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Not what it was

In the last 20 years, you can track the trend line of Idaho conservatism – here meaning in the way it is most commonly intended – alongside that of its maybe most prominent non-party organization, the Idaho Freedom Foundation.

This is noteworthy now especially because the IFF is at an inflection point, with the departure of the only leader it has ever had – Wayne Hoffman – and the arrival of a new one, Ron Nate. That inflection point, though, seems to extend not to a different direction but to an acceleration of the same one.

But first a little history.

The origins of the IFF, as the group’s About web page indicates, go back to a small group of Canyon County enthusiasts in libertarian politics, of which the spark plug was a businessman named Ralph Smeed. I knew Smeed (as did Hoffman, who evidently was much influenced by him). He was a regular visitor to the Caldwell newsroom where I worked in the mid-70s and to many events I covered. He struck me as a likable guy (attack politics in today’s sense weren’t his thing, and his political criticisms tended toward the ideological), as single-minded on the subject of less government and taxes but vague when it came to specifics and implications. He was much enamored of the “Austrian” school of economics (notably Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises), which matched with his cultural and business views.

After a periodical (the Idaho Compass, of which future Senator Steve Symms was also a contributor) and a small think tank (the Center for the Study of Market Alternatives) failed to make large waves outside committed libertarian circles, he and several cohorts looked into founding an organization with more impact. With Hoffman, they in 2008 set the framework for the IFF.

That’s what it was originally about: Promotion of the libertarian idea. The group’s about page still says “The Idaho Freedom Foundation exists to advance the conservative principles — limited government, free markets and self-reliance …”

I suspect that Smeed, who died in 2012, would barely recognize it now.

One reason may have its roots in another sentence from the web site: “At that point [in 2008], every state in the country had a free market think tank except for Idaho.” When the Idaho group was founded, it joined the club, more or less, and over time became caught up in national political/cultural enthusiasms, whether “social justice,” critical race theory,  cryptocurrency advocacy, “porn literacy” and similar issues. It didn’t abandon libertarianism entirely, but it’s efforts turned into a local-outlet mirror of one side of the national culture wars.

The elevation of Ron Nate to leadership of the organization seems to confirm as much and may expand it.

Nate is a former state representative from Rexburg (Republican of course), though he narrowly lost his primary election in 2018, and after returning to the House in 2020, lost another in 2022. That may be an indicator.

He co-founded the Madison Liberty Institute, whose policy statements track closely with the state Republican Party leadership. After Governor Brad Little’s state of the state address, for example, the group released a statement largely critical of the governor (that sounded a whole lot like GOP Chair Dorothy Moon’s), and included a quote from Nate: “The Governor may mean well, but throughout his address he raises concerns with his tendency toward using executive orders to achieve his aims.”

He also has been the Madison County chair of anti-LGBT MassResistance, an extreme group deep into the culture wars and says of itself, “We engage in issues and events that most other conservative groups are afraid to touch.” (The group is national, active in many states.)

And this has gone pretty far down that road; von Hayek and von Mises no longer seem to be much of the picture. Somehow I doubt Smeed would have had truck with contracting a propagandist from the alt-right to help with messaging.

The IFF isn’t what it was, if it ever was.

 

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