CPAC's Libertarian Infiltration


Um. ||| Chris Moody/Yahoo! News
Chris Moody/Yahoo! News

Adam "vs. The Man" Kokesh leaned in, conspiratorially. "I think there's about 2-3 percent hardcore An-Caps here," he said, approximately (I wasn't recording our conversation). "And 20 percent libertarians!" The notion filled us both with some wonder, and not a little bit of pre-emptive dread.

We were at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the annual inside-the-Beltway convention of grassroots political activists from the hinterlands, national conservative celebrities, and D.C.-based advocacy groups. CPAC has long been the lowest hanging fruit for political journalists looking to write conservative-freakshow articles (or post some fine photo galleries thereof), but over the past few years two overlapping stories have competed for shelf space: The organizers' ongoing tussles over all things gay, and the rising tide of libertarianism within the grassroots faithful. (In a tidy conflation of the two strands, the panel discussion I participated in, "Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives Ever Get Along?", was organized primarily around the potentially civilization-destroying question of having government recognize same-sex marriages.)

The libertarian momentum was on jarring display last year, as an army of "Stand With Rand" kids, with OMFG-I-can't-believe-I'm-here looks on their faces helped propel the Kentucky senator to the top of the conference's straw poll, just days after his epic anti-drone filibuster scrambled political ideologies from coast to coast. But this year those same activists looked…a year older, with considerably less shock value. Assimilated. "That feeling you have," Kokesh told me (again, approximately), when I admitted to—horrors—actually liking one or two elected politicians nowadays, "is what it feels like when you've become part of the Borg."

"Imagine a time when our great country is governed by the Constitution, imagine a time when the White House is once again occupied by a friend of liberty," Paul said during his well-received speech today. "You may think I'm talking about electing Republicans—I'm not, I'm talking about electing lovers of liberty."

As the Washington Examiner's Charlie Spiering pointed out, "That line would have been a slam-dunk for a conference of libertarians, but it drew a loud cheer from the standing-room-only crowd in the room." The National Journal put it this way: "Rand Paul Is the King of CPAC."

Libertarian-leaners inside CPAC haven't quite adjusted to the new reality. "Hey man, can't believe they let people like us in here!" I heard a half-dozen variations of from young libertarians on Thursday and Friday (Kokesh, too, reported having similar conversations).  

Or maybe the kids are just savvy enough not to trust the Borg. After all, it was only 18 months ago that the establishment GOP kicked Tea Party activists and Ron Paul supporters (as well as Rick Santorum's grassroots army of social cons) to the curb at the Republican National Convention, in a display of raw (if procedural) power that no participant will ever soon forget. Sure, Rand Paul and the various campus 4-liberty groups can pack a popularity contest decided by powerless activists, but if you think CPAC supremacy is determinative, then I've got some spare tickets to the inauguration ceremony for President Ron Paul.

Of potentially more import than personality-based politics is the way that the booth action and policy discussion at CPAC have changed. Today on the main stage in front of a packed audience of several hundred I watched a Republican governor from Texas brag about closing prisons while mocking California's woefully over-stuffed corrections facilities. Rick Perry's criminal justice record is by no means angelic, but he is at or near the head of the gubernatorial class when it comes to meaningful reform.)

Groups like Right on Crime now compete for booth space with Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Justice Fellowship, and—shockingly to those of us of a certain age—Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. The libertarian project of criminal justice reform is coming to this country in 2014, and though some important impetus has come from self-identified libertarian Republicans (as a Reason.tv CPAC video on this subject will show later), much of it has also come from social conservatives with hearts open to redemption, and fiscal conservatives shocked at the bottom line. Libertarian projects become viable when non-libertarians (and even anti-libertarians) embrace them.

Demographics, as Students for Liberty President Alexander McCobin pointed out during our panel today, are pushing conservatives in at least a more federalist, if not explicitly libertarian, direction. (For an example of how Republicans are changing their tune on pot and gay marriage, see this Reason.tv video from CPAC.) Younger conservatives do not share my co-panelists' view of heterosexual marriage-sanctity as holding western civilization together by a thread, and as Senior Editor Jacob Sullum has noted repeatedly, the generation gap between younger and older Americans on these issues is staggering. (Consider for a moment that half or more of Republican-leaners under age 45 now support legalizing weed and same-sex marriage.)

Throw in the fact that Millennials are potentially the most politically unaffiliated generation in history, and that Republicans have steadfastly failed to stop bleeding support even under the lousy record of Barack Obama, and you have the pre-conditions for a more libertarian GOP.

Would I bet on that? Not even for a second. But I see no reason not to cheer on the symbolic and occasionally even substantive libertarian tack by Republicans. Now if only we could get more Democrats to play along….