Conor Fogarty grew up with politics. It was just another discussion at the dinner table, as ordinary as “How was school?” and “Eat your vegetables.” It’s no surprise then, that he grew up to hold strong political beliefs and values. What may come as a surprise, however, is the party he chose.
Fogarty is a libertarian, a member of the third largest political party in the United States. While the U.S.’ two-party system benefits members of the Republican and Democratic parties, a variety of other parties exist on the political spectrum, and these groups have more members than might be expected.
Now standing at six feet tall, Fogarty is an approachable figure with blonde hair and a boyish smile. He is also the president of Students for Liberty, one of several libertarian groups on Ohio University’s Athens campus. As such, he interacts on a daily basis with numerous people who often don’t even know what libertarians are, much less what they believe. He navigates these different organizations and groups of people easily, explaining the libertarian principles of small government and free market with the patience of a college professor who’s repeated a lesson countless times.
“So the core values of the Libertarian Party are limiting the size and scope of government and non interventionism, as well as more efficient spending,” he says.
In fact, he’s in training for his future career. Fogarty is a junior studying history with a focus on East Asia. His experiences in both politics and history have given him conviction in exploring his own political values, as well as an appreciation for the importance of context, a belief he hopes to someday implement as a professor.
“What makes me so open to different views is the fact that I study history,” he says. “The whole point of history is to empathize with people in the past, and what you have to recognize immediately is that you can’t put your present notions on the past.”
For now, Fogarty's starting small. In addition to facilitating Students for Liberty, he also works with student and community groups on and off campus — often non-profits — to organize events and host speakers. Students for Liberty’s main focus is on creating a dialogue, and Fogarty sees collaboration as essential to this goal, regardless of ideology.
“It’s about starting a discourse and talking about issues people don’t always talk about,” he says. “The thing is, it is true we’re trying to build a movement, but at the same time, I don’t have an agenda. My agenda is just to talk to people.”
He speaks with authority and conviction now, but Fogarty readily admits he did not become a libertarian overnight. The 20-year-old grew up in Cleveland in a staunchly conservative household. His father was a self-identified Reagan Republican, while his mother believed in civility over political conviction. Fogarty says while that his family’s “conservative tendencies” were a powerful influence, he was raised to be tolerant above all else.
“I had it drilled into me that you ought to respect these people and treat everyone equally,” he says.
His parents’ lessons stuck. He may have developed strong political values since coming to Ohio University, but in many ways Fogarty remains the young boy at the dinner table who was taught to respect everyone’s opinion. At the same time, he says he’s “always been very honest about my political views,” and it shows. His responses are not only well-thought out but also intelligent, and keenly analytical while displaying an active awareness of using open-minded language.
Fogarty’s leadership style follows suit. He describes Student for Liberty’s hierarchy as “very horizontal,” explaining the three executive members work in tandem and all group meetings are discussion-based. Additionally, all the group members adopted libertarianism to varying degrees, from moderate libertarians to anarchists.
“Every person within the club has an opinion and has an idea and has an ability to shape the group’s direction for the better,” Fogarty says, joking that “in practice and in theory,” this is the group upholding the libertarian principle of limited government — that is, the smaller the federal government, the better.
Photo by Nate Kelly
The idea of a limited federal government that doesn’t interfere in business, personal lives or the private sector is a defining historical principle of the Libertarian Party. Although the official party was established in 1971, Fogarty identifies the beginnings of libertarianism in reactions to President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs.
Up to that point, the federal government had a fairly limited role in the everyday lives of citizens. The New Deal changed that with the introduction of social safety net programs like welfare and Social Security. Forty years later, the Libertarian Party formed, advocating “limiting the size and scope of government, non-interventionism and more efficient spending.”
“It’s not that libertarians want to take away the traditional functions of government,” Fogarty, clairfying one of his most common questions. “They want to give those functions back into the hands of private people, and the best way to do that is through the free market.”
However, this third-party viewpoint is difficult to implement in a country that is dominated by a two-party system. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 146,311,000 registered voters in the U.S. Only 250,000 are registered as libertarians, according to the party’s website. This is a complication Fogarty understands not only at the campus and local level but also on a personal level, as he himself did not become a libertarian until college when he stumbled upon Students For Liberty at his freshman year Involvement Fair.
“In terms of politics, in terms of economics, I was a little under informed, I must admit,” he says with a sheepish grin.
He can’t say that anymore. Sitting at a table in Alden Library, hands folded, Fogarty’s conversations flow seamlessly from economics to health care to political ideology, leaving no doubt he’s studied these subjects enough to understand their finer points. However, with that heightened understanding also comes the increased awareness for the gravity of the issues on which he’s speaking.
Here lies his reluctance to discuss the 2016 presidential race. Free from party obligation and ethically motivated to remain neutral — Students for Liberty does not endorse candidates — Fogarty recognizes that this is a unique opportunity for dialogue. College students are becoming increasingly vocal participants in the months leading up to the election, and Fogarty says he understands the forces that drive them.
“The thing I keep in mind is that you have to look at these people as individuals, and you have to look at the people approaching you as genuinely concerned for their future,” he says. “The one thing we could disagree on, though, is the method by which we would like to solve the problem.”
His primary concern is his belief that the majority of voters don’t fully understand the issues for which they are advocating. He will fix that, he says, by continuing to focus on local issues and campus dialogue.
“That’s kind of what I see my work doing: cultivating a group of people who advocate for classical liberal values and small government and non interventionism. At the same time, I see my role as both putting a better side to libertarianism and presenting a better side, and conversely, I also see that as really helping people to formulate their own conclusions while encouraging them to teach themselves.”
Fogarty has set high expectations for himself, expectations that will continue once he graduates. He says he’ll always support Students for Liberty and the ideas he’s come to hold dear, but at the end of the day, he’s just one person trying to make a difference.
“It’s a thing to which a lot of libertarians ascribe,” Fogarty says. “You can have a big, international movement, but the core is to see yourself as an individual adding to society and adding to dialogue and standing for something.”