The first Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, convened in Washington 41 years ago drawing a little more than 100 conservative activists from around the country who found themselves enthralled by a keynote address delivered by California’s Republican governor, Ronald Reagan.
Since then, CPAC has grown to the event that will kick off this Thursday. It is expected to draw as many as 10,000 or 11,000 conservatives from every corner of the country and from perhaps a dozen or so foreign countries.
Some of them will have attended every CPAC since that first one, but nearly half of them will be under 30, and more than 2,000 of them will be first-time attendees.
Those who come back year after year do so not just because during the three-day conference they get to hear and often meet leading conservative politicians, leaders and intellectuals, but because it is the one time each year that they get the opportunity to talk to each other, compare notes and find out what strategies are working nationally and in other parts of the country.
CPAC is a unique gathering. College and university conservatives attend because, for most of the year, many feel isolated, but for three days each year, they bask in the knowledge that they are not alone and that they are in fact part of a large and vibrant movement that could well decide the future of their country.
They return to school reinvigorated and prepared to do their part to advance conservative ideas and policies, to work in the trenches for conservative politicians and, in many cases, to contemplate running for office themselves.
They also come to realize that the movement of which they are a part is neither monolithic nor incapable of adapting to the ever-changing public-policy challenges that confront conservatives.
The conservative movement is not today and has never been the sort of ideological movement that one finds on the left, but a diverse coalition of free-marketers, individualists, believers in traditional and religious values and those who see a strong national defense and military establishment as the best guarantee that Americans will remain free in a dangerous world.
Those attending this year’s conference, like those who attended that first one, share a set of basic values. They believe in the importance of the individual and family in a free society choosing to live with a respect for the law and for each other.
They believe in free markets and in traditional norms enforced not through the offices of an all-powerful state, but by tradition and choice. They share a belief in the American Experiment and the need to maintain the vision of the Founders of a free people living in a federal system of limited government guaranteed by a constitution that has stood the test of time.
While sharing these values, they differ on specifics and on their focus. Some call themselves libertarians; others see themselves as religious conservatives. Some believe in an aggressive internationalism, while others are more than a little skeptical of what they see as adventurism.
Some are free-traders and others wonder if American workers don’t suffer from policies that sound good on paper but may not work so well in practice.
Their differences fascinate their opponents and the media. They disagree on immigration policy; on when, where and whether the nation should be willing to go to war, to what degree a conservative should be willing to trade liberty for security, on gay rights, abortion and whether an atheist or agnostic can be a “conservative.”
Some don’t even like to be described as conservatives. One of their heroes, Friedrich Hayek, once wrote at length about why he objected to the term itself.
Over four decades, all of these differences have been argued by CPAC attendees as conservatives have worked to apply their values and principles to new challenges in a constantly changing world.
In the ‘60s and early ‘70s, most conservatives would probably have described themselves as pro-choice. There were heated arguments at early CPACs as abortion was debated and as attitudes began to change.
Eventually, a consensus was reached, and while there are still pro-choice conservatives within the movement, it would be fair to say that today most conservatives are pro-life.
A few years ago, the very idea of debating drug policy upset many attendees, though conservative leaders such as William F. Buckley Jr. disagreed with the day’s consensus.
There is no consensus today, but conservatives at CPAC and within the movement no longer shy away from the debate. The same can be said for issues such as criminal justice reform and what conservatives should demand of those who seek their votes.
Outsiders see these arguments as evidence of potential weakness. Conservatives see them as a reflection of the strength of a movement that comes together on essential values and in opposition to those who threaten those values without themselves becoming either hidebound or intolerant.
They neither think nor march in lockstep. They may differ on strategy and tactics, but all of them share a vision of a society that Ronald Reagan liked to describe as a “shining city upon a hill,” and all of them are striving to make it a reality.
David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times and a past chairman of the American Conservative Union.
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