What is there to say about this statement, which is being called a new conservative “manifesto”? Someone might object that Russell Kirk said that conservatives do not have manifestoes, but that would be entirely too quaint and old-fashioned. What is one to make of the organizers’ selection of the site of George Washington’s home for a statement that refers to a foreign policy of “advancing freedom and opposing tyranny in the world”? I would say that it is in extremely poor taste, but then this statement is not directed at people like me.
My admiration for Washington comes partly from his rejection of the sort of militaristic Caesarism that fuels the modern cult of the Presidency in which so many conservatives indulge. I agree with his advice that we should “observe good faith and justice towards all nations” and that we should “cultivate peace and harmony with all.” Most modern conservatives today embrace antagonistic, confrontational policies either informed by a hubristic nationalism or inspired by a misguided fear of vastly exaggerated threats. I also agree with Washington that “[t]he great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.” It would amaze me if most of the signatories of the Mount Vernon Statement would endorse this view. After all, how can we exhaust our resources “advancing freedom and opposing tyranny in the world” if we do not enmesh ourselves deeply in the politics of every other continent?
I cannot object to the statement that the “federal government today ignores the limits of the Constitution, which is increasingly dismissed as obsolete and irrelevant.” This is true. However, I have no idea why the organizers of this gathering think that anyone will believe their professions of constitutionalism after enabling or acquiescing in some of the most grotesque violations of constitutional republican government in the last forty years. If constitutional conservatism means anything, it has to mean that the executive branch does not have wide, sweeping, inherent powers derived from the President’s (temporary) military role. It has to mean that all these conservatives will start arguing that the President cannot wage wars on his own authority, and they will have to argue this no matter who occupies the Oval Office. It has to mean unwavering conservative hostility to the mistreatment of detainees, and it has to mean that conservatives cannot accept the detention of suspects without charge, access to counsel or recourse to some form of judicial oversight. Obviously, constitutional conservatives could in no way tolerate or overlook policies of indefinite detention or the abuse of detainees. They would have to drive out the authoritarians among them, and rediscover a long-lost, healthy suspicion of concentrated power, especially power concentrated in the hands of the executive.
Until we see these basic demonstrations of fidelity to constitutional principle from the would-be constitutional conservatives of this Mount Vernon meeting, we should assume that this is little more than a new ruse designed to rile up activists and donors during a Democratic administration in order to breathe new life into a moribund and bankrupt movement.