Hillary campaign staffer: You won't believe what CPAC taught me about conservatives

That’s probably literally true among Annafi Wahed’s friends and colleagues, but might also come as a surprise among some on the Right, too. The former staffer for Hillary Clinton’s campaign decided to take a flier on the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this year to get to see what conservatives are really like. Her friends warned her “not to get killed,” and wanted to have her check in regularly with them to make sure she was safe.

So what did Wahed find? Diversity — and a sense that she’d applied some prejudices of her own unfairly:

To be sure, I’m a tiny, talkative South Asian woman who spent four months on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign staff. I wasn’t exactly in my element surrounded by people in “Make America Great Again” hats chanting “Lock her up! Lock her up!“ But there was more to CPAC than that. In four days, I spoke with more than 100 conservatives, most of whom greeted me with open arms and thanked me for being there and having an open mind. They happily engaged me in meaningful political conversation and invited me for drinks and after-parties.

Where some saw a circus, I saw a big tent. I spoke with Jennifer C. Williams, chairman of the Trenton, N.J., Republican Committee and a transgender activist. Twenty feet away, I spoke with a religious leader who opposes same-sex marriage. While a panelist touted capital punishment, several attendees crowded the Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty booth. Hours after President Trump recast Oscar Brown Jr. ’s song “The Snake” as an ugly anti-immigrant parable, several influential Republicans were asking me, a naturalized citizen, how they can support my startup.

In retrospect, I’m embarrassed at how nervous I was when I arrived. I found myself singing along to “God Bless the USA” with a hilariously rowdy group of college Republicans, having nuanced discussions about gun control and education policy with people from all walks of life, nodding my head in agreement with parts of Ben Shapiro’s speech, and coming away with a greater determination to burst ideological media bubbles.

First off, allow me to offer my sincere appreciation for Wahed, both for her willingness to attend the conference and for her determination to write honestly about the experience. She could have easily just offered a snarky anthropological look at CPAC and conservatives; Lord knows there’s plenty of material for that, and other media outlets seem to find endless enthusiasm for such takes. Her friends and colleagues might have appreciated that kind of narrative.

Instead, Wahed wondered what would happen if conservatives showed up to a Democratic rally, and wondered why people don’t try to engage with those who disagree:

I’m new to this, but shouldn’t we want to engage with people who aren’t convinced of our viewpoints? Why aren’t there more conservatives at Democratic rallies and more liberals at CPAC? What are we afraid of?

Those are all good questions, but I’m not sure a Democratic rally would be the most apt comparison. There were certainly elements of a rally at times during CPAC, especially during the speeches by Donald Trump and Mike Pence, but overall it’s a conference that focuses on broad ranges of policy. I’m not sure that the mood would have been exactly the same at a Trump rally, although I think it would not be all that much different, either. Rallies tend to bring people together for a single-minded purpose, while conferences draw a much more politically and philosophically diverse crowd by design. Perhaps a better comparison would be Netroots Nation, but the question is still a very good one.

Another point to consider is where the perceived conflict actually is. While there was plenty of Hillary-bashing going on at CPAC, the divisions within the Right are usually played out more passionately than the divisions between Republicans and Democrats. The latter are a given; it’s the former that molds the direction of the conservative movement and (hopefully) influences the GOP. That’s usually the fight in the hallways. In fact, the most notable aspect of the last two CPACs was the relative lack of debate and dispute, which can likely get chalked up to the fact that Republicans control all of the elective levers of federal government. That incentivizes unity — and it may have incentivized dissenters on the Right to avoid CPAC too, although it was the largest edition yet.

Still, Wahed does report on a constant at CPAC events — the basic decency and friendliness of the attendees. They’re all happy to be there and to meet other people, and it draws a wide variety of people across the Right, and even outside of it. It’s one reason I want to keep going back, and why Wahed’s call for others to attend should be heeded … even and especially by dissenting conservatives.