By Any Media Necessary: Mapping Youth and Participatory Politics

Bypassing the Ballot Box

Drawing on data from a case study of Students for Liberty (SFL), this chapter examines how some groups of young people seek to forge new social movements based in participatory politics while simultaneously taking advantage of existing relationships with established institutions. Students involved with SFL are often self-identified libertarians, though the organization as a whole maintains the broader mission of “advancing liberty,” and members consider themselves part of a larger movement they call the Student Liberty Movement. Founded in 2008, SFL started with just a small group of students who organized a roundtable at Columbia University to discuss best practices for campus organizing. Today, SFL is “a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide a unified, student-driven forum of support for students and student organizations dedicated to liberty.”

While SFL has grown tremendously in the past 5 years, it has remained true to its grassroots beginnings by resisting top-down leadership models; the group still relies primarily on its student leaders to implement programs and organize conferences, and the small group of online participatory practices and modes of creative production like those seen in Chapters 2 and 3, as evidenced by everything from playful music videos paying tribute to Austrian economists to memes critiquing the political status quo. The chapter also explores the movement's non-voting stance and how it relates to the libertarians changing notions of citizenship and democracy. Because young libertarians view their opinions as being largely ignored by mainstream media and political parties, they must often rely on alternative learning networks and grassroots forms of communication and circulation. We also explore how SFL benefits from institutional ties and scaffolds member participation in established libertarian political spheres as represented by the Cato Institute, the Institute for Humane Studies, and other think tanks and policy organizations. At the same time, we describe the potential contradictions surrounding this relationship: young libertarians rely on financial and institutional support from such institutions yet are also increasingly struggling to gain distance from them.

SFL leaders are now talking about what they call “second wave libertarianism” (to borrow language explicitly from the Women’s Movement), which adopts a “big tent” approach to alliance and movement building; advocates of second wave libertarianism seek to build partnerships with liberal organizations just as often as with conservative groups in an effort to break down the traditional political alliance between libertarians and the Right. This strategy marks a departure from the first wave of libertarianism (the 1970s and 1980s) where leaders worked to build uniquely libertarian institutions and shore up political connections to conservatives. Today’s libertarians are as apt to participate in an Occupy Wall Street rally as they are to attend a Tea Party gathering.

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