may try to classify us by the bipartisan dichotomy through which they understand the world,” said SFL president Alexander McCobin at the opening of the group’s conference, “But this just reflects their misunderstanding of who we are. We’re more interested in advancing liberty than being restricted by the structures that others impose upon us.”

The at times rancorous split between libertarians and conservatives is not an entirely new phenomenon. The rise of Barry Goldwater in the early 1960s represented a vigorous reaction to New Deal and Great Society statism and spurred many young libertarians into activism for more radical notions of liberty. Young Americans for Freedom, a group founded by young Goldwater activists after the Arizona senator’s bid for the Republican nomination in 1960, was torn apart later that decade by strife between libertarians and anti-communists over drugs, Vietnam, and the draft.

Gregory Schneider, an associate professor at Emporia State University and a historian of American conservatism, has advised Young Americans for Liberty and the broader youth libertarian movement not to let the past repeat, saying they “would do well to avoid the chronic sectarianism that beset just about every libertarian group in the 20th century.” But many of today’s youthful activists insist they aren’t fighting to reclaim conservatism, they’re rejecting it.

“Young people,” Gillespie tells TAC, “have grown up in such an existentially libertarian world, because ultimately the message of libertarianism is that choice matters. And people now have so many more choices than they’ve ever had before.” In March 2008, Gillespie and Welch wrote of an impending “Libertarian Moment” and predicted a “glorious future” for the young and politically homeless. “Decentralization, niche markets, and choice are the coin of this new realm,” they wrote. And politicians “will ignore that epochal shift at their peril.”

Polling data, however, paint a less clear picture. The progressive New America Foundation cites a 2008 survey conducted by the Pew Center for People and the Press and the Harvard Institute of Politics that found “youth were more likely than their elders to believe that the government can and should solve social problems and that the government should do more to address global warming and the economy.” The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that “56% of young adults wanted health insurance coverage for all Americans, even if that meant increased government spending.”

Gillespie admits that while young people show interest in more open borders, tolerance for alternative lifestyles, and drug legalization, “they’re also more interested in giving free money to everything because they don’t necessarily understand how you pay for stuff.”

Gillespie and Welch are not the first to predict a libertarian moment. In 1971, journalist Lewis Rossetto saw a similar shift right around the corner. Political refugees, he wrote in the New York Times Magazine, “are organizing independently under the New Right banner of libertarianism. The birth of the New Right occurred when libertarians finally accepted the fact that they had been abandoned by the liberals, used and misled by other radicals and sold out by the conservatives.” Back then, he thought that “advocates of individual freedom not only continue to exist, but are increasing in number.” But the ensuing years brought not “libertopia,” but a mixture of progress and pain.

The generational political shift now underway may bear similarly mixed results. Discontent with the governing class and its ideologies is palpable—and was vividly on display at CPAC this year. “What is going to rise in its place,” however, says Welch, “is an open question. And for sure [the trend] is not always going to go in our direction. But it does create dynamism in what is probably the most sclerotic sector left in American life”—as Cheney and Rumsfeld have already discovered.

John Glaser is a TAC editorial assistant.

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