On Part 2 of Ana’s trip to CPAC, she sought out the conservative version of the Pod Save America audience: young activists who want to make the country a better place, but who differ from progressives about how to get there. These are people who worry about the change they’d seen at the conference and in the Republican Party at large.
CPAC has a rich history of activism, running boot camps on two separate tracks: DIY activism and the essentials of communication. These sessions help budding activists learn how to do things like harness social media to build community and have difficult conversations that can change hearts and minds. Not too different from what progressives do, in fact.
In among the MAGA hats and Pepe pins, Ana found the same young idealists she remembered from past years at CPAC, who have thoughtful, deeply personal reasons for their conservatism. Madison, a student at Kutztown University, was drawn to the movement after her family struggled during the Great Recession.
Her father lost his construction company, and the family needed government help to get by. She “would never bash anybody who would go through one of those avenues,” but worries there’s an overreliance on them.
“I want to help as many people as we can, but not as the government, just as neighbors, fellow humans,” she said. “I think that there are ways we can help each other that don’t involve the government, necessarily.”
When asked about conservative policies that many argue create more problems than they solve, she said the nonprofit sector and church organizations should fill in gaps that appear, because “just from a moral standpoint, it’s our duty to look out for our fellow citizens.”
And yet, as Ana points out, those sentiments don’t match up with what the Republican Party has been doing. Be it explicit party support for Roy Moore or proposed cuts to Medicaid and Planned Parenthood that will inherently leave some people, primarily women, behind, compassionate conservatism is not alive and well. She found people at CPAC who both recognize and want to address that problem.
At a session on winning women voters, Ana encountered a young women from the University of Alabama who acknowledged that the party is not doing enough, particularly in the wake of #MeToo movement. While the student felt it important to support Republican policies proposed by the President, she and Ana found common ground over the unique problems posed by President Trump’s rhetoric about women.
“I would not disagree with you if you said… I will come out and say, it is sexist. It’s derogatory, it’s demeaning, it’s disrespectful, it’s offensive and I don’t support it and I don’t condone it. I am still a Never Trump Republican to this day. I will never vote for him for a lot of the comments he made against women. As a woman, I could never do or say that I support him. I think in the Republican Party there needs to be a serious conversation and serious action against that type of rhetoric,” she said.
The broader narrative around the Republican Party today doesn’t have room for many stories like that. Nor does it accommodate those of someone like Jennifer, who Ana found standing under a rainbow “Don’t Tread on Me” flag. Jennifer is a trans woman. Her wife accompanied her to CPAC to share why being conservative should make people more, rather than less, supportive of the LGBTQ+ community.
“To us, one of the most conservative things you can do is to be transgender,” Jennifer said. “Because you’re seizing your destiny, you’re seizing your identity, and telling the government, ‘you’re not gonna tell me who I am!’”
Jennifer has spent time lobbying for LGBTQ+ rights on Capitol Hill, and wants to make progress on that front by having conversations with conservatives who might never have talked to an LGBTQ+ person before. Jennifer identifies as a conservative and a Republican, but opposes bathroom bills and preventing transgender people from serving in the military.
“We shouldn’t be the party of discrimination. And some people, because of what they want to do at the state level, the local level, are making our party that way, and that’s what we have to try to fight back against,” she said.
These activists hope for a different Republican Party in the future, one that remembers, as Jennifer does, its roots as an abolitionist party, fighting for the equality of Americans of all stripes. Yet, after her time at CPAC, Ana couldn’t tell whether they represented the future, or the past of the conservative movement.
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