The Battle for America's Youth

Obama thinks he owns the future. Ron Paul begs to differ.

By: Daniel McCarthy

Barack Obama won something bigger than the presidential election last November. By laying claim to the hopes as well as the votes of millions of young Americans, he also won the future. Just as Ronald Reagan’s 20-point victory in the 1984 youth vote presaged the Republican takeover of Congress a decade later, Obama’s success among young voters foretells a Democratic wave to come. If Republicans are to have any hope of turning back that tide, they must heed the man who excited more students and young people than any other candidate for the GOP nomination—Ron Paul.

Republicans have yet to comprehend the magnitude of their loss. In the 2006 midterm elections, young people voted against the GOP by a margin of more than 20 points, 60 to 38 percent. Two years later, they preferred Obama over John McCain by almost 40 points, 68 to 30 percent. The youth vote was big enough and Democratic enough to tip North Carolina into Obama’s column—young voters made up 18 percent of the Tar Heel State electorate, and Obama won them by a stunning 74 to 26 percent. These lopsided figures are not just the product of two bad election cycles for Republicans. A Pew Research Center survey conducted between October 2007 and March 2008 found that voters under 30 now identify with or lean toward the Democrats by 58 percent to 33 percent. The Grand Old Party is looking older and less grand by the minute.

Don’t say that voters under 30 don’t know what the Republican Party is all about. More than a third of their lives has been spent under Republican rule—eight years of Bush, 12 years of Republican control in the House of Representatives, four years of one-party government. Young voters have seen clearly what Republican power means: two wars, a toppling economy, corrosion of constitutional liberties, and bigger government beneath layers of cant and hypocrisy. They made a sensible choice in rejecting the party of Gingrich and Bush.

But students and young voters did not turn away from every Republican. One in particular got campuses roaring with chants of “End the Fed!” Texas Congressman Ron Paul fell short of his party’s presidential nomination. But like Obama, he won a dedicated following among America’s youth. He did this while rejecting the politics of class and cultural resentment that had served the GOP so well since the days of Richard Nixon. Instead, Paul challenged the bipartisan consensus that has kept two subjects above all others off the table for public discussion—military interventionism and monetary policy. He predicted the economic collapse well before it happened. He confronted New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani with the discomfiting context behind the 9/11 attacks: that U.S. interference in the Middle East has won us nothing but enmity. Paul’s courage in these and other stances—from his defense of civil liberties to his call for strict adherence to the Constitution—galvanized young people. Some 500 Students for Ron Paul chapters, totaling over 26,000 members, sprang up during the 2007-2008 primary season. This youth appeal also translated into overwhelming popularity in online forums and polls. The Ron Paul generation not only has numbers on its side, but technological savvy, too.

So the battle is on. President Obama has in his column the bully pulpit of his office, the sympathy of the mainstream media, and entrenched power on campuses—in faculty lounges, administrative offices, and a plethora of statist student groups from the College Democrats to the affiliates of Campus Progress. Athwart Obama stands Ron Paul with only his convictions and Young Americans for Liberty—the next step in the evolution of Students for Ron Paul—behind him. This is an uphill struggle for Paul and YAL. But the odds are not as long as they seem because the force of new ideas lies with liberty, not with the president.

Obama won in 2008 by breaking with the image of the old Democratic Party—the stereotypes of angry minorities, militant feminists, union thugs, and sexual exhibitionists. “Hope” and “Change” may have been his mantras, but he presented himself as a centrist eager only to return the country to peace and economic normality. Unfortunately, as his rhetoric during the campaign suggested, and as his policies so far demonstrate, Obama’s plan for America is really more of same: continuing the Iraq War through 2012, sending a new surge of troops into Afghanistan, bailing out the big banks, and serving up more federal pork. These policies, or their close cousins, were disastrous under Bush. What makes anyone think they will work better under Obama?

Yet as tired as Obama’s corporate liberalism and Keynesian economics may be, he crushed McCain because the Republicans’ ideas are even less credible. In foreign policy, the GOP has repackaged surplus Cold War paranoia as a perpetual War on Terror. (And, for the really nostalgic types, neoconservative pundits still rattle their sabers at Russia as if 1989 never happened.) In economics, the deep and complex ideas of Hayek and Mises have been jettisoned for the back-of-the-napkin bromides of supply-side. (The trouble is, while the supply-siders are right that cutting taxes can grow the economy, they are wrong to believe that deficits don’t matter.) In culture, meanwhile, movement conservatives still insist that abortion and promiscuity will go away if only Christians vote for more Republicans. But the result is always more war abroad; more wiretapping but never more morality at home.

Obama at least had a fresh style. But young people who want new thinking will not find it in an administration packed with veterans of the Clinton and Bush eras. The liberty movement, by contrast, looks like nothing else that American politics has seen. It’s wildly eclectic, with old philosophical roots but green buds and branches.

The older constituents of this coalition are well known: libertarians, especially those schooled in Austrian economics; Goldwaterite conservatives, including Barry Goldwater Jr. himself; constitutionalists ranging from rugged Jeffersonians to moderates who only want fiscal sanity and a modicum of respect for civil liberties. But the Paul movement and Young Americans for Liberty also draw strength from new currents. Consider the emerging band of “left conservatives” (including blogger Dylan Hales, who contributes to this issue). They combine anti-corporatist sensibilities with a respect for established folkways, whether in city neighborhoods or rural communities. They’re reclaiming the humane side of the New Left for conservatism—the traditions represented by Norman Mailer, Karl Hess, Paul Goodman, and Carl Oglesby. Crucially, they avoid the fatal mistake of their right-wing counterparts— that of opposing a straw-man caricature of “the Left” instead of the brutal realities of the State.

