TCS Daily

Among the Fellow Travelers

By Radley Balko - February 25, 2005 12:00 AM

My experience at CPAC was a little different than that of my Tech Central co-blogger, Ryan Sager.

As a libertarian who often finds more comfort with the left these days than the right, I went to the conference expecting the worst, particularly given the general contempt the Republican Party has shown for limited government since taking control of the White House and Congress.

And while there was certainly much of the ugliness you'd expect to find among a gathering ideologues (particularly on the issues of gay marriage and immigration) I was surprised to find more fellow travelers among the grassroots bunch that I thought I might.

The first good sign was the significant libertarian presence among the exhibitor booths. Credentialed pro-liberty groups like the Objectivist Center, the Libertarian Party, the Drug Policy Alliance, Bureaucrash, the ACLU, and the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons were all present at CPAC this year. I spoke with representatives from each of them, most of whom told me this was just their first or second appearance at the conference, a fairly good indication that conservative movementarians are at least open to dialogue on civil liberties issues. Most had generally pleasant experiences over the three days, though the ACLU did meet with a few belligerent objectors.

Openly, CPAC attendees enthusiastically support their elected Republican party leaders. Privately, many concede that they're growing frustrated with the party's penchant for spending, growing government, and its inability to assert itself on anything other than foreign policy. One cultural conservative from Georgia emphasized to me that he's a conservative first, not a Republican, and that he'd leave the Republican party in a heartbeat if there were anywhere else for him to go.

More interestingly, conservative movement fissures seem to be getting most prominent between generations. The younger CPAC attendees I talked to tended to be more tolerant of cultural issues like gay marriage and drug decriminalization than the generations before them.

My conversations were merely anecdotal, of course. But the conservative generational schism has also been reflected in some recent national polling. Many of the young conservatives I spoke with also seemed less interested in infusing religion into public life, though many of them were privately devout, and took their personal faith very seriously.

All of this seems to be consistent with media reports on the beliefs, politics and values systems of millennials and Gen-Yers. It's always risky to overgeneralize, but polling data suggests that the under-30 crowd seems to be more modest, more prudent, and less indulgent than the few generations preceding them (though also troublingly at ease with collectivism and authority). But among the self-described conservatives in this group, there's also a growing tolerance for gays and victimless crime.

If there's still a chance for an alliance between libertarians and limited-government conservatives, I think this is likely where it will happen -- as older, God-and-country conservatives die off, and a tech-savvier, more cosmopolitan conservative generation begins to take the reins.

These kids are still conservatives first, of course. And the issues that separate them from older conservatives aren't the issues that animate their activism. A college student doesn't become a young conservative because he vigorously supports same-sex partner benefits. Rather, he might be a conservative because he's fiercely anti-tax and anti-regulation, but also doesn't see anything wrong with letting gay couples leave their estates to one another after death.

This could explain why there was such vocal opposition to the Log Cabin Republicans' Christopher Baron at CPAC's gay marriage debate, but a pro-gay politician like Rudy Giuliani could win the conference's stroll poll for Election 2008. Put another way, the younger crowd is more tolerant, but on tolerance issues, the older, less tolerant generation is simply louder.

The drug prohibition issue was particularly heartening, mostly because it wasn't an issue at all. While the Drug Policy Alliance and the Libertarian Party both had a decriminalization presence, conservative anti-drug groups like the Drug Free America Foundation were nowhere to be found. DPA's Ethan Nadelmann got a warm reception. His opponent, whose entire rebuttal consisted of tying Nadelmann to George Soros, didn't get much of a response at all.

Led by National Review, conservatives seem to be ready for some significant reform of our drug laws (if only they could get their party to go along).

I left CPAC with quite a bit more optimism than I had when I came. Conservatives haven't completely abandoned limited government; they're just stuck supporting a party that in many significant ways has.

As for with whom libertarians and limited government advocates should ally right now, perhaps a mix of pragmatism and incrementalism is best. We should concentrate our efforts on the big issues, the issues that for better or worse will prove difficult to undo down the road. That means we line up with the right on proposals that promise to institutionalize more liberty -- issues like Social Security privatization, and tax code reform. And we align with the left to oppose Republican proposals that will institutionalize more government intrusion into our lives -- issues like sullying the U.S. Constitution with petty bans on flag burning or gay marriage, or further expansions of the PATRIOT Act.

Neither side deserves the default support of libertarians right now. And there are still a number of issues in which conservatives and libertarians will continue to be at odds. But I left CPAC with at least some hope that the next generation of conservatives may be more skeptical of government intrusion on personal matters than the generation that's currently in power.



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