Two weeks ago, trend-spotting journalists descended on the Conservative Political Action Conference to cover the controversy over the inclusion of a homosexual group, GOProud, and speculate about what it all meant for the future of the American Right.
Last weekend, there was another important gathering here in D.C. that most of them missed: the 2011 Students for Liberty conference. Founded in 2008, SFL is a nationwide network of student groups dedicated to reducing state power and promoting freedom.
This year's conference brought over 500 college-age libertarian activists to George Washington University, and SFL had to turn away scores more for lack of space.
I attended both CPAC and the SFL conference, and what I saw suggests that the future of the limited government movement will be libertarian, not conservative.
The rap on this year's CPAC, according to social conservatives — many of whom stayed home for fear of catching gay cooties — is that Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, spoiled the party by crashing it with nearly 1,000 freedom-loving young people.
"They should have their own conference and let all the pot smokers and gay marriage supporters come and complain about how the U.S. shouldn't be fighting terrorists, while they slander public servants," conservative talk-radio host Kevin McCullough wailed in an unintentionally hilarious Fox News.com column, "Disrespectful Libertarians Hijack CPAC."
Yet there was plenty of Old Guard ideology on display, as evidenced by CPAC's decision to give former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld the "Defender of the Constitution" award.
Kids today tend to forget that back in 2003, Saddam Hussein had the U.S. Constitution completely surrounded before Rummy sent in 150,000 American troops to break the siege. That's probably why the brats booed when Dick Cheney took the stage to introduce Rumsfeld, and, why, ignoring the advice of their elders, they gave Paul his second CPAC straw-poll victory in a row.
Conservatives complained that the Paul camp subsidized student attendance at the conference — but since when has getting organized counted as cheating in politics? (Is there something stopping theocons from funding the Huckabee Youth?)
"I'm not a Ron Paul supporter, but he energized kids," CPAC organizer David Keene observed.
Energized kids turned out en masse for last weekend's SFL conference as well, where they heard from former New Mexico governor and likely presidential candidate Gary Johnson, among others, and got to participate in a taping of John Stossel's Fox Business show.
During that show, my colleague David Boaz noted that "This is the largest libertarian student conference I have ever seen in my 30-plus years of activism." (Full disclosure: my employer, the Cato Institute, sponsored a reception at the conference, and we allow SFL the use of a small office, where you can usually find three eager tykes crammed in among stacks of pizza boxes and subversive literature.)
I'm not as old as David Boaz, but I started my own campus libertarian group in the early '90s, before Al Gore's "information superhighway" had come online. Back then, we considered ourselves lucky when we could get a couple of dozen socially awkward malcontents together to grumble about the government.
Maybe that's why I found the crowd at GW so impressive. The students at the SFL conference were extraordinarily well-read, highly motivated — and shockingly normal.
Like most in their generation, they had little use for bloody foreign entanglements or the culture-war battles of the past. They're focused instead on the bloated entitlement state that threatens to consume their future. It's a challenge they greet with a spirit of optimism, determined not to let the crisis go to waste.
As SFL founder Alexander McCobin put it in his speech: "It's a great time to be young libertarian."