I went to a right-wing libertarian conference as a socialist. I was pleasantly surprised by what I found

‘When I look at CPAC, I just think I would be so bored there. The takes are bad. The speakers are kind of uninteresting. They’re not talking about what actually matters,’ one attendee told me

Skylar Baker-Jordan
Tennessee
Wednesday 10 August 2022 19:00 BST
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When I was invited by the Young Americans for Liberty to cover their annual Revolution conference, I was surprised. An offshoot of former Congressman and current dean of American libertarianism Ron Paul’s failed 2012 presidential campaign, Revolution bills itself as “the nation’s most active youth liberty organization” (it also promised that Revolution 2022 would be “the largest pro-liberty event of the decade.”) As a publicly identified socialist, I wouldn’t have imagined I’d be first on their list of invites.

Intrigued, I drove the nearly 700 miles from my home in east Tennessee to central Florida, unsure what to expect. My experiences with covering right-wing events have been mixed. In 2016, I was caught up in the chaos of Donald Trump’s failed rally in Chicago. Part of me expected that Revolution would be something out of the Wild West, all cowboy hats and sidearms and vitriolic condemnations of wokeness and “cultural Marxism.”

There was some of that, to be sure. Yet, it was a far cry from another, darker and more sinister conference held by conservatives that same weekend. Footage of last weekend’s CPAC conference in Texas showed an unfriendly environment for journalists, especially left-leaning ones. Alex Stein went viral for harassing Vice reporter Tess Owen. Far-right activist Brandon Straka, who earlier this year was sentenced to three years’ probation for his role in the Capitol insurrection, performatively locked himself in a fake jail cell while Marjorie Taylor Greene prayed for the man who oppressed himself. Donald Trump gave what many considered an authoritarian speech – no small feat, considering Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orban had spoken earlier in the conference. All of this conspired to make CPAC, in the words of Democratic strategist Rachel Bitecofer, “the first fascist rally ever hosted by a major American political party.”

The scene could not have been more different in Kissimmee, where Revolution was held. What I found was not a fascist rally or a bunch of jumped-up trolls ready to harass a reporter. Instead, I found hundreds of thoughtful young Americans who, though we disagreed on some fundamental issues, were interested in exchanging ideas about how to make our country stronger and our people freer and more prosperous.

To put it simply, if CPAC showed the country a far-right that should terrify us all irrespective of party, YAL showed the left a right we can work with.

“We are libertarians because we love liberty and we hate injustice,” comedian Dave Smith said in remarks on the opening night. “The reason we are libertarians is because governments destroy innocent peoples’ lives, and we hate that.” Smith went on to speak against the Patriot Act and imperialist wars such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and in favor of civil liberties – the exact three issues which motivated me to get involved in left-leaning politics in the early 2000s.

When the right mentions “liberty,” they often mean “liberty for us” and for no one else. The word itself has become somewhat of a dog-whistle in recent years. In their book “The Flag and The Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat of American Democracy,” Philip S. Gorski and Samuel L. Perry explain that after the civil rights movement, many on the right realized they could no longer politically justify their segregationist views. “Libertarianism provided a politer language,” they write, pointing to far-right televangelist Jerry Falwell who “embraced libertarian rhetoric as a means of rejecting demands for racial equality without resorting to racialized rhetoric.”

That has often been my experience with libertarianism. And, indeed, it was hard for me to reconcile some of the anti-choice cheers and opposition to same-sex marriage that I heard at the conference with such an idea of individual liberty. If a woman doesn’t have control over what happens to her own body, and a man like me can’t marry a man I love, am I really free? Is that what liberty actually looks like?

To my surprise – and, it must be said, relief – I found that many of the attendees agreed with me, even if they were frustrated that I and others on the left didn’t already realize that. “A lot of the left doesn’t know what we stand for,” 20-year-old Florida State University student Serena Barker told me — “which isn’t for a lack of trying” on the part of libertarians, she adds. “It’s for a lack of listening.”

On the issue of marriage, Barker asked rhetorically, “If we’re all about personal freedom, why would we tell you who you can marry?” She wanted people to understand that people like her are not the hateful bigots of leftist nightmares.

“Just because we’re individuals doesn’t mean we can’t operate in a community,” Barker explained. “And so maybe we are libertarians. We are individuals. We want our own economic and personal freedom because we don’t want someone else telling us what to do. But that doesn’t mean we can’t operate in a loving space.”

This was Barker’s second year attending the YAL conference, but for Liam Slavin of South Dakota, this was his first political conference. “When I look at CPAC, I just think I would be so bored there. The takes are bad. The speakers are kind of uninteresting. They’re not talking about what actually matters,” he said.

For Slavin, getting things done is much more important than political theater. With Young Americans for Liberty, he says, “I’m actually seeing change being made. I can say that my involvement in politics has only been a year, but we’ve gotten eight people elected in South Dakota, in the state house.”

