I only went to one day of CPAC last week, both because I had to head north for my cousin’s wedding and because I found myself unexpectedly lacking in masochism. That meant I missed the backslide into lunacy that was Friday at the conference, though I was there on Thursday when the NRA’s Dana Loesch emerged to release her now-fully grown dragons on the audience. Partway through her vitriolic speech, Loesch made a comment about the media and the crowd erupted in boos, including one man who looked back at the press section, made eye contact with me, and gave the thumbs down. Deciding I couldn’t let this affront go unchallenged, I stared back, a tumbleweed rolled between us, and he quickly smiled and averted his gaze. Maybe he thought I looked like a nice guy. I certainly thought so of him.
That moment, seemingly trivial, has stuck with me ever since. The attendee, sporting a “Make America Great Again” hat, likely regarded “the media” as an abstract malefactor, having experienced journalists mostly through hostile news articles and preening cable news performance artists. Whereas to me he was a deplorable—I’ve interviewed many of them, but here in D.C. they’re still regarded with collective disdain. And don’t get me wrong: many journalists (especially in TV and radio) really are wretched people, just as I’m sure a narrow slice of Trump voters are bigots. But ultimately we are all more robust than our professions or voting patterns, and the effect of that stare-down was to humanize us both, to beckon out of the abstractions “media” and “Trump voters” two somatic faces, distinct yet relatable.
Such individualization runs counter to the purpose of CPAC, which is busy trying to rally thousands of activists into a united front against the equally faceless behemoths of liberalism and Islamism. Most of the attendees are happy to play along, wearing shirts with slogans that affirm capitalism and gun rights, furiously jeering anyone who dares meander off the ideological farm. It’s why, human moments with deplorables notwithstanding, the most interesting people at CPAC are always the ones who aren’t there for the convention, the hotel staff and attendees of concurrent conferences who suddenly find Conservative Lollapalooza blaring around them and are curious about it. Like the soft-spoken maintenance worker I joined for lunch a couple years ago who detested Hillary Clinton but was intrigued by both Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders, a political alignment unfathomable in Washington and nowhere else. Or the teachers I met at the bar this year who voted for Trump but are skeptical of distributing guns to their entire profession.
Thomas Friedman takes a lot of guff for his (admittedly precious) habit of interviewing anonymous cab drivers, but sometimes that’s the best way to escape the clamor of Politics Inc. The average man, because he doesn’t follow around the partisan circus, isn’t particularly committed to one party or orthodoxy, which allows for a broader range of discussion than you’ll ever see on MSNBC. There are plenty of exceptions, of course, as anyone with a Sean Hannity-addled family member will attest. But outside the constipated little theater that is cable news, the real world is painted in grays, and people tend to acknowledge and reflect that. There are entire industries desperate to make this complexity more uniform. Ideologues shepherd man into pens of left and right; Twitter reduces him to narrow windows sliding by; wonks compress him into Cartesian points. In reality he is a person, and the only way to understand him is to chat him up as such. That isn’t to espouse relativism—just because there are myriad viewpoints doesn’t mean there are also myriad truths—but it does mean our politics must be compatible with the variety and reality of human nature, which can only be absorbed firsthand.
Such an appreciation of the full-bloomed person was once a central experience of conservatism, which prized neighborly warmth over frigid theories of humanity. Social contact was the best inoculant against loopy politics: it’s a bit difficult to set about hammering together your Marxist paradise when the workers are forever defying your two-dimensional conceptions of them. Likewise has the right historically feared the mob, with its power to erase our glorious differences and attune us to a single wavelength of fury. Early movement conservatism reflected this, emphasizing that a monolithic activist government wasn’t compatible with a diverse (that word used to mean so much more) populace. One model was William F. Buckley who debated and even befriended his intellectual opponents; another was Ronald Reagan who leaned rightward after talking with people during cross-country listening tours. The history of the left, meanwhile, is thick with the disappointment of social engineers whose blueprints were rejected by those they’d only bothered to understand as groups, from the early rural organizers who failed to win over farmers to the Weathermen who wrongly assumed the working class would sign on to their beanbag-chair notions of revolution.
Unfortunately, today both sides have surrendered to this impersonality, as was demonstrated by Dana Loesch’s tear against a CPAC media section that was mostly sympathetic to her views. (Seriously how can she stay that angry? And over an issue where her side is winning? Crack open a beer, for God’s sake.) One obvious consequence of such thinking is political tribalism, but the problem has also swum upstream. Summed up it amounts to this: we have more freedom than anyone in the history of man, yet we’ve stopped using that freedom socially. Rather than exercising our sexual liberty to meet people and start families, we’ve succumbed to lonely pornography and the banality of “Netflix and chill.” Rather than another drink or cigarette to extend the evening with friends, we’ve sunk into the cold cushion of opioids. Rather than attending church and pondering the transcendent with others, we’ve sought meaning in endless impersonalizing technological distractions. Rather than participating in democratic forums, we’ve turned to the cheap facsimile of a public square that is the internet, where we can interact with everybody and really with nobody.
We’ve given in to a lethargy that keeps us apart from our fellow man and it’s making us miserable. A CBS News poll from 2016 found that an astonishing 72 percent of Americans feel lonely and one third experience the feeling on a weekly basis. Adam Smith defined “fellow-feeling,” a building block for his philosophy, as a sort of sympathy that comes from “imaginatively changing places with [a] sufferer, thereby coming to conceive what he feels or even to feel what he feels.” Yet that essential and moderating experience is far tougher when a screen is acting as middleman, and harder still when our object is an abstraction. We need a return to a more local and familiar politics where we interact with working-class voters rather than the Working-Class Voters and identify the needs of young people not Young People. We might even talk in person with members of the media, though surely every argument has its limits.
Matt Purple is managing editor of The American Conservative.