The annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was held in Orlando, Florida on February 24th through February 27th, 2022. CPAC is one of the largest and most influential conventions for American conservatives. Many well-known conservative activists and politicians spoke, most notably Donald Trump was the keynote speaker. Historically, CPAC provided a wide range of conservative perspectives and panelists that debated about serious topics. Over time, the panelists have become less ideologically diverse and representative of the greater Republican Party. In addition, the convention began to resemble a rally for devoted and ultraconservative activists. The conference also attracts an abundance of media coverage (Olsen). Rather than emphasizing and discussing the news currently sweeping the world or advancing their policy agenda, this convention concentrated on cultural grievances, resentment, and victimization (Epstein and Herndon).
Considering the platform CPAC offers to the Republican Party, if not used appropriately this can pose serious threats to liberal democracy. The recent CPAC focused on cultural grievances, utilized scapegoats due to a perceived status threat, and leveraged extremist rhetoric to promote falsehoods. Therefore, I believe the 2022 Conservative Political Action Conference offered a dangerous platform to the conservative panelists which poses grave threats to liberal democracy.
Why would CPAC fixate on cultural grievances when they have the opportunity to facilitate effective political debates? The first reason is the party lacks consensus on political issues, such as foreign policy and taxes. Since the party lacks political substance and solutions, they must divert attention. This supports why a “grievance culture” occurs: a substantial number of individuals blame a less favorable group and claim victim status (Grom).
Another reason that supports this “grievance culture” is the GOP has identified that cultural values are what most resonates with their following. Therefore, CPAC panelists emphasized cultural values throughout the entire conference. Hochschild argues that cultural values are much more important and salient issues in the eyes of voters. Their cultural values primarily shape their political beliefs, even when it tends to be against their material self-interest (Arlie Russell Hochschild). It is also important to consider Norris and Inglehart’s argument, cultural backlash is triggered among less-secure individuals who are threatened by the erosion of traditional values. Thus, the populist vote is rooted in anxiety of widespread cultural changes (Norris and Inglehart). For example, Trump’s following perceives that an influx of foreigners will erode their cultural norms. At the core of grievance politics is victimization which ultimately discards the virtues of responsibility (Streeter).
What prompts the CPAC grievance culture is rooted in Diana Mutz’s theory about status threat. Members of the dominant group in society feel threatened by a possible shift in the social hierarchy (Mutz). Furthermore, Lipset argues status appeals are irrational and commonly attack minority, ethnic, or religious groups as scapegoats (Lipset). Hochschild identifies that many conservatives’ “deep story” happens to be rooted in the American Dream. Conservatives are waiting for the fruit of their hard work and dedication but only see “line cutters” unfairly passing them by (Arlie Russell Hochschild).
Panelists like Donald Trump have successfully tapped into his audience’s value system and appealed to their emotions. He reaffirms what they believe to be true, such as feeling like “strangers in their own land” and that President Biden is not protecting their interests. Furthermore, his use of scapegoats fulfills the lack of substance in his political agenda, helps him avoid accountability, and encourages resentment towards the “line cutters.”
Despite the world’s attention on Russia and Ukraine, a prevalent theme among panelists at CPAC was racial conspiracies about immigrant “invasions.” This is what Mercieca defines to be weaponized communication, which is a characteristic found in dangerous demagogues. This is the distortion of reality through falsehoods and conspiracy theories (Mercieca). Donald Trump states, “Millions of people are pouring in, descending into our communities, camping in our towns, depleting our resources, floating our laws, and are bringing crime, drugs, and death to the streets of our communities” (“At CPAC, Republican Party Embraces Dangerous Falsehoods and Conspiracy Theories”). This is also what Amy Gutmann would define as extremist rhetoric. Gutmann argues it has two defining characteristics, it tends towards single-mindedness, and it expresses certainty on topic without any reasoning. In addition, extremist rhetoric does not always pose a clear threat to democracy because it is exceptionally compelling. Trump appeals to his audience’s emotion through the framing of information and by successfully inciting fear (Gutmann).
Some may argue that a conference such as CPAC does not threaten democracy, due to our First Amendment rights, such as free speech and the right to assemble. That is true, we do live in a democracy where everyone has the right to voice their complaints and convene. Democrats also have political conferences where politicians and activists convene. CPAC may not look inherently dangerous to the average American. However, if we take a closer look, CPAC 2022 is a large conference with a platform that spreads falsehoods, conspiracy theories, and anti-democratic ideas which gravely threatens the health of liberal democracy.
Arlie Russell Hochschild. Strangers in Their Own Land. New Press, 2016.
“At CPAC, Republican Party Embraces Dangerous Falsehoods and Conspiracy Theories.” America’s Voice, 28 Feb. 2022, americasvoice.org/press_releases/at-cpac-republican-party-embraces-dangerous-falsehoods-and-conspiracy-theories/.
Epstein, Reid J., and Astead W. Herndon. “At CPAC, Ukraine and Policy Take a Back Seat to Cultural Grievances.” The New York Times, 26 Feb. 2022, www.nytimes.com/2022/02/26/us/politics/cpac-trump-republicans.html.
Grom, John. “Our Culture of Grievance |.” Civilitymatters.org, 27 Dec. 2015, civilitymatters.org/culture-grievance/.
Gutmann, Amy. “The Lure & Dangers of Extremist Rhetoric.” Daedalus, vol. 136, no. 4, Oct. 2007, pp. 70–78, https://doi.org/10.1162/daed.2007.136.4.70.
Lipset, Seymour Martin. “The Radical Right: A Problem for American Democracy.” The British Journal of Sociology, vol. 6, no. 2, June 1955, p. 176, https://doi.org/10.2307/587483.
Mercieca, Jennifer R. “Dangerous Demagogues and Weaponized Communication.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 49, no. 3, May 2019, pp. 264–79, https://doi.org/10.1080/02773945.2019.1610640.
Mutz, Diana. “Response to Morgan: On the Role of Status Threat and Material Interests in the 2016 Election.” Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World, vol. 4, Jan. 2018, p. 237802311880861, https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023118808619.
Norris, Pippa, and Ronald F. Inglehart. Cultural Backlash : Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism. Cambridge University Press. Copyright, 2019.
Olsen, Henry. “Opinion | This Year’s CPAC Lineup Speaks Volumes about the Conservative Movement.” Washington Post, 23 Feb. 2022, www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/02/23/cpac-2022-lineup-speakers-republicans-conservatism/.
Streeter, Ryan. “Grievance Politics Is a Dead-End Road | AEI.” American Enterprise Institute – AEI, 15 Jan. 2021, www.aei.org/articles/grievance-politics-is-a-dead-end-road/.