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CPAC and the Failing Politics of Vanity

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Last month the American Conservative Union held its 44th Annual Conservative Political Action Conference (pronounced C-PAC for short) in National Harbor, Maryland. Held at the austere Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center on the banks of the Potomac, this convention has grown both in size and in stature to become known as “the conservative equivalent to Woodstock.”

Steven Bannon and Reince Preibus speaking at this year’s CPAC. Although the interview was carried out amidst all smiles and laughs, the delicate tension that currently exists between their two worlds will certainly create a moment of existential identity crisis for the right, if it hasn’t already.

What began as a rather humble gathering of young and idealistic conservatives in 1973 has evolved into a modern bazaar of the many shades and faces of the modern conservative movement. From laissez faire capitalism and small government libertarianism to gun rights, religious fundamentalism, and much more, the convention holds forth to over ten thousand paying attendees from all over the country and world, following in the footsteps of such famed conservatives as William Buckley, Phyllis Schlafly, and Ronald Reagan.

Various concession tables at CPAC 2015. It only goes to show that partisanship knows no barriers when it comes to good T-shirts and cupcakes.

The conference received good coverage this year, as both Vice President Pence and President Trump were among the many high-profile speakers who attended. Along with this new star power, even newcomers such as White House Chief Strategist Steven Bannon, once banned from the meeting for his extremist and white nationalist views, himself received a lukewarm (if not robust) welcome to the proceedings. Considering this stark and rapid change in the makeup of the face of American conservatism today, some dyed-in-the-wool conservatives are wondering whether the broader movement they helped birth and lead half a century ago is still a place for them.

Let’s not forget that for some conservatives the past year has also been one of growing frustration and bewilderment as it has been for many progressives as well. The words some conservative friends of mine have used when speaking about 2016 are “stunned,” “confounded,” and “resentful.” All at the thought that a former pro-choice, pro–universal healthcare Democrat with “New York values” could so eclipse the traditional makeup of what it means to be an American conservative. These are the realities of today’s vastly more complex and hazardous political terrain, but that story is for another day.

What also struck me as unique about this recent enclave was its lack of a likewise opposing convention by any groups on the left. A typical presidential address is always rapidly followed by an opposition-party response to the president’s message and agenda, so why not a progressive response to CPAC? Funny enough, but evidence suggests that CPAC was originally created as a response to the many progressive political action groups that once existed in the 1960s, whose origins could be traced back to the New Deal and even the Progressive Era.

Such gatherings made tremendous efforts on a host of issues such as child labor and worker’s rights, women’s and minority voting, fair housing and educational standards to name just a few. All these causes had their formal genesis at one point or another, through a joint declaration or statement from a convened body of like-minded citizens, prepared for the tough road head in advocacy for their cause.

Such conferences (or congresses as they are called) were places of real discussion and insight, as well as networking. Where activists and organizers could compare notes, confer amongst each other, and form lasting partnerships, which could yield tremendous results. Famous political conferences in the U.S. have resulted in the formation of the Republican Party (Ripon, Wisconsin 1854), the birth of feminism with the ‘Declaration of Sentiments’ at Seneca Falls, New York (1848), as well as the very founding of our modern government (Albany, New York, 1754; Annapolis, Maryland, 1777; and of course Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1787).

A moment of tension at the famous 1977 National Women’s Convention held in Houston, Texas. Although the majority of the conference attendees supported the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), conservative women, led by Phyllis Schlafly, made their displeasure about the amendment heard. This split would lead to a larger rift in the feminist movement and would hamper calls for equality and equal treatment for women for decades to come.

Sadly, no such revered gathering of progressives exists today that carries the broad national attention and interest as CPAC does. This absence seems to suggest that the Left has lost some basic footing in creating and broadcasting a cohesive message that resonates with Americans today. In lacking this ideological alignment and organization, I fear we cede much of grassroots oxygen and attention to conservatives, who carry their ideology as if it were some fashion now in vogue. It need not be this way, and it can be different. But this isn’t what this article is about.

Even if such a progressive gathering akin to a “CPAC for the Left” did exist, with quadruple the number of attendees and such comparable luminaries such as former President Barack Obama, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Senator Elizabeth Warren along with all the headline activists you could name, something tells me the media coverage would still be a fraction of what CPAC receives, based on the way the media covered the Sanders campaign and how they have treated all major populist Left movements in the United States in the twenty-first century, from Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, to the Fight for $15, compared to the Tea Party movement. It does not look like anyone will be blaming the media for being too politically biased anytime soon. But, for that matter no one said the media played fair.

No, the real revelation that I have came away with from this year’s CPAC is the glamour and even vanity that the whole affair seems to exude. Much like a rock concert or a highly staged gun show, CPAC carries with it all the hallmarks of a great nostalgia concert tour, playing all the greatest hits to an audience (and media) of the converted, filled with concession stands selling its baubles and strains of whatever is considered “conservative” these days. Given the glitzy and almost stylish frontage that is now rolled out every year in from of the media and the viewers, I doubt it is a place where any concrete ideas, debates, or even discussions about what the movement, with all its newly acquired and tremendous power, will do. The red-carpet quality and coverage the gathering receives confirms this.

For me, although I’m frustrated that, as yet, no real response to such a gathering exists for the nascent progressive movement, I would never try to simply replicate a “CPAC of the Left,” even if the consequence was no conference at all. For although CPAC may draw newspaper headlines and attention, it is merely the façade for a failing ideology whose harsh and cruel nature and governing style will soon be painstakingly revealed. No hat, button, book, or performance can truly show someone how conservative or progressive one is; it can only be seen through action as much as it can be revealed in words.

Katy Perry performing for voters at a Hillary Clinton campaign rally in Pennsylvania. Despite the Clinton campaign’s star-studded rallies, overwhelming organization, and massive superiority to the Trump campaign in money (up to three to one), field staff, advertising, and endorsements, key swing states swung narrowly but decisively to Donald Trump.

Consider briefly the “glamour” and perhaps “vanity” that marked the Hillary Clinton campaign. I doubt activism involves listening to Beyoncé, Lena Dunham, or Katy Perry while on the campaign trail. The real act of political activism is listening to a family on the street regale you of their daily plight and helping them all better their lot in life, not just taking selfies. Wearing something political, posting to Facebook or Twitter, and attending rallies do not make you any more political than someone who regularly attends a playhouse or even a movie theater, for that matter. The same perhaps can also be said of CPAC, as this is what conventional wisdom considers political “activism” these days.

Several students presenting their findings at New York’s annual Left Forum hosted at John Jay College in Lower Manhattan in early June 2016. Similar low-key (though no less critical!) conferences might be happening in your area right now! Attend today!

I for one am not fooled by such vestiges of pomp and circumstance, though the Clinton campaign clearly was. Perhaps they thought they were part of the vanguard of a new politics for the Left. But there is a lesson we can learn from this, because like it or not, here we are. If you know of a conference of like-minded, politically oriented, civically minded people, join it. If there isn’t one, start one up. You’ll be surprised who you meet there, and maybe like the Founding Fathers, you too will start something special in your conversations and networks. It’s not like they expected to achieve very much—only change the course of history!

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