Slavin, like several of the students in attendance I spoke to, got involved with politics because of his opposition to the Covid restrictions and vaccine mandates. He was approached by a member of YAL on campus who asked if he supported them. “I mean, personally, I will not take the vaccine,” he told me, “but the mandate especially is bad.” He so believed in his individual right to bodily autonomy that he gave up a scholarship “because the vaccine mandates and the way the government and military was handling it was quite atrocious.”

To Slavin, the mandates were not about public health but about government overreach. “I will not stand for people in power coming in and forcing somebody that’s weaker than them in the sense that I rely upon them to pay for my schooling, and they’re going to exploit that in order for them to take this thing that I don’t believe in,” he said. “That’s what really made me take the jump fully into politics.”

Regardless of whether you agree with Slavin’s position or not, it’s much more reasoned and thoughtful than the left often gives the right credit for. But some attendees rang some familiar alarm bells.

“Democracy is a poor and overhyped system that results in two wolves and a sheep deciding what is for dinner,” Bruce Fenton told Bitcoin Magazine earlier this year. A cryptocurrency enthusiast and entrepreneur from New Hampshire, Fenton is running for the Republican nomination for US Senate. Fenton was in attendance at the conference, and I brought this quote up to him. “What democracy really is, is mob rule,” he said. “It means that 75 percent of the people can vote to steal all the money from the 25 percent. And that’s not a good system.”

Fenton went on to make a robust case for constitutional republicanism – the system of government the United States currently has – as opposed to pure, unadulterated democracy. “Having that Bill of Rights is the difference between tyranny and freedom,” he said. “Democracy isn’t the goal. The goal is to protect the individual.”

When phrased that way, it’s possible for a leftist like me to agree with him. After all, I made a similar argument in 2008 when Californians voted to ban same-sex marriage. Unfettered democracy trampled over individual rights in Proposition 8 – a fact agreed to both by the California Supreme Court when it legalized gay marriage earlier that year and by the Supreme Court of the United States in 2015 when it did the same in Obergefell v Hodges.

That’s the kind of thoughtful answer that gets lost in soundbites and social media. “Both the left and the right need to do better on” articulating a freedom-oriented worldview, Fenton says. “The right will say, ‘Hey, we’re all for freedom and small government,’ but then target minorities… Each party will make their own exceptions and do their own horrible things.”

Despite being right-leaning, those at the Revolution conference were not party-political. “I have no allegiance to any political party,” Anthony Pecoraro, a young activist told me. Pecoraro served as the Connecticut state chair of YAL in 2021. “The GOP can choose either to stay with the neocons or they can join the liberty side, it’s completely up to them,” he added.

Pecoraro says that the liberty movement represented at YAL — which he reckons has elected more than 250 candidates — is “the only faction of the GOP that actually has principles”.

Dave Smith, the comedian who headlined night one of the conference, pointed out that it was progressives (like me) who opposed the Bush-era wars and the Patriot Act. I myself found myself dismayed when liberals on Twitter demanded January 6th insurrection suspects be added to the no-fly list. I’m old enough to remember when the left opposed the no-fly list, and I still do. Indeed, my principles have not changed much since 2002. American politics, however, has.

There are, of course, plenty of areas of disagreement between myself and members of YAL. Where they see masks and vaccines as infringements on individual liberty, I see a refusal to adhere to basic public health measures as an infringement on the liberty of individuals such as the immunocompromised, elderly, very young, pregnant or otherwise vulnerable.

And there were moments ripe for eye-rolling. One speaker railed against “woke communism” in US politics, even though there is objectively nothing communist about American liberals. Nancy Pelosi has unabashedly claimed that we are a capitalist country, as has Joe Biden. These comments were jarring and sometimes deeply concerning, removed as they were from reality. They had more in common with the delusion on display down the road at CPAC.

Nevertheless, there was an easy reception to hearing alternative ideas among YAL members. That willingness to work with anyone to advance the cause of liberty was exciting, because there really are a great many areas where the libertarian right and the left can work together. After all, if – as I believe – the movement represented at CPAC is openly fascistic, then libertarians logically represent our greatest center-right ally against authoritarian government. Libertarianism at its very core is the antithesis to authoritarianism. Few if any of the folks I met at YAL want to make Donald Trump a Caesar. They just want to be left alone.

“People think of libertarians as these selfish people who want to make money and want everyone else to be miserable,” Pecoraro said. “That’s not true. My whole ideology is based off of peace and nonviolence… I want respect for private property, and I just generally want people to be good to each other.”

Barker echoed that sentiment, saying that Republicans need to “be more accepting of more people, or they need to go about [what they’re doing] in a different way.” If, as they claim, they are to be “supporters of the Constitution,” she says, they also need to be supporters of the separation of church and state: “How are you going to gain traction with the rest of the population that has a different religion, or is not religious whatsoever, if you’re constantly talking about [Christianity]?”

Salvin wanted people who might be skeptical or fearful of their movement to understand that they are not only operating in good faith but do not want to hurt anyone or take away anyone’s rights. “We don’t actually want to oppress you,” he said. “I know I’m a straight white male, but I’m actually not trying to oppress anybody. And I think that’s maybe a little bit of a misconception, that we are part of this authoritarian establishment. It’s like, no, I’m not. We’re really not part of that.”

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