An august group of conservative leaders released a statement early Wednesday asserting a recommitment to “the ideas of America’s founding.” The statement is meant to be a 21st-century version of a 1960 declaration that set the ideological framework that, among other things, helped propel Ronald Reagan into the White House. But there is a broad disconnect between their claim to America’s founding ideas and the reality of conservative behavior — and for that matter, the America envisioned by many of us who hold the Constitution dear.
The latest declaration is called “The Mount Vernon Statement,” and therein lies the first problem. The group, convened by Edwin Meese III—the attorney general under Reagan—met in a library that was a part of the Mount Vernon estate of George Washington, an estate that by the time Washington died was the residence of 316 slaves, according to this official account. The conveners saw no irony in this as, across the Potomac River, the nation’s first African-American president is under political assault by a renegade right-wing movement with an embedded contingent of white supremacists.
Then there is the problem with Meese himself, who resigned his post as attorney general in 1988 in the wake of a series of ethical controversies that climaxed with his role in securing an Army contract for a firm that then hired a close friend of Meese. That incident was preceded, of course, by the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal, which a congressional investigation concluded Meese facilitated. It’s enough to make people roll their eyes at references to “morality.” Plus, people who remember such things as Meese’s preoccupation with cracking down on pornography—drawing links to violent crime that went well beyond what impartial scientists could demonstrate and ultimately beyond what even a conservative Supreme Court would tolerate—would rightly roll their eyes at any talk of “limited government.”
But the real fundamental problem with the Mount Vernon Statement is that it is out of touch with the founding ideas that it says it wants to reclaim and the America that is striving to embody those ideas.
The statement says that the legacy left by the nation’s founders of “an enduring framework of limited government based on the rule of law” is “under sustained attack.” (The assertion of victimhood is one of the most distinct differences between this latest declaration and the Sharon Statement that it claims as its predecessor.) It does not explicitly name the attackers, but one can read between the lines: “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.”
Wrong. America has always been a work in progress. The Constitution was explicitly written with that in mind, so that subsequent generations could mold their government—and even amend the Constitution—in accordance with changing circumstances, understanding and priorities. In that process, it has almost always been progressives, not conservatives, who have led efforts to hold America to its foundational values—including the value that all people, regardless of color, gender, or class, are equal and are entitled to be treated equally by their government—even as it nudged it forward to maturity. It was progressives who said that economic justice and economic security must go hand in hand with economic freedom and, beginning with the New Deal in the 1930s through the Great Society of the 1960s, forged a social contract between citizens, business and government that enabled business to profit, workers to prosper and the downtrodden to pull themselves up.
Meanwhile, it is conservatives who have done the most in recent years to subvert the limits of the Constitution—the people who have by their actions, as the Mount Vernon Statement puts it, “dismissed” the Constitution as “obsolete and irrelevant.” It has been conservative presidents who have taken it upon themselves to wage war, bypassing Section 8 of the Constitution that reserves that power to Congress alone. It has been conservative politicians who have used the fear of terrorism to sweep away due process for the accused and privacy protections for the non-accused. It is conservatives today who forged and now champion a Supreme Court ruling that gives corporations a virtually untrammeled ability to shout down ordinary citizens and render their right to redress their grievances before government ineffectual.
The conservative economic policies that took force with Ronald Reagan and bore full fruit under George W. Bush has given us gargantuan financial institutions living off the federal dole (and executives reaping multimillion-dollar bonuses) and scorn for families down on their luck who need food stamps to keep from going hungry. Conservative deregulatory mania allowed lead-poisoned toys into our children’s rooms and salmonella-tainted food into our kitchens, and it enabled robber-baron banksters to nearly topple the economy with their greed. Conservative policies resulted in middle-class families losing ground in real terms during the 2000s while an ever-growing share of the nation’s wealth went to a shrinking percentage of people at the very top. Conservatives sold corporate tax cuts as the sure way to spur investment that would create jobs; the reality is jobs shipped overseas and an America starved of the revenue it needs to properly invest in its infrastructure and people so it can compete with such countries as China, which is building the base for business prosperity that conservatives say our government cannot now afford.
On Thursday, an energized right will gather at a Washington hotel for the Conservative Political Action Conference. To be sure, there will be a lot of overheated rhetoric that will get mocked on progressive blogs, but behind the raucous and disheveled teabag rebellion will be a disciplined, purpose-driven conservative movement that will do what it has done for the past three decades: work to keep government in the service of the wealthy while keeping working people at bay, all the while wrapping itself in the flag and the founders. And they will get way with their perversion of the nation’s founding ideals as long as progressives don’t call them on it, and respond forcefully with their own vision of America.