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Stop the Circus: Close the Curtain on CPAC
Why we need the Principles First Summit
Few good things last forever, but even fewer manage to become the butt of a joke. Over its 47-year history, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) has morphed its first C from Conservative into Carnival.
Rewind to the start. On January 25, 1974, California's governor took to a wooden podium in a DC hotel ballroom to address the first CPAC. The timing was auspicious and his message was clear: the country needed to move beyond the scandal-plagued corruption of the Nixon administration in a more principled direction. In his remarks, Ronald Reagan would honor three naval aviators who had just returned from Vietnam as POWs (including the late Senator John McCain) and paint his famous portrait of America as a shining city on a hill and an important force for moral good in the world.
Those were heady days for the conservative movement and for CPAC. The conference assembled the intellectual lights of conservatism, free enterprise, and democracy. The panels and speeches were substantive and serious, and ultimately fused a new political cocktail of anti-communism, limited government, and individual liberty that would reshape American politics. The gathering was never perfect — and neither was the conservative movement it spawned, flirting as it did over the years with racial angst, xenophobia, and sexism. But the inaugural CPAC was focused, it galvanized an important new argument in American politics, and it set the stage for the GOP’s gear shift after Nixon’s corruption that ultimately powered Reagan's landslide victory in the 1980 presidential election.
Fast-forward to the present. CPAC is more circus than conservative - a spectacle meant to sell $300 tickets to platform the very shock-and-awe edginess that Americans have overwhelmingly rejected in back-to-back-to-back election cycles. What once set a budding movement's standard for principles and character is now a showcase of its worst ills.
When CPAC convenes this weekend, you'll sooner find a golden statue of Trump than a conservative principle. Instead of rejecting the Nixonian corruption of our day, CPAC will hand Steve Bannon a microphone and Kari Lake an award. And if any ideas happen to find their way into the agenda, they won't be conservative or even American. They'll be the mindless musings of a rudderless illiberalism - like how the Constitution should be terminated, how we need a “national divorce,” how only lost elections are rigged, how our own law enforcement is a 'deep state' bent on destroying us, or how America really shouldn't care what happens in Ukraine.
CPAC says "America First" - but if you listen carefully, it doesn't like much about America. You'll hear how our businesses are too liberal, our schools are too woke, our military and intelligence agencies are too corrupt, our courts can't be trusted, our elections are rigged, our Constitution isn't working - and, once they catch their breath, they'll tell you America isn't strong enough to survive even another year if you don't elect their guy so government can step in and fix everything. "Look to Hungary!" they say, where Viktor Orban's government shutters radio stations critical of the state and attacks minorities. It's no surprise the CPAC crowd keeps losing elections in America – a country founded on a healthy skepticism of government and a fundamental faith in individual freedom. Unhappy with how Americans exercise their freedom, CPAC now aims to limit it. That isn’t America First because it isn’t America at all.
And if virtue, character, and objective truth matter to you, CPAC isn’t your scene. It actively applauds a conspiratorial fringe of our politics completely unmoored from ethical constraints and moral commitments. And it starts at the top. CPAC's president, Matt Schlapp, faces a number of credible sexual assault and harassment allegations made by former staffers—allegations which will no doubt dog each of the party faithful who opt to join Schlapp’s stage. The CPAC speakers are themselves walking HR complaints—from Donald “They-just-let-you-grab-them” Trump to Candace “Kanye-had-a-point-about-Jews” Owens. These examples may be uncomfortable to confront—but when you elevate those who traffic in these ideas for entertainment, an entire movement’s moral compass is compromised and the conservative banner is stained. Our country cannot be healed by leaders who are not good.
America deserves something better than CPAC. Like 1974 needed Reagan's sunny anti-communism, 2023 needs a new spark. One that is rooted in the classically liberal values of the Founding; that places faith in principles instead of personalities; that believes in Americans enough to let them live their lives without the state dictating their cultural choices; that sees our businesses as engines of innovation and growth; that knows the value of helping freedom’s allies turn away totalitarian invaders; and that wants to win elections instead of reject them.
That’s what we’ve built at the Principles First Summit - which will be held during the same dates as CPAC at the Conrad Hotel in DC starting this Friday, March 3 to Sunday, March 5. We’ll focus on America’s institutions - why they matter, why they are fraying, and how they can be preserved and strengthened. We’ll convene governors and state election officials from around the country who defeated election deniers and spoke truth about the vote. Former generals and ambassadors will discuss our foreign policy institutions and Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine. Party leaders and former candidates will look at our parties as institutions - and ask whether innovation is possible. We’ll also tackle other of America’s institutions - Congress, the courts, the Constitution, the presidency, the cable news media and free press, and churches. The full agenda is available on our website.
Insanity is doing the same thing expecting a different result - and buying a ticket to CPAC expecting a dynamic and competitive political movement to emerge is insane. Like the tired grifters it platforms, CPAC should be displaced for the good of the country. Let’s stop the circus and put principles first.
Heath Mayo is the volunteer founder of the Principles First Summit, to be held this year in Washington, DC at the Conrad Hotel from Friday, March 3 to Sunday, March 5. See more information and register here.