The Two Minds of Modern Conservatism
DEBATING THE ROLE OF VIRTUE IN SOCIETY
Every year near the end of February the majordomos of the conservative movement gather at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., for something called the “Conservative Political Action Conference,” or “see-pack” after its initials, CPAC. Through the 1970s this conference gathered mostly to lament the latest advances of the welfare state and the Soviets, and the featured speaker was usually a former movie actor and governor of California who inspired the discouraged troopers of the movement to dream on about someday having a conservative president who would lead us into the promised land.
In 1980 “the Movement” (as it is frankly called by some conservative leaders) finally triumphed at the polls. The far-right weekly Human Events ran the biggest banner headline in its then-35-year history: “AT LAST!” At last, the faithful rejoiced, we’ve got a president who will stop the welfare state, boost the defense budget, stick it to the Russians, deregulate business, cut taxes, fight abortion, stick up for free trade and family values. At Last! The wilderness years were over.
Needless to say, the 1981 CPAC was very different from its predecessors. It was not so much a conference as it was a benediction. The infantry was jubilant — and why not? CPAC would be front-page news in the Washington Post that year, and beyond.
But just then, the first big cracks were beginning to appear in the monolithic “Movement.” One incident in particular tells the story. The first morning of the conference I spied an animated knot of people in a corner of the lobby. Never one to miss out on excitement, I wandered over to find out what the commotion was about. It was an argument about abortion. A middle-aged gentleman was saying that he didn’t see what right the government had stepping into the lives of individuals, and besides, life doesn’t begin until birth anyway. His interlocutor brought up counter-arguments about the rights of the unborn, etc. The argument got increasingly heated, whereupon I left. I find arguments over abortion, though necessary, very painful; besides, I didn’t want to miss the first session of the morning, where Jeane Kirkpatrick would explain why the U.S. should ally herself with right-wing authoritarian regimes in Latin America.
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