The Right to Dissent on the Right

A couple years back, I did a stint as the executive director at the American Conservative Union (ACU), which hosts the wildly popular annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).  At the time, I made a suggestion that some of the CPAC panel discussions should include topics upon which conservatives of good conscience can and do disagree.  For example: the flag burning amendment.  A reasonable conservative case can be made both in favor of and in opposition to such a constitutional amendment.

But some Nervous Nellies on the staff back then were scared to death of such open discussions of conservative disagreements at a conservative conference.  I remember the rationale being something along the lines of “not airing our dirty laundry” in public and giving the Left and the mainstream media (but I repeat myself) an opportunity to point to dissension in the conservative ranks.

Pshaw.  As if (a) the Left and mainstream media need an excuse, and (b) as if you can hermetically seal conservative opinion and hide disagreements.  The very essence of conservatism is open and frank debate of public policy issues.  It’s a fine American tradition.

Well, it took a little while, but CPAC organizers overcame resistance from the Nervous Nellies and have since dramatically improved the interest and entertainment level of the panel discussions by including serious dissenting opinions on various conservative issues.  After all, how much fun is it when all four panelists are preaching to the choir from the same song sheet?  Challenging conservative minds, especially young conservative minds, is what broadens understanding and awareness, not stifling dissent.  So bravo to ACU and CPAC for moving in this direction of open debate.

However, the desire to sanitize the conference still lurks in the hearts of some on the Right.  In a column last week titled “The Conservative Sell-Out,”Cliff Kincaid of The AIM Report has a conniption over this year’s CPAC and the fact that conference organizers actually allowed conservative thought which dissents from conventional orthodoxy.  Referring to it as “bizarre,” Kincaid has a cow over the fact that the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) were allowed to co-sponsor the conference, participate in the discussions, and operate a booth in the Exhibit Hall.

The fact is, quite a few conservatives – TRUE, SMALL-GOVERNMENT CONSERVATIVES – have a problem with all the money being wasted by the federal government waging a drug “war” which it’s losing.  In addition, many TRUE, SMALL-GOVERNMENT CONSERVATIVES have a problem with the federal government telling the people of individual states that they can’t decide for themselves whether or not to allow cancer patients to light up a joint to relieve their pain and suffering.

There simply is no conservative consensus on this issue, no matter how much Mr. Kincaid wishes otherwise.  It’s a legitimate topic of a legitimate public policy matter in which good conservatives can legitimately disagree.  Bravo again to ACU and CPAC for not sweeping this issue under the rug and pretending disagreements on the Right over it don’t exist.

The other main issue which has Mr. Kincaid’s tights in a twist has to do with the proper balance between personal liberty and security.

Former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) is about as conservative as you’re going to get.  His ACU conservative rating in 2002 was…100%.  His lifetime ACU conservative rating was…98%.  ACU, by way of reminder, stands for the American CONSERVATIVE Union.  It is the oldest, largest CONSERVATIVE organization in the country today.  Both Barr’s and ACU’s conservative credentials are unimpeachable…unlike former President Bill Clinton who WAS impeached by then-Rep. Bob Barr the House Impeachment Managers.  But I digress.

Bob Barr, the ACU and a number of other bona fide conservative organizations – including Americans for Tax Reform, Citizens Against Government Waste, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Free Congress Foundation, the National Taxpayers Union and our own organization, Citizen Outreach – have joined a left-center-right group called the Liberty Coalition whose mission is primarily to protect personal privacy rights which are under assault in the name of national security and the war on terrorism.  On this particular issue, conservatives have found common ground with arguably the nation’s oldest and largest liberal organization, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), as well as a number of other left-leaning groups.

Mr. Kincaid’s protestations to the contrary, such a coalition is actually in the finest tradition of our nation’s founding.  Back in the “old days” before political parties took root in our system of government, delegates to Congress pretty much sat wherever they wanted.  When an issue came to the floor, those who wished to speak to it divided in the room; those against lined up on one side, those for on the other.    It was the issue which mattered, not political or philosophical loyalties.

Mr. Kincaid believes that failure to follow in lockstep HIS version of conservatism means the liberal groups “are taking conservatives for a ride.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Honest and open debate, including legitimate dissent based on solid constitutional principles, is a sign of maturity and health in the movement.  Mr. Kincaid is stuck in the past of straight-jacket thinking.  On the other hand, the ACU and CPAC are boldly going where philosophical sanitizers have never gone before.  Full speed ahead.