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.