The invitation of Milo Yiannopoulos to the Conservative Political Action Conference exposed a serious flaw in the conservative movement. While the invitation was eventually rescinded, the issue remains that there are conservatives, especially on college campuses, who believe hosting Yiannopoulos is a win for free speech and more importantly, a triumph over liberals. Nothing could be further from reality.
I attended CPAC last week, and as I roamed, it was evident that spirits were high among the thousands of conservatives who flocked to the annual event. Many speakers, most prominently President Donald Trump, spoke about Republicans’ wins across the nation in November. Another common theme I saw was a misplaced focus on berating liberals rather than discussing tenets of conservative policy. It is dangerous when a political movement bases itself as a reaction to the opposing ideology, but that is what occurs when provocateurs are given a higher pedestal than policy makers.
CPAC and college conservative clubs can invite whomever they please to speak, but they must do so with caution. Hosting Yiannopoulos, a man who mocks liberals but has never identified as conservative, delegitimizes the conservative movement. Republicans may have won elections across the country in November, but a serious political movement should not dwell on election success or the vilification of political opponents.
I was pleased, then, when I attended a discussion between Carly Fiorina and Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. The two gave an optimistic talk focusing on lifting everyone up, regardless of political identity, and the importance of reaching across the aisle when developing policy. A winning strategy is not one of continuing to gloat about the election while shutting out the other side from the decision-making process. Rather, a true plan for successful governance is inviting opponents to the table and hashing out an agenda of compromise. When both sides contribute and have a stake in the end product, that policy can be sustained in the years to come.
At one point Brooks asked the CPAC crowd if it loved someone whom they disagreed with politically. Nearly everyone raised their hand. Brooks’ point was that politics is the art of persuasion, and it starts with recognizing that those we disagree with are not evil. If the conservative movement truly wishes to have a lasting impact, persuading people to agree with policies will be much more important than giving a stage to provocative personalities.