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CPAC, Abortion, and a Note on What We Do Here

March 3, 2019
CPAC, Abortion, and a Note on What We Do Here
Attendees pass by a sign during CPAC 2019 February 28, 2019 in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

When I tweeted out Molly Jong-Fast’s first dispatch for us from CPAC, I said that she was going to break Twitter. And I was right.

People are very angry at MJF and me and The Bulwark right now. Some of these people aren’t thinking very carefully. Some are bad actors. Some are friends who think we have made a serious mistake. Let’s take those groups in order.

The knee-jerk complaint is: “How dare The Bulwark publish criticism of the pro-life movement! What kind of baby-killing monsters are you?”

The Bulwark did not publish any criticism of the pro-life movement. The Bulwark is unlikely to publish any criticism of the pro-life movement. So you understand my own bias, I’ve written about abortion quite a lot in the past. Here’s how I explained my views on the subject in my book about demographics, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting:

That four-car pile up—younger sexual initiation, more cohabitation, later marriage, and decreased total fertility—are all just the unintended consequences stemming (in part) from Margaret Sanger’s Pill. The intended consequence was to remove the entire idea of consequences from sex. This separation of the act from the messy result nine months later became a cultural imperative in the West with the advent of the Pill. And prophylactic birth control was just the start. The next step was controlling pregnancy after the fact, via abortion.           

Before you start flipping ahead, let me make a promise. I’m one of those anti-abortion nut jobs who thinks that every embryo is sacred life and abortion is killing an innocent and blah-blah-blah. But when it comes to abortion, most Americans aren’t crazies like me—they think abortion should be, in essence, legal, but somewhat restricted, and rare. So without my pushing judgments of any kind, let me just give you the brief demographic tour as to how abortion has affected American fertility.    . . .   

I have paid some small price for my pro-life views over the years. For instance, when the New Yorker reviewed What to Expect, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote that

Last has aimed his book at the same sort of readers who subscribe to The Weekly Standard. He describes himself as an “anti-abortion nut job” . . .

Which intentionally misled readers as to what I was trying to do with my disclaimer. But whatever. This isn’t about me. I’m only putting my cards on the table.

A few weeks ago I asked Molly Jong-Fast to report from CPAC for The Bulwark. I did this because MJF is a writer with a great eye for absurdity and because CPAC is absurd. And it has been absurd for at least 20 years.

For as long as I’ve been in Washington, CPAC was the Creature Cantina of conservatism. It was a joke during the Gingrich Revolution. It was a joke when Mitt Romney went there insisting that he was “severely conservative.” It’s a joke now that the torch has been passed to Charlie Kirk and Seb Gorka and Laura Loomer.

In short, MJF was there to cover the event with all of the seriousness it deserves.

Funnily enough, I sent someone else there to cover it, too; someone who is deeply pro-life and a pretty hard-core social conservative. He never filed a piece because, as he explained to me, “The trouble with CPAC is that I was going in to counter-program a little by trying to do some silver lining stuff. But no: It’s trash pretty much top to bottom and the misanthropic take is the honest one.”

Now, MJF did publish a lot of anti-pro-life stuff on her Twitter feed because she, personally, is pro-choice. According to people who are angry on the internet this is a scandal for one of two reasons. Either (1) The Bulwark is responsible for the Twitter feeds and personal views of everyone we publish; or (2) The Bulwark should not publish the writings of people who are not 100 percent aligned with our political worldview.

Let’s take the first part first: I am not going to police the Twitter feeds of people who write for The Bulwark looking for deviationist thoughts. I do not control—nor do I want to control—the outside writings and thoughts of people who are published on this site. That way lies madness. Are there places I would draw a line? Yes. If someone who writes for us were to tweet about how the Holocaust is a big hoax perpetrated by the THE JOOS, I would not publish them. Notwithstanding my personal convictions, I do not draw that line at a political position on abortion law that is held by half of America.

