This contribution takes a discourse analytical perspective to discuss long-term change and ideational power in the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Initially the CAP replaced national farm support policies, absorbing productivist discourses that treated agriculture as exceptional. Productivism legitimised the CAP as farm income policy and achieved ideational hegemony. From 1980, a neoliberal discourse questioned farmers’ special treatment, focusing on efficiency, performance and effective use of taxpayer money. In response, the emerging multifunctionality discourse emphasised agriculture’s complex functions for rural areas and ecosystems, rallying to spend ‘public money for public goods’. Since the late 1990s, the three discourses have shared persuasive power in ideas. Consequently the Commission adopted a hybrid discourse, which allows member states to strategically select suitable elements for domestic persuasion. While the CAP has become chronically contested in policy fora, policy developments indicate that in decisive policy arenas, agricultural productivism and (post-) exceptionalism are still dominant and deeply entrenched.