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The death of the conservative label

CPAC organizer doesn't use the c-word any more

American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp, left, questions House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., during the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla.
American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp, left, questions House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., during the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

OPINION — It’s time to stop using the term conservative, because it’s not clear what it means anymore.

As activists gather for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (as they’ve done for nearly 50 years), one of the event’s organizers recently admitted that he doesn’t even use the term “conservative” anymore.

“The conservative movement, which I don’t use, I call it the American movement, ’cause that’s all it is, we are no longer conservatives, we are Americans who love our founding,” Matt Schlapp told Steve Bannon on the War Room show/podcast on Real America’s Voice. This wasn’t a gotcha interview. This was Schlapp on friendly terrain, trying to advertise CPAC to Bannon’s followers.

Don’t miss the significance of Schlapp’s comments. CNN host S.E. Cupp, who is what everyone used to agree was a conservative, summarized it best in a recent column: “The chairman of the American CONSERVATIVE Union, who runs the CONSERVATIVE Political Action Conference, whose website states boldly, ‘We define conservatism,’ and whose group calls itself the nation’s ‘oldest conservative grassroots organization,’ and who rates lawmakers on scales of liberal-to-conservative, and who tells supporters to sign up for ‘conservatism in your inbox,’ and ‘Join the conservative fight,’ says ‘we are no longer conservatives.’”

Schlapp said the quiet part out loud. 

Parties and movements can choose whatever litmus test they want to grade adherence. But let’s not pretend that the term conservative hasn’t evolved or at least become diluted.

There’s plenty of evidence that the intra-party battle within the GOP has little to do with adherence to an ideology or set of issues, but instead it’s about loyalty to former President Donald Trump, and opposition to anything that might make him look bad. According to Schlapp, it’s also apparently about dedication to the early stages of our country, when all people were equal in word and not deed.

It’s also about style. It’s not enough to be a traditional conservative: the movement now rewards (and sometimes requires) confrontation. Look no further than the primary challenge to GOP Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas

Criticizing Trump, voting to impeach Trump, and investigating the insurrection are the chief sins of a handful of GOP representatives such as Liz Cheney of Wyoming. Dick Cheney was a CPAC staple when he was vice president. And at CPAC in 2010, Liz introduced her father, who received an extended standing ovation. 

Now, Liz is not only persona non grata at CPAC but she and fellow GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois were formally censured by the Republican National Committee. 

“There’s barely anything left of conservatism inside the GOP, and it certainly isn’t animating its stars or its voters anymore, not as much as culture wars and owning the libs,” Cupp added.

There are still some traditional conservatives wondering where they belong and how to recapture the conservative label. There are Republicans and there are MAGA activists loyal to Trump. But those terms shouldn’t be used synonymously when analyzing GOP primaries.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.

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