A look at the state of the Libertarian movement.
Six years ago I woke up in a roach-infested motel room in Nashville, Tennessee on a large chair next to the door, stained with remnants of food, drinks, and other things. A bunch of us had shared the cost of a motel room – it wasn’t the type of trip or vacation you brag to your friends about.
We were troopers, however, sleeping in what I only remember us nicknaming the “Dead Hooker Inn” the night before our regional “Students For Liberty” conference. The post-Ron Paul Libertarian moment was a kindling of fire waiting to spread, as I discuss in my book Stay Away From the Libertarians! We had low expectations based on the small size of our movement. Simply put, Libertarians aren’t used to nice things or nice outcomes, but we march on with a smile. The conference was small, the turnout consisted of students dressed in drag, punk rockers with enough piercings to make a metal detector malfunction, and bowtie flashing economics nerds carrying copies of Murray Rothbard’s Man, State, and Economy. We were a ragged, eclectic bunch, but we were happy to have found like-minded people interested in a philosophy that converged culture and politics. To most of society we appeared fringe and renegade.
Flash forward to today, I can walk into any crowd anywhere in America and the majority will consider Libertarian (or libertarian, with a small “l”) to be a household world. What they think about libertarians is a whole other question entirely.
Arriving in Washington, D.C., via Uber on January 19th, I looked around the streets of the most powerful city in the world that was now the epicenter of the longest federal shutdown in U.S. history. After I was dropped off at the Marriot Marquis on Massachusettes Avenue, I was passed by men and women wearing those revolting knitted, pink “pussy hats” holding signs that said “hands off my vagina” as they walked to the 2019 March for Women a few miles away. It was funny as I realized that the day before the crowd was so completely different at the March for Life, but only in America can you have a crowd of pro-life demonstrators march in the streets one day and have a crowd of pro-abortion marchers take to the streets the next in peace. We might be a politically divided nation with an identity complex, but at least protestors such as those generally stay within the timeframe that their permits grant them.
LibertyCon, formerly known as the International Students For Liberty Conference (ISFLC), was embarking on its final day of lectures, panels, and other breakout sessions before the event officially concluded that night. The student movement I had seen blossom when I was a college student was more professionally operated, and much more publicized than ever before. In fact, the name changed from ISFLC to LibertyCon in 2018 primarily because it transcended libertarian student activism and became in many ways a libertarian version of CPAC. FreedomFest in Las Vegas might be the top contender for that comparison, but all FreedomFest attendees know that the Vegas event is more party and rather less an academic convention.
When I was a student, we were in a weird sort of libertarian renaissance of sorts as we anticipated big policy and cultural changes heading towards the 2016 election. Our conventions, rallies, and meetups were like Woodstock if you replaced Jimmy Hendrix with Milton Friedman. Our heroes such as Rand Paul and John Stossel were mainstream voices hitting the headlines and leading the conversation. We were the pirate radio of the political scene, breaking the boundaries of the Left-Right political lines drawn by academia and the professional partisan cartels while picking up new allies on the way to a better tomorrow.
2016 changed all of that, and without rehashing the traumatic memory of a nation that barely kept its act together as we were facing an election with two of the most universally dislikable candidates in American history, the libertarian moment we thought would succeed the Ron Paul revolution looked less like a competitive show dog and more like road kill. Yes, more people knew who libertarians were and more people may have identified as libertarians, but apart from gay marriage and legal pot in some states, our metaphorical trophy case was pretty damn empty and demoralizing.
Three years later, the libertarian scene seems almost like it did back when I was a student. As I picked up my press badge, I spoke to some of the event staff, asking how the turnout looked in terms of attendance.
“Lowest we’ve ever seen as far as LibertyCon is concerned,” one staffer told me.
It was noticeable, even at past venues the rooms used to be filled to capacity with students. This year, it was difficult to get even the smallest of rooms half-way full for speakers and panels. I encountered some old friends at a table who were one of the sponsors. Asking them what they thought of the conference only confirmed my suspicions.
“When it was ISFLC, it felt like it was all party, all students. Now the name change may have brought some other changes, but the vibe is no party, some students” one of them told me before turning to an older couple, probably in their sixties, who walked by the table to grab some pens and stickers.
A student from the University of Arizona overheard our conversation, “there are more people with receding hairlines this year than ever before” he said, informing me he had been coming regularly since 2013.
I attended most of the panels I could throughout the evening. Topics ranged from drug policy, universal basic income, to online censorship and the need for Islamic enlightenment. While the libertarian community might be known for infighting, at least in public there used to be a degree of professional respect. “Professional” implying that people might accuse each other of being Satan online, but at least in-person, in public, no one will ever call each other out.
