The conservative “old guard” has released a political manifesto called the “Mount Vernon Statement,” which to me is a textbook example of what happens when people ignorant of history attempt to interpret a historical document. Or, in this case, it’s possibly not so much that they are ignorant of history but that they are incapable of thinking outside their ideology box.
This ideological myopia creates howlers such as the claim the Founding Fathers were vitally concerned with “economic reforms grounded in market solutions.” I don’t think so. The Founders lived in the dawn of the age of industrial capitalism, but I’ve never noticed that they were much influenced by industrial-capitalist thought. Most of them were old-money Agrarian Age aristocrats, remember.
Indeed, if you think about it, the whole idea of naming a [free-market] manifesto after Mount Vernon — a bleeping slave plantation when George Washington lived there — reveals their aversion to actual history as opposed to symbolism and allegory (see the previous Mahablog post).
Another oddity noted by Jack Balkin — the word equality does not appear anywhere in the Mount Vernon statement. “It is hard to speak of fidelity to the Declaration and to the Constitution without once mentioning equality as a central value behind the Declaration and the Constitution,” he says, with profound understatement. “The Declaration’s most famous passage announces the self-evident truth is that all men are created equal.” Today’s Mount Vernon crew do bring up the Declaration, but only so they could work in a mention of God, who is inconveniently missing from the Constitution itself (courtesy of the “godless liberals” who wrote it).
Another anachronism — the Mount Vernon crew claims the Constitution “supports Americaâ€™s national interest in advancing freedom and opposing tyranny in the world and prudently considers what we can and should do to that end.” Um, where is the “opposing tyranny in the world” clause?
The first statement in the document that set off alarm bells for me came in the first paragraph —
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.
The Constitution was indeed created to maintain a flourishing society of republican self-government. However, today’s movement conservatism does not believe in “republican self-government.” In the article by Michael Lind I discussed in the previous post, Lind wrote,
Likewise, the idea of popular sovereignty, though it dates back to John Locke in the 17th century, need not inspire reactionary reverence for existing institutions, much less a desire to restore an alleged golden age. On the contrary, the sovereign people have the right to remake their political and social order every generation or two, in order to achieve their perennial goals in changing conditions.
This was the view of Abraham Lincoln, who said in his Second Annual Message to Congress: “As our case is new, we must think anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.” And it was the view of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 in his Commonwealth Club Address: “Faith in America, faith in our tradition of personal responsibility, faith in our institutions, faith in ourselves demand that we recognize the new terms of the old social contract.”
At the high level of public philosophy, the debate between the tea party right and progressives boils down to this: Do we think that fidelity to our predecessors means mindlessly doing what they did in their own time, even though times have changed? Or do we think that we should act as they would act, if they lived in the 21st century and had learned from everything that has happened in America and the world in the past 200 years?
To put it another way: The American Revolution was a beginning, not an end. The real equivalents today of the American revolutionaries are those who view the republic, not as an 18th-century utopia to be restored with archaeological exactitude, but as a work in progress to which every generation of Americans can contribute.
The conservative idea of “republican self-government” makes the Constitution into a straightjacket, taking away the ability of We, the People to use government to address our concerns, as opposed to the concerns of 1787. Government is an active thing. Government in any form is assessing changing conditions and making decisions based on current needs and available resources.
Since Reagan, however, conservatives have slapped the hands of anyone who actually wants to practice “republican self-government.” Government is supposed to be drowned in the bathtub and replaced by corporate oligarchy.
Come to think of it, maybe they hadn’t forgotten Mount Vernon was a slave plantation.
Anyway, it should be noted that the tea partiers are way underwhelmed. “Old school movement conservative leaders have ceased to be relevant in any meaningful way,” one wrote. The tea partiers are writing their own manifesto, called the “Contract From America.” And yes, that old school movement conservative and old whore Newt Gingrich saw this movement and managed to position himself in front of it. (This is all linked on the tea partier site, which is set up so that you can’t link to individual items on it. Not user-friendly.)
The tea partiers want specifics, apparently, and not mushy bromides, which suggests they haven’t entirely given up on “republican self-government” even if the solutions they favor are grotesquely wrong-headed. Credit where credit is due.