Left conservatives are relatively few. More plentiful are the locavores, whose growing popularity can be traced in part (but only in part) to Michael Pollan’s bestsellers The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. These are the “crunchy cons” and localist libertarians whose interests range from non-factory farming and raw milk to peace and political decentralization. Polyface Farms proprietor Joel Salatin—supporter of Ron Paul, author of Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal, and in his own words a “Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer”—is the archetype of this movement. Berkeley doctoral student and blogger John Schwenkler is one of its brightest young thinkers.

Still taking shape is a new hard-money uprising. The revolt against central banking that Paul touched off, which even led to students burning Federal Reserve notes at his campus lectures, is gaining momentum. Paul himself is its leading figure, of course, and Thomas E. Woods Jr.—not yet 40 and already the author of nine books—is fast becoming the voice of the younger generation’s rejection of fiat currency and inflation.

Other new ways of thinking may continue to hive off the liberty movement. In the past decade, the debate over religion in public life has again heated up, pitting fundamentalist Christians against militant atheists, with occasional input from feel-good, Zeitgeist-chasing evangelicals like Joel Osteen and Rick Warren. Absent from the discussion so far has been any representative of the traditional American synthesis of soft-spoken but sincere religious faith that avoids the temptations of political power. Congressman Paul, a believer who never uses his faith for partisan advantage, has something to teach the combatants on both sides. His example, together with a resurgence of interest in Just War theory, may portend a return to religious peace instead of culture war.

These fresh philosophies are pulling in young people. This is real change—even revolution. But will a dying Republican Party embrace it?

Not willingly. The GOP is historically even more hostile to liberty than the Democratic Party is. But for a brief time between the 1930s and the 1960s, a few Republicans of firm principle fought with every ounce of their beings against the push to transform our battered republic into a presidential empire. Their names—Robert A. Taft, Howard Homan Buffett, H.R. Gross—are largely forgotten. Yet these men imparted to the Republican Party its subsequently undeserved reputation for fiscal responsibility and devotion to liberty. They inspired the conservative movement that later distorted and betrayed their legacy—though occasionally, in a figure such as Barry Goldwater, one could see a glimmer of the Old Right spirit through the cloud of Cold War ideology. Ronald Reagan spoke their language but rarely practiced what they preached.

At the height of the Cold War, when any kind of resistance to the New Deal/New Frontier/Great Society welfare state was revolutionary, young activists were the conscience of conservatism. Students fortified the backbone of the effort to draft Goldwater for the Republican nomination in 1960. When that failed, the students for Goldwater formed a new group, Young Americans for Freedom, that September at the Sharon, Connecticut home of William F. Buckley Jr. YAF later formed the nucleus of support for Reagan’s first presidential bid in 1968. Although the 1960s are typically thought of as a decade of left-wing campus agitation, YAF was longer-lived and arguably more influential than Students for a Democratic Society.

But in 1969, with the Vietnam War raging, YAF came unglued. Libertarians and anti-Communists split over draft resistance and drug policy. Shorn of its most uncompromising antistatists, YAF drifted into the orbit of the Nixon administration. This was the beginning of its end, since YAF could not compete as a GOP auxiliary with the College Republicans and Young Republicans. Libertarians, meanwhile, looked back to 1969 as their declaration of independence. But attempts to institutionalize a separate libertarian movement enjoyed only limited success. The libertarians built a number of think tanks, but the Libertarian Party never became a serious force in politics. And without any strong antistatist influence, the GOP was soon ripe for the takeover by former Lyndon Johnson/Hubert Humphrey/Scoop Jackson liberals—later known as neoconservatives. Libertarians had done the right thing by severing their ties to the militaristic, anti-civil liberties Right, but the price they paid was political irrelevance.

Now times have changed. Ron Paul has shown that a pure constitutionalist can get elected—with great difficulty—in the modern Republican Party. His success in cultivating a young and diverse base during the 2008 primary season proved that there is a rising constituency for peace, sound money, and constitutionally restrained government. Young Americans for Liberty today represents the path not taken by the conservative movement in 1960—the hard but rewarding road of antistatist principle.

Therein lies the secret of Ron Paul’s success. Principle is what young Americans want—coherent ideas, not ranting ideologues. Frank Chodorov, the radical libertarian who founded the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (ISI) in 1953, said it well: individualism, then as now, “is quite new and quite different these days. And it is, in the true sense of the word, revolutionary. If it is presented that way, as an ideal worth fighting for, it will capture the imagination of youth.”

Ron Paul vindicated Chorodov’s hope. Obama and the statist Left have their top-down organizations like Campus Progress. The graying Republican establishment has the College Republicans. But only Young Americans for Liberty is a grassroots youth movement with a serious political philosophy—to the right of the Right and to the left of the Left.

Daniel McCarthy [mccarthydp@gmail.com] is editorial director of the
Young American Revolution and senior editor of The American Conservative.