NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland—Every once in a while there comes a time in history when the fundamental assumptions change. The 1960s was such an era, and we are still living under its dispensations.
The activists who gathered at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) believe we are in such a revolutionary period and look optimistically toward our common life being guided by new understandings, or the restoration of some old ones.
According to Ben Shapiro, the editor-in-chief of The Daily Wire, the media, Hollywood, and the universities have missed big news: The era of political correctness is dying. The closing speaker on Feb. 22, the first day of CPAC’s three-day program, Shapiro said the failure of political correctness helps explain the surprising success of conservatism in 2016, including the election of President Donald Trump.
In Shapiro’s telling, political correctness (PC) began when the left offered feelings in place of truth.
The emphasis on subjective feelings encourages “the nice comforting illusion that if something is wrong with your life, it is someone else’s fault.”
“If you don’t have facts to back that up … we are supposed to believe you anyway, because if we do anything else that would be challenging your truth. And that is political correctness in a nutshell: My truth over the truth.
“But there is no ‘my truth.’ There is just the truth.”
Political correctness has been the wrecking ball used by the left to smash the former certitudes of our democracy: That our backgrounds matter less than our commitment to a common humanity. That human beings, by exercising their free will, can rise above their stations, and “that if we share a commitment to the value of truth then we might be able to come together to pursue it.”
PC began by demanding consideration for marginalized groups; others needed to be silenced so that those said to be without power could speak. A litany of America’s supposed sins became common: that it is a racist, sexist, bigoted, and homophobic country. America’s “victims” claimed moral authority.
The project of political correctness gained momentum, transforming American life, but, Shapiro said, sometime during the years of the Obama presidency, it went too far.
“By the time of the Obama presidency PC wasn’t just dominant, it had morphed into something almost unstoppable,” Shapiro said. “The new PC said you didn’t even need evidence of victimization to shut other people up. You just had to claim you were victimized, and it was our job to give you the benefit of the doubt.”
This new form of PC evolved new concepts that Shapiro described as each being more nonsensical than the one before: white privilege, microaggressions, trigger warnings, and safe spaces.
A corner was turned, with the American people finally becoming frustrated with the lies of the left, “And we said enough.”
“Millions of Americans thinking as individuals rather than as check marks on a piece of paper, [are] saying I can do what I want, I can say what I want, and if you don’t like that, you can go to hell.”
The left is based on lies, Shapiro said, and called on his audience to rely on truth and decency to ensure its defeat: “The facts are your shield, and decency is your sword.”
Embracing truth and decency is a reassertion of human nature: We yearn for truth and respond to decency, Shapiro said. It is also a restoration of America, which was founded on truth and decency.
The stakes could not be larger: “When we sacrifice the truth for subjective feelings, we contribute to the downfall of the greatest nation and civilization in the history of mankind.”
Whether Shapiro is right about the end of political correctness will depend on how the youth of America act. CPAC gave a glimpse at how conservative youth are thinking.
Charlie Kirk, the founder of the conservative, youth activist group Turning Point USA, said in a panel immediately preceding Shapiro’s remarks that when Shapiro appeared at one of Turning Point’s conferences, “I thought it was Elvis coming.”
One could see what Kirk meant. At CPAC, Shapiro got repeated standing ovations, evoking what was the most enthusiastic response from the audience of any speaker save Trump. Of course, that more than 50 percent of the audience was of college age—the demographic most responsive to Shapiro—certainly helped.
At first glance, Shapiro would not seem to be cut out for the role of rock star. He is of slight build, and his boyish and unlined face would allow this 33-year-old to pass for 23. His speaking style is urgent, as he often delivers an unmodulated, rapid fire volley of words. His face usually shows no emotion other than earnestness.
The passion Shapiro arouses suggests, though, that he is right: Something deep in our culture is changing.
For his young audience, Shapiro seems to catch lightning with his words. If he is right that PC is a regime of lies, then he offers liberation to those most likely to be trapped by those falsehoods; with that liberation comes elevation, as Shapiro points his listeners to the greatness of Western civilization and the satisfactions of a moral life.
Kirk also sees the cultural climate changing, “I have never been more optimistic about the future of this country.”
He rattles off signs of the enthusiasm he sees for the conservative message: Shapiro has a heavily downloaded podcast on iTunes. The videos of the conservative online Prager University have over a billion views a year. The conservative academic Jordan Peterson is a phenomenon: he is “unbelievable.”
