Mt. Vernon’s Conservative Dead Letter

February 18th, 2010 at 8:46 am David Frum | 5 Comments |

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On Wednesday Feb. 17, a group of conservative dignitaries, including former attorney general Edwin Meese and Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, gathered near George Washington’s Mt. Vernon estate to issue a declaration of principles for the 21st century.

On first read, their document seems an anodyne statement in favor of the Constitution – surely something on which all Americans can agree.

“We recommit ourselves to the ideas of the American Founding. Through the Constitution, the Founders created an enduring framework of limited government based on the rule of law. They sought to secure national independence, provide for economic opportunity, establish true religious liberty, and maintain a flourishing society of republican self-government. These principles define us as a country and inspire us as a people.”

To all this, one can only say: how true! And then add – but so what?

Well, here’s the what:

“Every one of these founding ideas is presently under sustained attack. In recent decades, America’s principles have been undermined and redefined in our culture, our universities and our politics. The self-evident truths of 1776 have been supplanted by the notion that no such truths exist. The federal government today ignores the limits of the Constitution, which is increasingly dismissed as obsolete and irrelevant.”

The Mt. Vernon statement expresses the apocalyptic mood that has gripped many conservatives since the election of Barack Obama. For them, Obama is not just spending too much, taxing too much, regulating too much and achieving too little. He is, they charge, engaged in an anti-constitutional attack on the very meaning  of America.

Meanwhile, most Americans are gripped by very different concerns: about the economic crisis and their personal prospects.

* Are you an American who is earning less in 2010 than you were in 2000? The Mt. Vernon group has nothing to say to you.

* Did you lose your home or job or savings in the crisis of 2008-2009? Blank to you.

* Are you worried about the loss of your health insurance, or how you will pay for nursing care for your aged parents, or what 20 percent youth unemployment will mean for your newly-graduated child’s life chances? Not our department.

* Do you wonder whether we are winning or losing the war on terror? Do you want an explanation for why it took so long for the prior – conservative – administration to change an unsuccessful war policy in Iraq? No answers here.

* Do you generally agree with conservatives – but wonder whether there is room in the conservative world for nonwhites, or the disabled, or the secular-minded or the gay? The statement offers you no welcome.

* What about the environment? Economic competition from China? The moral implications of the biotech revolution? Illegal immigration? Educational standards? Well – what about them?

The Mt. Vernon declaration is meant to inspire memories of the famous Sharon Statement, issued in September 1960 by the newly formed “Young Americans for Freedom.”

But the contrasts between that document from 50 years ago and this new document are very telling.

The “young” in YAF’s title was no empty promise. The host of the Sharon meeting was William F. Buckley, then 35. The Statement was drafted by M. Stanton Evans, then 26. Most of the attendees were closer to Evans’ age than to Buckley’s. The weekend’s grand old man, direct mail genius Marvin Liebman, was all of 37.

By contrast, the youngest of the Mt. Vernon signatories is almost as old, 34, as the oldest of the Sharon signatories. The majority of the initial Mt. Verson signatories are over 60. Not for me (age 49) to deny the wisdom of age – but somehow over the past half century, conservatism has shifted from the politics of the next generation to the politics of the previous one.

As you might expect from the youth of its authors, the Sharon Statement articulated a new departure in American politics. The Buckley-Evans right repudiated the isolationist foreign policy of the previous generation’s Mr. Conservative, Robert Taft. Taft had opposed the military draft in 1940, opposed Lend-Lease, and opposed the formation of NATO. The Sharon Statement instead championed militant anti-communist internationalism:

“[T]he forces of international Communism are, at present, the greatest single threat to [American] liberties[T]he United States should stress victory over, rather than coexistence with, this menace.”

At the same time, the document rejected Taft’s partial surrender to New Deal measures like Social Security and public housing in favor of emphatic libertarianism:

“[W]hen [government] takes from one man to bestow on another, it diminishes the incentive of the first, the integrity of the second, and the moral autonomy of both.”

The Sharon Statement set in motion important real-world political events. Only six weeks before the Sharon conference, Sen. Barry Goldwater had spoken to the Republican National Convention in Chicago, urging a conservative takeover of the GOP. The activists gathered in Sharon would help make Goldwater himself the Republican nominee only four years later.

The Mt. Vernon statement promises no comparable ascent. The document seems an end in itself, an exercise in coalition management that offers a little something to everybody. It nods to neoconservatives who see a “national interest in advancing freedom and opposing tyranny in the world.” It extends a hand to Tea Party activists convinced that Barack Obama is leading the country toward socialism and fascism. But what does it add up to? To what question is this statement an answer? To what future does it point?

Conservatives conserve by demonstrating the enduring relevance of old ideas to contemporary problems. Of course those old ideas command permanent respect. But the contemporary problems deserve attention, too. A conservatism that has only generalities and slogans to offer will find itself useless and discarded in this emergency. To endure, we conservatives must deliver better answers to the questions America is actually asking.