Some people suggest that there is a special duty of The Bulwark to own MJF’s tweets while she was at CPAC. I have a hard time parsing that position, to be honest. Would it be the case that we are responsible for her Twitter feed last week, but not next week? Or while she was physically at CPAC, but not when she left the building? These distinctions seem to be non-obvious at best and arbitrary at worst.

Or maybe people wouldn’t have gotten so upset if MJF’s Twitter bio had said: “Tweets reflect my views only.” But somehow, I don’t really think that’s the case. Do you?

As for the second part, that The Bulwark should only publish the views of people who agree with our institutional positions, 100 percent: This assumes a view of public life that is pathetically crippled.

Look, I don’t know you. This is the internet. You could be a dog or a Martian or Bryce Harper. But I know this: The only way you’re going to find someone with the exact same matrix of political preferences as you is by looking in the mirror.

The question then is: Can you extract value by reading the work of people who don’t agree with you? If the answer is no, then this isn’t the place for you.

For most people in public life, though, the answer has historically been yes. Do you remember where Charles Krauthammer got his start? At the New Republic. Did you ever get any value from reading Christopher Hitchens? I did. But boy, howdy, he was a piece of work. Hitchens wasn’t just pro-abortion, he was virulently anti-God. He was an actual, literal blasphemer. And yet, most thoughtful conservatives I know valued large swaths of his writing and still consider him a legend.

And it seems to me that the organizers of CPAC are pretty heterodox themselves. The final speaker on the CPAC agenda—the last person scheduled to be on stage before Matt Schlapp’s closing remarks—was Jeanine Pirro. Who is pro-choice.

Look: There are limits to heterodoxy. I remember Ben Domenech dealing with criticisms a few years back when he published a particularly stupid piece over at the Federalist. There was a backlash to it. Allow me to reproduce how Domenech and some of his Federalist colleagues reacted to this backlash:

On Twitter, “The Federalist” became a top-three trending topic. But the site’s editors refused to back down, arguing that the article was a contributed opinion article, not a statement by the editorial staff.

Several also claimed that the publication’s critics were merely upset at a differing political opinion, as if defending the sexual abuse of children were just another issue of the day on which reasonable people could disagree.

“If you are filled with rage at the mere thought of reading a political perspective you don’t agree with, perhaps you shouldn’t be in the business of political punditry,” the site’s co-founder Sean Davis wrote on Twitter. . . .

And here’s what Domenech wrote in “A Note on What We Do Here”:

I understand full well why people do not like this piece. Every day we publish articles at The Federalist with which I disagree. It’s an impossibility for a publication that offers the variety of content and perspectives we do to always line up with our editors’ views. But we publish the things we think make valuable contributions to the public debate, and represent the views of voters. . . .

If you don’t want to know the answers to any of these questions, that’s fine. If you want to plug your ears and go LA LA LA that’s fine. But I will not apologize ever, for any reason, for trying to understand the motivations of people who vote in this country. I will not apologize ever, for any reason, for publishing the views of people who don’t make a living in politics about why they plan to vote a certain way. . . .

The goal of any worthwhile and effective journal of opinion analysis in navigating what is an increasingly tribal and divisive period in American history should be to promote real debate. That does not mean retreating to our corners and pretending that if we ignore the perspectives we don’t like, they will magically go away. It means dealing with the world as it is, and the spectrum of opinion as it exists—not pretending that things are what they are not.

Actually, I basically share Domenech’s views here, within reason. Now, we won’t publish pieces that conflict with bedrock aspects of our worldview. So, for instance, we would not publish a piece arguing against the pro-life position because, institutionally, we take that as non-negotiable.

But we’re also not going to demand that anyone who writes for us holds this or that belief.

Speaking of Ben Domenech, this brings us to the section about Bad Actors. Domenech has called The Bulwark a “garbage organization.”

I like Domenech. He’s a talented writer and an interesting thinker. We’ve always gotten along well. That said, he’s been convicted of two of the three biggest crimes in journalism: plagiarism and payola. The website he runs has published everything from an affirmative defense of Roy Moore’s affinity for teenage girls—that’s what his response above was about—to a snuff fantasy that included the following passage:

Close your eyes and imagine holding someone’s scalp in your hands. I don’t mean cradling his skull as you thousand-yard-stare at his lifeless face. I mean a real scalp, Indian-style, of some enemy you just killed on the battlefield; somebody you hated and who hated you back.

