It’s been a few days since I returned to Ithaca from my now-annual trip to CPAC with the Cornell College Republicans and, while I can’t help but think I wasn’t at the same conference as Erick Erickson, it was a great opportunity to meet other young conservatives and take in the wisdom of some older ones.
But there was one group at CPAC that I was surprised to have learned so much from . . . the Occupy-ers.
There were two pretty distinct sects within the Occupy CPAC clan.
The first was Big Labor, which initially organized the rallies and was even going so far as paying protesters to show up. There wasn’t much to these guys. They’d show up, stand around for an hour, and watch the usually well produced sideshow the union had planned out (one particularly elaborate skit involved actors dressed as baseball players on a team called “Mitt and the Tax Dodgers”). But if the three hours I spent Friday afternoon eating crawfish alongside a few dozen members of the Sheet Metal Workers union at a bar a few blocks from the protest were any indication, the union wasn’t exactly getting its money’s worth.
The other sect, however, was much more interesting.
Instead of union t-shirts and seemingly choreographed protesting, these folks had cardboard signs and an angry message that seemed more misguided than disingenuous. One particular exchange with a group of protesters from the “darker” side of Occupy stands out to me.
As I was walking with a group of College Republicans from the pharmacy (and no, Mr. Erickson, we weren’t buying condoms, just soda) back to the hotel, we met a group of particularly hostile Occupy-ers led by a twenty something who himself appeared to be either an undergraduate or graduate student alongside some other high school and college aged kids.
Spotting his sign in protest of Scott Walker, who was to speak that night, one of the more forward Cornell Republicans in our group asked the “leader” why he was such a big fan of public sector unions. Nothing. After a few minutes of generally respectful dialogue with them in which we both undoubtedly had our awkward and defensive moments, it was pretty clear that, while none of these kids were going to turn around and vote Republican that minute, we made plenty of headway with them. Unlike the union members being paid to protest, these Occupy-ers didn’t really have any reason to hate Scott Walker . . . they just did.
But once they had the opportunity to hear from conservative young people that were their age and understood where they were coming from, you could tell that minds were starting to change. (The revelation that the District’s $8.25 minimum wage might be part of the reason they had a tough time finding a summer job certainty sent a few heads spinning.)
This brings me, however, to my only gripe with what was otherwise stellar CPAC programming (seriously, go watch Daniel Hannan’s speech right now, or when you’re done reading this).
One of the panels towards the end of the day on Saturday, entitled “The Tea Party Versus Occupy Wall Street,” had some pretty big names, including Tea Party Express founder Amy Kremer and Big Journalism editor Dana Loesch. Going into it, I was expecting a harsh rebuke of the policies pursued by the Occupy movement, but I certainty didn’t expect a group of Tea Partiers to go into the gutter in much the same way the left did when they went after the Tea Party.
First, let me say that I agree with the panelists on the crux of their point, that the media judged each of the movements using entirely different standards. While the entirety of the Tea Party was labeled as racist because of a one-in-a-thousand off color sign at a rally, Occupy-ers miraculously stayed out of the evening news when it came to anything unsavory related to their movement, including reports of violent crime within the Zuccotti Park encampment.
But instead of going after that double standard and recognizing that neither the Tea Party nor Occupy could be judged by the actions of those on their fringes, these panelists engaged in the kind of hyperbole and vitriol that would remind one of a CNN reporter covering a Tea Party rally back in 2009. They poked fun at the way the protesters looked or how intelligent they were, and tried to pin the worst actions of a few on the movement as a whole. Really, they did everything but address why the Occupy-ers were wrong on the substance.
Trust me, I’m not one to defend the Occupy movement and, outside of their critique of the bailouts (I don’t think anyone outside of the boardrooms of Wall Street and Detroit was too thrilled about those), I don’t see eye to eye with them on any policy issues. That said, I don’t see it as naive to think that politics isn’t about destroying your opponent, but rather about winning them over.
We’re never going to get the union bosses and their lemmings to see things our way – it’s in their self interest to maintain the unsustainable status quo.
But when, instead of simply articulating why conservatism works, we talk about Occupy in the same unnecessarily incendiary tone the left used to trash the Tea Party, we lose our chance to win over the cardboard sign crowd.
And if the young Occupy-ers I met at CPAC taught me anything, it’s that there’s plenty of winning over to be done.