The opening ceremony of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington last week seemed to confirm my worst fears about the American right. Mass recital of the Pledge of Allegiance was followed by a diva singing the Star Spangled Banner to a room full of people with intense faces saluting or with hands firmly on heart. The next few days I decided was going to be quite an interesting ride.
I was completely wrong. You will often find the American Conservative movement described as relentlessly angry and negative but nothing can be further from the truth. CPAC was an overwhelmingly happy place in a disconcertingly happy country.
Yes, the crowd in the main hall cheered when speakers called for strong defence, or condemned Obamacare but the loudest cheer of all was for a story told by, of all people Oliver North, of an American sailor who had risked his life to rescue one of Saddam’s soldiers. When Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana described how a local teaching union official had said that poor people “didn’t have a clue what was best for their children,” the result was gasps despair rather than fury.
This was also a place of intelligence and knowledge – speakers would often recommend books to the audience, or point out that they expected the audience already knew the facts they stated.
The political rhetoric was also almost naively positive – the end of every speech stressed ensuring America’s place as the greatest country in the world – Reagan’s city on a hill. Even Mike Huckabee of the religious right spoke with incredible warmth and humanity, although with a message which would have little traction over here.
Overall though fiscal conservatism not social conservatism dominated. Debt and the size of the Federal government were the big themes. What is undoubtedly true is that American fiscal conservatism is utterly uncompromising – small government is not just a preference, it is essential, if only because a large Federal government is forbidden by the hallowed Constitution. The rest of the world might muddle through on the matter of public spending. These people do not.
The movement has real faults too. There was a tendency to exaggeration – “four more years of Obama will permanently change America,” combined with opportunism as over religious “wedge” issues such as the birth control crisis. There was also a fondness for simplistic solutions and a tolerance of some odd ideas – an event on the gold standard really was fringe. I also saw and heard the hardline social conservatism that is a core part of the movement. Interestingly in one-to-one discussions this was often rejected – especially by Tea Party people.
There were also some large intellectual elephants in the room – talking of constitutional liberty, or even small government seems hollow after the Bush years. Whilst the much-hailed American dream maybe needs a revamp in the face of stagnating middle incomes and declining social mobility.
How did it compare to our party conference? The crowd was very young, but overwhelmingly white and also included the young fogeys who you can see at Conservative party conference – in this case marked out by bow-ties. It was however full of activists no lobbyists, with stalls from think-tanks and campaigning bodies, not corporates. Speeches in the main hall were actually interesting, not just a roll of tractor statistics. The fringe meanwhile was smaller, not commercial and focused on campaigning best practice.
Finally the conference was a testimony to the power of the American Conservative grassroots. This independently organised event drew 10-12,000 people and every Presidential candidate. It forms part of a movement with formidable power to mobilise people and money – its leading think-tanks have more staff than all those in London combined. This is a genuinely grassroots force – I met a leading tea party fundraiser who raised half a million dollars working alone with his son. He hadn’t even been active in politics before 2009. This is a movement who can do what we cannot but the British left can – bring hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets. Whatever this movement’s faults we should be learning from it not mocking it.