During one panel regarding the tenants of liberty, a speaker from the Cato Institute suggested that it was wrong for the Mises Institute to have been allowed to come and table at the convention because of past statements regarding some inside-baseball dispute where one person called the other a mean name and everyone got angry. It was rather uncalled for and frankly made the attendees a little uncomfortable, like making a child have to choose between parents in a divorce.
At a session with Reason Magazine editor Nick Gillespie, discussing the fight for free speech on college campuses, he spent more time attacking and insulting the conservative student organization Turning Point USA for enabling “identity politics” and being “easily offended,” never once mentioning the violent group known as Antifa who built a volatile reputation for shutting down right-wing speakers and setting places on fire. When it was over I walked near a crowd of students who were in the room with me previously.
“I’m a Turning Point member, I don’t know if Gillespie understands how many other students here happen to be,” one student said to the group, who nodded their heads in agreement.
The big elephant in the room during the convention, however, wasn’t the subtle jabs speakers were taking at others or the fact you had what seemed more attendees who were part of AARP than Students For Liberty, it was the presence of former Massachusettes Governor Bill Weld, the 2016 Libertarian Party VP pick who was largely criticized for running what seemed to be a counter to his running mate the Libertarian presidential nominee, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson. Throughout 2018, Gov. Weld made the rounds by attending as many Libertarian Party state conventions as he could, shaking hands, taking photos, and hobnobbing with those who would be the delegates to the 2020 Libertarian National Convention.
Since 2017, speculation as to whether Weld would run for the Libertarian nomination for president has been up in the air. Take it for what its worth, but an old politician from another era doesn’t stump for a 3rd party that is rather ambivalent towards him at best unless he is trying to butter them up to ask for something. During the handful of panels Weld participated in – ranging from drug reform to the future of the Libertarian Party – he seemed bored as if he was there just to remind people he was still around while moderators such as Reason’s Matt Welch kept serving him softball questions. Even when Weld wasn’t on stage, his posse was parading him around so he could get as much facetime as possible. While one attendee was quick to call Weld the “Libertarian Party’s Hillary Clinton” I saw him as more of the Libertarian Party’s Jeb Bush – low energy, flirting with a nomination he is clearly already gunning for because he feels entitled to it, hoping that when he’s done speaking that he doesn’t have to ask for people to clap for him.
The convention was, all in all, a success thanks to the sponsors that made it happen and the Students For Liberty staff making sure everything was going according to plan and everyone was happy. However, the general vibe of the crowd wasn’t necessarily the energetic optimism and joy usually felt at conventions prior. This year everyone seemed exhausted, as if they were just there to check it off a block instead of to gain something from attending.
“There are some new folks – like expected, but many of the same people I usually see at this convention and other libertarian events,” said Libertarian Party of Virginia Chairman Bo Brown. “It is definitely a smaller crowd, but we did just come out of a midterm election and no one is very excited for 2020, so it makes sense most people who would typically come probably decided to stay home this year and perhaps come next year when the talk is a bit more lively and things get more interesting because of the national conversation focusing on the presidential election.”
Caleb Franz, executive director and founder of the MiLiberty Initiative, also shared Brown’s sentiments. “Something to understand at least in terms of crowd size is that Students For Liberty’s global conference presence is expanding in Europe and South America which has a big part to do with it. If there is a local convention or conference they can attend they might not feel like they need to travel all the way to Washington D.C. It’s difficult to keep the energy going 24/7 and sometimes people just need a breather.” When asked about his opinion of where the libertarian movement currently stands, Franz continued stating “its hard to find where the movement is going because that is the question everyone is asking, where that direction is.”
Franz is right; in a national conversation owned by hardline nationalists and “open borders” globalists, libertarians seem to be in the position they have been historically- shut out. In the past several years, libertarians celebrated massive drug reform laws, the legal acknowledgment of gay marriage, and a growing population accepting of a “Ron Paul style”, non-interventionist foreign policy. Three years after the Trump revolution, where is the next fight for libertarians? We’ve won some and lost some, but now everyone who is active seems tired, used, and confused about the path ahead.
In no way was the exhausted mood of the convention on account of the fantastic staff who put on and managed the whole show, nor was it the sponsors who contributed in their own ways. The collective mindset was at the end of the day, a reflection of our current political and cultural state of affairs. People are fearful of what is to come in 2020 following the gut-wrenching saga of what we all witnessed in 2016. Hurt people who are loathsome towards the hyper-polarized partisan politics and the damage it has caused to friendships, families, and other relationships. When you take a step back, the libertarian community, at the end of the day, feels the same way as the rest of the country – Left, Right, and everybody in the quiet and confused middle.
While every movement sees highs and lows, the libertarian movement is at least still alive, and despite all setbacks, looks to be here to stay.