The Political Conference Where Justin Amash Is Bigger Than Bieber

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Justin Amash
J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich. walks through a basement tunnel to the House of Representatives on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, July 24, 2013.

As three hundred frenzied students settled into folding chairs Thursday night, the 20-year-old Constitutionalist sitting next to me made a confession. Just hours earlier, Brady Bower, of Henderson, Nevada, had taken a picture of himself in front of Michigan Rep. Justin Amash’s car, which had been parked outside the Young American’s for Liberty annual national convention. Now he was promising to post it to Amash’s Facebook page, but before he could, the lights went down, hundreds of iPhones went up, and four politicians, including Rep. Amash, entered through a side door.

A deafening roar filled GMU Law’s multipurpose room. “Jus-tin, Jus-tin, Jus-tin,” the audience chanted as it jumped to its feet.

This was a pep rally at George Mason University, but it wasn’t for the Patriots. Freedom-hungry college students from across the country have been camped out at the school’s Arlington law campus since Wednesday, socializing with fellow activists, discussing the future of the right wing and gawking at conservative keynote speakers with cultish enthusiasm. Their mission: to change reactionary politics as we know it.

Formed from the Students for Ron Paul presidential campaign in December 2008, Young Americans for Liberty is a non-profit that aims to marry Republican political strategy with libertarian values to pursue a small government agenda. “Conservatives can claim great political success, but have stood weak at the knees on principle. Conversely, Libertarians can profess their longstanding principles, but cannot point to any significant political victory,” says Executive Director Jeff Frazee in a statement on the group’s website. “Both movements have failed to limit the size and scope of government and protect our personal freedoms. Our country has only suffered for it.”

The self-professed “liberty movement” has ferociously taken root on college campuses across the country. Since 2009, the number of university chapters nationwide has grown from 96 to 378. YAL raised $350,000 in their first year and $1,423,992 in 2012. Their annual report not only displays increases in members and resources distributed, but also celebrates the Facebook “likes” and Twitter followers gleaned per annum.

“I guarantee you that 20% of the people in here are card carrying members of the Libertarian party,” said Bower. But he added that he believes in the Republican Party as a “better vehicle for liberty” than other right wing approaches. Cooperation, he thinks, is the key to progress in Washington.

“If we agree with a group of people even two percent, we should work together where we agree,” seconded Judd Weiss, 33, an Angeleno currently volunteering his time as a photographer at “liberty conferences” on the East Coast. Like most of those in attendance, Bower and Weiss were young white men with some higher education and a desire to see significant political change during their lifetimes.

As Thursday evening’s event got underway, Amash took his place in arm chairs on stage with Reps. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, Raúl Labrador of Idaho, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, and moderator Michelle Fields, a political reporter and commentator for Next Generation TV. “It’s no secret that the Republican Party has some problems,” began Fields. She and the others sitting on stage proceeded to commend YAL members for their principled beliefs and commitment to civil freedoms. Calling his audience the future of the Republican Party, Mulvany proposed that incorporating libertarian values into the conservative agenda is a magnet for young swing voters with “no natural party lines.”

When someone mentioned John McCain’s “wacko birds” comment about the new libertarian trouble-making members of the Senate, a loud “boo” rose from the audience. Fields followed the outburst with a question to Amash on what he thinks differentiates himself from the old guard GOP. “Everything,” the representative replied. When asked how to change stubborn Republican veterans, he said, “They are who they are. What’s changing is the party.”

Specific policy questions had each panelist showing his libertarian colors. When asked about immigration reform, Labrador—a former immigration lawyer—said that he approves of comprehensive legislation but doesn’t want to “throw money” at the border. Mulvany endorsed defense spending cuts. And Massie, when questioned on his bill to block unauthorized military aid to Syria, proposed that the US refrain from too many fiscal entanglements on an international scale. He also expressed his support for cutting off aid to Egypt. Throughout the evening, a number of the Kentucky representative’s comments were followed by loud choruses of “End the Fed! End the Fed!”

Government surveillance was also a recurring theme, which prompted strong responses from all presenters. Labrador blamed Congress for letting NSA surveillance sneak under its nose. “We’re responsible too because we haven’t done enough to fight the government.” Massie agreed, and Mulvany declared, “If you’re not doing something wrong, it’s nobody’s business what you’re doing!” However, despite the failure of Representative Amash’s recent amendment to the Defense Appropriations bill—which was supported by each of his fellow panelists—the group expressed optimism for the future of privacy discussions on the hill. Debates over Amash’s amendment divided both political parties, which he and YAL consider a step forward. Both Amash and Labrador called the amendment their proudest moment in Congress.

As the policy discussion deepened, applause grew dimmer and many audience members turned to their phones to discuss the upcoming happy hour at Arlington bar Carpool, a nearby auto-themed establishment that resembles a refurbished 50s gas station. The panelists slowly began to resemble giggling fraternity brothers as they devolved into Capitol Hill anecdotes about swapping ties and poking fun at tourists. Amash awarded Mulvany a “liberty pin,” the physical stamp of approval he gives to favorite colleagues. Mulvany thrilled the crowd with an insult directed at Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke: “It’s very hard to be arrogant to me when I know your first job was at Pedro’s South of the Border.” Moderator Fields called the discussion to a close just as the room started to lose focus.

The panel stood and turned to go, but before they could move a single adolescent shout issued from the crowd. “I love you, Justin!”