Kirk might also have mentioned his own organization. Founded just five years ago, Turning Point USA’s website says it is in 1,000 college campuses and high schools and is “the largest and fastest growing youth organization in America.”
Countercultural and Cool
Conservatives are often assumed to be a little geeky. Getting to know the young people at CPAC a little bit, one sees the obvious: They are often sharp dressers. And they handle themselves with confidence. The word “geek” doesn’t come to mind.
Cabot Phillips, the 24-year-old media director for CampusReform.org, suggests in an interview that conservatism is now becoming cool on campus.
“Traditionally what is cool is being rebellious and countercultural, and it is undeniable that the countercultural, rebellious thing to do is to be conservative when you are young,” Phillips said.
And conservatism has a natural attractiveness for today’s young people, as they are being turned off by PC: “Young people hate nothing more than being told what to think, how to act, and what to believe.”
According to Phillips, Generation Z, the one following the millennials and just entering college now, is the first generation to have grown up with PC dominating everything, “and they are tired of it.” He believes their loathing of PC will make them more likely to turn out conservative.
Part of the shift that Phillips sees taking place involves conservative students beginning to stand up for themselves. Taking part at CPAC were several organizations that are stirring things up on college campuses.
CampusReform.org is a watchdog of higher education, reporting on instances of bias and abuse directed against conservative students.
The Young Americans for Freedom takes university administrations to court if they deny students’ free speech.
The Leadership Institute trains conservative activists and helps book conservative speakers on campus. The College Republican National Committee helps build the Republican Party.
Due to the more aggressive stance being taken by conservative students, Phillips said that the student body as a whole is now being exposed to conservative ideas. The left’s monopoly is being broken.
Some of the young people at CPAC displayed a certain spunky attitude.
Grant Strobl, the head of Young Americans for Freedom, recalled how, when the University of Michigan adopted a policy allowing an individual to adopt any of dozens of possible pronouns for referring to him or herself, Strobl filled in the required box with “his majesty.” By directing his professors to address him in this way, Strobl used parody to protest a ridiculous policy.
Marcus Fotenos was the student body president last year of the University of Colorado at Boulder. That campus, like most campuses, used “free speech zones” to restrict speech on campus. Fotenos got the student assembly to unanimously pass a resolution that read, “The First Amendment of the United States Constitution shall apply to every square inch of the University of Colorado at Boulder.”
The administration was, predictably, ticked off, but Fotenos got the statehouse to take up the issue. Free speech zones were banned throughout the state.
Breaking the Ice
On campus now, it is possible to see right through the political correctness that has dominated campuses.
Phillips recounts how the left pushed the idea that the conservatives who disagreed with them were Nazis, which had some effect. But that accusation has now expanded to include not just conservatives, but anyone who disagrees with the PC viewpoint.
“And so now,” Phillips said, “if everyone is a Nazi, no one is a Nazi.” Taking things to an extreme, the left has refuted itself.
Nonetheless, there is still a kind of indoctrination on campus. “The profs are pushing ideas, administrators are reinforcing them, and the student body as a whole is peer pressuring people to go along,” Phillips said.
He has visited around 100 campuses in the last two years, and he regularly encounters students who tell him, they agree with conservative ideas, but it is not worth speaking out. They face physical threats, their grades getting docked, and social ostracism.
In a conversation on stage with CPAC head Matt Schlapp, Sebastian Gorka, a former deputy assistant and strategist for President Trump, spoke of how Trump’s leadership is transformational, especially with regard to political correctness.
“We had a permafrost layer across the country called political correctness,” Gorka said. “Along comes this man from New York who, like an icebreaker ship, smashes the ice.”
“If there is no flotilla to follow the icebreaker, the ice closes behind it. The president has broken through this insanity. We have to be the fleet who comes behind and redefines what it means to be a conservative in the 21st century.”
Mattan Jakoby, a recent high school graduate from Chicago’s North Shore, said of Trump, “He told us how to have some spunk, how to fight back, how to punch, because the media has been attacking us for so long and silencing us for so long. And he figured that all we really needed was a voice.”
Kirk of Turning Point USA sees America’s youth as having an historic opportunity: “We still live in the semblance of a free society and because of that it has paved the way for what I believe is the greatest conservative revolution in American history, led by young people, a principled approach to defend Western civilization.”
Emel Akan contributed to this report.