The most famous battle in the long, internecine war on the right between libertarians and traditionalists was fought over Labor Day weekend, 1969 at the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) convention in Saint Louis. The two groups argued semi-peacefully over a number of proposed planks for YAF’s platform–the legalization of marijuana, withdrawal from Vietnam, etc.–but when a libertarian delegate stepped to the podium, declared the right of every individual to resist state violence, and lit his draft card on fire, the convention was ripped apart. The libertarians cried “Sock it to the state!” while the traditionalists chanted “Sock it to the left!” and mocked the libertarians as “lazy fairies” (get it?).
Many people consider that moment the birth of the modern libertarian movement as a separate entity from the conservative movement. The old alliance between the two groups never completely dissolved, but the rift between them has never fully closed either. When the libertarians struck out on their own over forty years ago, there was no question which group was dominant: the conservatives were more numerous, better funded, and far better represented in the halls of power. Now, despite being united in opposition to the Obama Administration, that rift appears to be widening again, but it’s less clear who is winning this time.
The events of the 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) read almost like a bizarro version of the 1969 YAF convention. Instead of the libertarians being driven from the group, it is the traditionalists who sidelined themselves because of the presence of the self-proclaimed gay conservative organization GOProud. Instead of libertarians being attacked by angry pro-war conservatives, the libertarians heckled a Vice President and Secretary of Defense who launched a war of choice. Most notably, the libertarians were a clear plurality (but not a majority) of the attendees who bothered to vote in the straw poll as Ron Paul won with 30% of the vote and former Governor of New Mexico Gary Johnson took third with an additional 6%. In short, the libertarians have taken control of a decades old conservative institution.
Of course, this has led to much gnashing of teeth among the traditionalists–most comically in this poorly written piece by radio host Kevin McCullough. (Seriously, it seems like it was written by an overeager college freshman playing political Mad Libs.) The most common complaint is that the conference did not represent conservatism, and I must admit that the critics are right. Conservatives still far outnumber libertarians, and in most cases, they wouldn’t vote Ron Paul or Gary Johnson for president. However, CPAC has never been representative of conservatism as a whole–it’s a conference for conservative activists, intelligentsia, and college students, who are by far the largest group. So while CPAC does not perfectly reflect conservatism at the moment, it does give us a glimpse at its future. Libertarians are clearly ascendant among activists on the right, and that will probably translate into a far more libertarian conservatism ten or twenty years down the road.
Although at the 1969 YAF convention, the losers would be later to win, in this bizarro version, the losers are really the losers–forever. There will always be “traditionalists,” but it’s unlikely that conservatives will still be getting worked up over homosexuality or even gay marriage in twenty years time as support for gay marriage steadily rises, even among conservatives, as the demographic gets younger. From a broader view, the traditionalists have been losing all along, given that gay marriage is even under consideration, and their luck is not likely to turn around.
Libertarians are not on the verge of sweeping into power in Washington or even becoming the dominant force on the right. Middle-aged (and older) conservatives are still the ones running the show, by and large, but libertarianism is the animating spirit of the young people on the right, and the other members of the so-called “conservative coalition” ignore that fact at their own peril.