You killed him, won the day, carved off the top of his skull, and now you’re standing over him victorious on the now-quiet field of battle, with a quiet breeze blowing through your hair. Your adrenaline is still pumping with that primal feeling of victory and the elation of having survived when others didn’t. . . .

So, back to scalping thing. When you make that long trek to the reservation the leftists have set up for you—and make that trek you will—what memories do you want to take with you? When living in the liberal utopian nightmare of 57 genders and government control over everything in your life, you will want to have been a Lakota. You’ll want to know, to remember, even just cherish the knowledge that, one day, you rode out onto the plains and made them feel pain.

I should emphasize that these were not tweets from people who wrote for the Federalist but actual pieces that were edited and published on the Federalist.

You tell me which is the garbage organization.

All of which is to say that criticisms from bad actors are not worth paying attention to.

I do, however, take to heart criticism from people I admire and respect, such as Erick Erickson and Alexandra DeSanctis. (Full disclosure: Erickson is a friend and has written for The Bulwark.)

Their criticisms are—and here I’m approximating, because I didn’t want to ask them and put them on the spot; I trust they’ll correct me if I’m mistaken—that the pro-life movement is different from other causes. It’s not a fight about eminent domain or gun control or tax rates. It’s about life and death for the most vulnerable humans. It’s about the pain that women who have abortions often carry with them for the rest of their lives. It’s about the 61 million Americans who should be here, but aren’t, because of the gruesome regime ushered in by Roe v. Wade.

And given this difference, pro-life activists—however ridiculous it might be for them to appear at CPAC—ought to be cut some slack and that a place supposedly made up of fellow travelers, such as The Bulwark, ought not to be part of the pile-on pro-lifers get from the rest of the culture by sending someone who disagrees with the cause, like Molly Jong-Fast, to cover the event. Because at the end of the day, this gives aid and comfort to the pro-abortion forces.

As I said, I take this criticism very much to heart. We are a new publication and even though we have published several pieces about abortion, our institutional bona fides are a recent vintage. So I understand and respect this criticism.

But while I’m sympathetic to the argument, at the level of final judgment I disagree: The pro-life cause has gained a great deal of ground over the last 20 years, in part by not treating pro-choicers as pariahs, but by trying to persuade them, incrementally moving both the law and public opinion. We are not the side that tries to kick James Damore out for wrongthink. And that’s a big part of why we’ve been changing the culture of abortion.

My friends may disagree with this judgment in this particular case. They may be correct and I may be incorrect. But it seems to me that the pro-life movement is not so fragile that it cannot withstand the presence of someone with dissenting views. That strength comes not because of any person or advocacy group. It comes because this cause is right and reflects the truth of what it means to be human.

One final note: Over the last three years there’s been a lot of reductionism on abortion, as if it’s the only issue that matters and that all political calculations have to be made, at base, around it.

If this year’s CPAC is to be believed, we’re entering a period in which socialism will be the maximum question and everything about our politics will be reduced to the question of “Are you willing to stop socialism, or not?”

Yet socialism and abortion do not always go together. If you look at the social democracies of Europe, their abortion laws are nothing like America’s: They are much, much stricter. The NARAL people would lose their ever-loving minds if America tried to impose, say, France’s abortion restrictions.

I often wonder what conservatives would choose if they were offered that bargain: Trade America’s less-socialist, more-free-market-oriented compact for a restricted, European-style, socialist-democratic abortion regime. In 2015 (the most recent year for which we have reliable data) there were 638,169 abortions in America. What if we could cut that number in half—or even by 20 percent—but it meant transitioning to a European-socialist economic model? Would you take that deal? Would the people at CPAC?

It’s a hypothetical, of course. America’s aspirational socialists are not, in the main, offering this exchange. But the question is clarifying.

Speaking only for myself, I would take it in a heartbeat. And I’m sure someone on Twitter will get mad about that, too.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.