I had the extraordinary pleasure of being able to attend two of the most sought after conferences in the conservative and liberty communities of the year.
Last week, I returned from both the International Students for Liberty Conference (ISFLC) and the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).
While both were enjoyable, the differences were incredible.
During ISFLC, the overwhelming feel was immensely positive. Though everyone had their own fundamentals, they all joined to celebrate liberty. The overwhelming feeling during the conference was the desire to learn and grow. Individuals from the world over came to connect in the name of liberty.
Though the event did not go without incident. A small group from the conference, not affiliated with SFL, invited white nationalist Richard Spencer to the conference. It was made to look as if he Spencer had a last minute breakout session at the hotel bar. But after a quick confrontation with several individuals, to include FEE’s Jeffrey Tucker, SFL quickly set the record straight. They made it known that his ideology cannot coexist with the ideas of liberty and banned those who invited Spencer from any future conferences.
Despite this incident, the conference’s message became even more clear. It is our job to define what type of movement we expect to be. And SFL’s actions to disavow Spencer’s ideology was a clear statement in defense of liberty.
CPAC, however, was something different. Attendance was remarkably low this year. While President Trump managed to pack the room, it was almost as if that’s the only part people came to see. Even those with a booth was remarkably less this year. When only a couple years ago the exhibit hall was filled nearly to max capacity, this year it was noticeably light.
The tone was also something drastically different this year. While 2015 had chants of “President Paul,” debates on NSA surveillance, and speakers to include Senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul, This year had an overwhelming authoritarian sensation. While there was a small liberty presence at CPAC, it was certainly not on the main stage. Kellyanne Conway even made it a point to make clear that the event will be called “TPAC” this time next year, rather than CPAC; signifying it will be purely a conference to praise Trump.
That statement was one that stood out and concerned me the most. Every year I have gone to CPAC, it was always about the ideas of conservatism, not one man, not even the president. That said, every year I had gone to CPAC, conservatives were the opposition. Now that they have power, it is incredibly clear that the talk about their principles was just that – talk.
Now CPAC and conservatism faces a whole new challenge. Before we knew that our principles were greater than any one personality. That is no longer the case. The moment that any one person becomes more instrumental than the movement itself, that movement is sure to become a lost cause.
I believe that is why the numbers at ISFLC were up, and CPAC down. At ISFLC, while there were disagreements (as there always will be among libertarians), everyone more or less had a general agreement in advancing liberty. At CPAC, it seemed to be about advancing Trump. This is also why CPAC’s of the past that I recall had much higher engagement and positivity. It was about the underlying principles of conservatism. Liberty, the American Dream, peace, and prosperity. Sure, we may not have all agreed on how to get there or even what it meant. But we believed in something bigger than any one person.
This is also why many liberty republicans thrived at past CPACs.
Ronald Reagan was well known for saying, “the heart of soul of conservatism is libertarianism.”
CPAC at one time embraced this definition, and as a result, conservatism embraced it as well. With this year’s CPAC promoting every possible idea that stands in opposition to that definition, it left liberty republicans separated to a place they would call home for many years.
This does not mean, however, that the liberty movement is dying. Rather, it is finding itself at a place of regrouping. I recently interviewed Jack Hunter on MilLiberty, and during the interview, he equated the liberty movement to marriage. Even the most perfect marriages have bumps along the way. There is no final product, but we rather make a constant effort to improve it the best we can. This too is what it is like in advancing liberty.
There will always be bumps along the way, and CPAC this year is just one example. But we must continue to make improvements for the sake of liberty. There are still brighter days ahead, so long as we remain focused on what our goal is.