Instead of signing on to another statement of principles, conservatives ought to rediscover George Washington’s.
By David Franke
The “revival of conservatism” is all the rage right now in the political media. We are told that the Tea Parties are sweeping the nation, that the Republican Party is being forced to the Right in its attempts to woo them, that they are either an independent populist force or (alternatively) controlled by the GOP and Beltway Conservatives. Pundits laugh at the lack of sophistication on the part of these tea partiers (they are inevitably compared to McCarthyites or John Birchers), but then ponder the Deeper Significance of this phenomenon.
Seeking to take advantage of this explosion of grassroots vigor – and to control it – dozens of top conservative muckamucks met on February 17 at an estate that was an original part of George Washington’s Mount Vernon. There they signed “The Mount Vernon Statement” with the subtitle: “Constitutional Conservatism: A Statement for the 21st Century.”
A companion statement issued to the press explained that “The Sharon Statement, signed at the home of William F. Buckley, Jr., in Sharon, Connecticut in September 1960, helped launch and define the conservative movement…” Now, 50 years later, “today’s leaders will unveil and sign [a new] declaration of leadership.”
As someone who was there at Sharon, and voted for adoption of the Sharon Statement, I urge you to read and compare the two documents. Then put the two documents into their historical perspectives.
First of all, though, I have to note that a statement written by one competent person will almost always outshine a committee document.
The Sharon Statement was written by one competent person – M. Stanton Evans, a gifted conservative journalist and leader then still in his twenties. Given the responsibility for bringing a statement of principles before the gathering, Carol Dawson and I made some minor cosmetic changes, but it was 99.9% Stan Evans. And it was a real statement, concise but comprehensive in its scope, listing 12 “eternal truths” that “we, as young conservatives, believe.” You could agree or disagree, but you knew where we stood.
While I was not present at the drafting and signing of the Mount Vernon Statement, I have to believe that it is the product of a committee. (You know, “if it quacks like a duck,” etc.) It certainly is not a series of precise principles in the spirit of the Sharon Statement. Rather it’s a short essay seeking to identify modern conservatism with the spirit of the Constitution and George Washington. It’s not bad, given what it attempts to do. It’s just that it’s vague and muddled compared to the Sharon Statement – sort of like the conservative movement itself.
The Sharon Statement in Historical Context
The Sharon Statement was adopted in 1960, when the “conservative movement” was in its infancy and was still defining itself as something apart from the Old Right of the World War II and post-World War II era. Bill Buckley and his National Review were trying to meld traditionalist, libertarian, and cold warrior elements into one movement – a tough assignment. This gathering-together of disparate elements was called “fusionism,” and its prophet was Frank S. Meyer, one of National Review’s senior editors. Stan Evans was a student of the prophet, and the Sharon Statement was Stan’s Fusionist Codice.
Fifty years later, the Sharon Statement has lost none of its brilliance – as a portrayal of what it was promoting. The defects we note are not in the statement itself but rather, informed by 50 years of history and conservative practice, defects in the movement it was defining.
To its credit, the Sharon Statement gave primacy to the Constitution (and especially the Tenth Amendment, all but forgotten today) and to “the market economy, allocating resources by the free play of supply and demand.” “Market economy” is much superior to the Mount Vernon Statement’s homage to “free enterprise,” whatever that is. For one thing, a “market economy” (or “free market”) by definition excludes any government intervention. “Free enterprise,” and the even worse “capitalism,” tends to change meanings with whatever is being hawked at the moment.
The great failure of the early conservative movement, which led to even greater failures over the past 50 years, is its belief that the lamb can lie down with the wolf and not be eaten. Conservatives of the Sharon Statement era, including Bill Buckley himself, knew that we were making a deal with the devil – endorsing an interventionist foreign policy, which the Old Right had fought tooth and nail, as a “temporary” measure to “defeat world communism.” The Sharon Statement gives voice to this mentality with “eternal truths” 10 and 11:
“That the forces of international Communism are, at present, the single greatest threat to [American] liberties;
“That the United States should stress victory over, rather than coexistence with, this menace…”
Fifty years later, it’s obvious that the devil won that bet. International communism as a political force has been dead for 20 years – the “victory” cited as the goal in the Sharon Statement – and now we, the American Empire, are the enemy of the Constitution that conservatives swore obeisance to in 1960.
Which brings us to…
The Mount Vernon Statement in Historical Context
The great failure of the Mount Vernon Statement is not any literary shortcoming, but rather its utter failure to learn anything from the past 50 years, and to accept any responsibility for what has gone wrong over the past 50 years.
The Mount Vernon Statement reads like a document stuck in the Sixties: “America’s principles have been undermined and redefined in our culture, our universities and our politics.” There is not the slightest hint or acknowledgement that conservatives had any part in this undermining or redefining. Nothing about people posing as conservatives being responsible for a brutal empire that straddles the world, the bankrupting of the nation to pay for this empire, the justification of torture at home and abroad, an imperial presidency, the evisceration of the Tenth Amendment, you name it. Apparently only liberals have committed these crimes against the spirit and the letter of the Constitution.
Granted, documents like the Sharon Statement and the Mount Vernon Statement don’t usually name names, so we shouldn’t expect to see Bush and Cheney singled out for indictment in the latter. But there are disparaging references like “some insist that America must change” and “this idea of change.” Gee, whom could they be talking about? Anyone with an ounce of political savvy can figure out that this is not an indictment of changes brought about by Bush and Cheney, but by that scoundrel Barack Hussein Obama.
And there’s a reason why the signers of the Mount Vernon Statement are silent today about the decapitation of the Constitution in the Bush/Cheney era – almost 100 percent of them supported Bush and Cheney with their votes in 2000, 2004, and (by proxy McCain) 2008. Even if they uttered some criticisms from time to time, they ended up voting for the Republican every time because – horrors – otherwise a Democrat would win.
In short, they put allegiance to party above allegiance to the Constitution they claim to serve. And because they cannot acknowledge this, the Mount Vernon Statement has to be seen as just another partisan battle cry, not a statement of “conservative beliefs, values and principles.”
Back to George Washington
They were so close to Mount Vernon, and called this the Mount Vernon Statement. I wish they had taken the time to reflect on what George Washington had to say about political parties and partisanship.
From Washington’s lengthy Farewell Address in 1796 I have extracted some of the warnings he gave about “the baneful effects of the spirit of party.” He was so much more prescient on foreign entanglements than those of us who signed the Sharon Statement in 1960, and so much more wise than the Republicans, posing as conservatives, who signed the Mount Vernon Statement this year.
David Franke [send him mail] was one of the founders of the conservative movement in the 1950s and 1960s, when Democrats and liberals were the ones who believed in big government, fiscal recklessness, and an imperial presidency. This article originally appeared on LewRockwell.com.