Originally published in The Week.

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5 Comments so far ↓

  • Mt. Vernon and the Tea Parties - E.D. Kain - American Tory - True/Slant

    [...] Frum isn’t impressed with the Mt. Vernon Statement: The document seems an end in itself, an exercise in coalition [...]

  • Jim_M

    David seems (endlessly) to look to government for solutions. We are where we are because of statist

    greed and the cataclysmic housing program it invented. He’s reading a spot on statement describing

    the core principles and beliefs of conservatism, not a government road map to happyland. Americans

    know EXACTLY what to do to begin repairing our Nation. And that shovel ready project has a ground

    breaking ceremony in November 2010.

  • SWBrowne

    Excellent!

    My take (published op-ed in the Valley City Times-Record (ND))

    Here: http://www.stephenwbrowne.com/2010/02/the-mt-vernon-statement/

    Mt. Vernon was livelier in the 18th century

    On Wednesday, Feb. 17, a group of prominent conservatives unveiled The Mt. Vernon Statement, a ringing call to return to the founding principles that made America great and a beacon of liberty to the world.

    Reading it over carefully, I find nothing to disagree with.

    That’s not a compliment.

    I can’t disagree with any of it because it is a collection of innocuous platitudes Karl Marx would have a problem finding anything to disagree with.

    The statement opens, “We recommit ourselves to the ideas of the American Founding. Through the Constitution, the Founders created an enduring framework of limited government based on the rule of law. They sought to secure national independence, provide for economic opportunity, establish true religious liberty and maintain a flourishing society of republican self-government.”

    How nice.

    Ask any leftist if he favors “economic opportunity,” or “the rule of law.” Do you think he’s going to say, “No way!”?

    Ask right and left-wingers how they define those terms if you want to know what they disagree about

    A few “progressives,” such as the late historian Howard Zinn, would tell you “the ideals of the American Founding,” were all about slavery, genocide, and oppression of working people. But they are pretty marginal. Most pay lip-service to the Founders and the Constitution, whatever their private opinions.

    “It informs conservatism’s firm defense of family, neighborhood, community, and faith.”

    I got almost the same words from a socialist I once interviewed!

    It reminds “… economic conservatives that morality is essential to limited government, social conservatives that unlimited government is a threat to moral self-government, and national security conservatives that energetic but responsible government is the key to America’s safety and leadership role in the world” and on in this vein for 546 words.

    OK, this I understand because I’m a politics geek. It’s an appeal for a united front among a variety of political sects that sail under the flag of “conservative.” But it’s utterly opaque to non-geeks and says nothing to ordinary people worried about economic decline and the intrusion of “soft tyranny” into our lives.

    There’s a saying in this biz, “If you’re writing for everybody, you’re writing for nobody.”

    This thing was put together by committee, and reads like it.

    The Mt. Vernon Statement is advertised as an updating of The Sharon Statement of 1960, (379 words) which heralded the beginning of the modern conservative movement. It was drafted by M. Stanton Evans, then 26 years old when he wrote:

    “We, as young conservatives, believe:

    That foremost among the transcendent values is the individual’s use of his God-given free will, whence derives his right to be free from the restrictions of arbitrary force;

    That liberty is indivisible, and that political freedom cannot long exist without economic freedom;

    That the purpose of government is to protect those freedoms through the preservation of internal order, the provision of national defense, and the administration of justice;

    That when government ventures beyond these rightful functions, it accumulates power, which tends to diminish order and liberty…”

    Agree or disagree, this is a succinct, direct, and clear statement of principles.

    Now read this, from Steve Kangas’ website “Liberalism Resurgent.”

    “Liberals therefore advocate a moderated meritocracy: those with the most merit continue to earn the most money or power, but a percentage of it is redistributed back to the middle and lower classes. This is accomplished by progressive taxes, anti-poverty spending, and other forms of regulation.”

    Again, agree or disagree, he’s writing clearly and directly about concrete proposals. Point being, reading these guys you know they disagree, how they disagree, and can make your own decisions accordingly.

    Liberals tend to believe the newer the ideas, the better they are.

    Conservatives believe in the wisdom of tradition. The Mt. Vernon Statement helps prove their case, they did better 50 years ago.

    Note: For a really bad example of political writing, check out The Port Huron Statement, written by Tom Hayden (a.k.a. ex-Mr. Jane Fonda) at the founding of the Students for a Democratic Society in 1962. At 25,859 words it’s great bed-time reading for insomniacs, but you won’t wake up any smarter.

    I’ve got to say though, the one thing I’ll always be grateful to the Mt. Vernon Statement for, is drawing my attention to The Sharon Statement. I’d somehow managed to miss reading that one, and it’s a gem of clear, succinct writing.