Critiquing modern US Conservatism: The Sharon Statement

Critiquing modern US Conservatism: The Sharon Statement June 23, 2017

Getting back to that occasional critique on Expressions of Conservatism, following is the Sharon Statement, and my commentary, clause by clause. But first a bit of context and explanation.

The Sharon Statement was adopted on September 11, 1960 by a group of 100 young conservatives who convened at the home of William F. Buckley in Sharon, Connecticut with the purpose of creating Young Americans for Freedom. In 2015 The New York Times recognized the Sharon Statement as a “seminal document” of the Conservative Movement and it is widely regarded by historians and thought leaders as one of the most important declarations in the history of American conservatism. Its message is timeless and has been championed by countless conservative leaders since its adoption, including President Ronald Reagan who served as YAF’s Honorary National Chairman. The Sharon Statement continues to function as the foundational document for every YAF chapter across the country.

Quoted from Young America’s Foundation, the movement that saw its birth with the Sharon Statement.

 

A more recent re-iteration of the importance of the Sharon Statement was the Mount Vernon Statement, signed in February, 2010:

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.

Quoted from The Mount Vernon Statement site.

 

An article in the Atlantic, quoting David Franke’s response to the Mount Vernon Statement, is telling, and worth a read, but these are probably the most germane paragraphs:

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.

 

Having noted the hypocrisy evident in modern US conservatism, let’s look at what is, to all intents and purposes, its founding document (I have numbered the clauses to make referencing in the comments easier, but the original was not numbered).

 

The Sharon Statement, clause by clause

1)

IN THIS TIME of moral and political crisis, it is the responsibility of the youth of America to affirm certain eternal truths.

 

Horace wrote, in the third book of Odes, around 20 BCE:

Our sires’ age was worse than our grandsires’. We, their sons, are more worthless than they; so in our turn we shall give the world a progeny yet more corrupt.

 

Ovid said similar, and at about the same time in ‘The Metamorphoses’ (pdf), whilst Hesiod famously wrote about the five ages of man, and how he found himself in the Iron Age (the fifth, final and most depraved age).

It is amusing to note that Ovid’s complaints about the Iron Age (the last age of his four) is quite descriptive of modern US conservatism: placing importance on nation boundaries, a preference for mining, and being warlike, greedy and impious. Naturally, many conservatives would claim to be the most pious of all, but that is a hallmark of those that fail in their own desire to be pious, instead ending up as self-righteous and impious (by the terms of the documents with which they define piety).

Furthermore, in direct contradiction to this first clause, there are very few eternal truths, and those that might exist are not the ones being expressed here.

 

2)

WE, as young conservatives, believe:

I wonder how many young people would be conservative without being raised in conservative households?

In much the same way that Richard Dawkins suggests that “a child is not a Christian child, not a Muslim child, but a child of Christian parents or a child of Muslim parents”, are young conservatives merely the children of Conservative parents? Let’s not forget that conservatives are far more likely to be religious, so the mechanism already exists.

The only way that one could measure whether the number of people raised in liberal-leaning households that go on to be conservative. I’m not aware of any such work at this time.

 

3)

THAT foremost among the transcendent values is the individual’s use of his God-given free will, whence derives his right to be free from the restrictions of arbitrary force;

This is amusing. Young conservatives are not raised to express free will, they are raised to adhere to their parents’ expectations of appropriate behaviour, based on conservative beliefs about society, itself predicated on Christian beliefs, including those about free will (believe in the ultimate parent (God/Jesus), freely, or be damned to hell for eternity). This explains why they so willingly spout the “time of moral and political crisis” trope, noted above. At some point the young conservative children of mildly conservative parents are expected to show independence. Quite how such lessons in obedience and conformity are supposed to miraculously transmogrify into independence at some later point isn’t clear. The child of the higly conservative parent, on the other hand, is expected to continue to be obedient – though how they discern who to be obedient to is not clear. (Is that where the free will comes in?)

It is indeed ironic that the Sharon Statement itself is so manifestly indicative of a lack of free will. A collection of phrases written by a group of “young” people, more transparently looking for the approbation or acceptance of their parents (or William F Buckley, Jr.), it is hard to imagine. These are not the words of an independent youth, they are the words of cookie-cutter adults, destined to screw up the world in the same way their parents did… or possibly worse.

Along those lines, note that YAF alumni include Jeff Sessions, Jim and Elizabeth Graham (Texas Right to Life President and Director), and Katie Pavlich (Townhall.com), and donors include names like Koch and DeVos. YAF also maintains the Reagan Ranch, and runs The National Journalism Center, alumni of which include Ann Coulter and, intriguingly, Malcolm Gladwell.

 

4)

THAT liberty is indivisible, and that political freedom cannot long exist without economic freedom;

Clearly liberty is divisible. It is divisible between the ideas of political and economic freedom, as expressed in this very sentence (switching between “liberty” and “freedom” doesn’t do much to camouflage the self-defeating nature of this statement). Then there’s the concept of positive and negative liberty – “freedom from” and “freedom to”. But, on the idea of economic freedom leading to (purchasing) political freedom: who is freer, the person that has so much money that they have no want, or the person whose wants can be fulfilled without money? Isn’t the very fact of a want a lack of freedom? Isn’t the fact of having to work (or lobby) for that freedom itself a lack of freedom? Then again, easy access to the object of an addiction seems like the opposite of freedom.

The conservative conception of freedom, particularly as expressed here, seems incredibly simplistic, and simple answers to complex problems seldom work.

 

5)

THAT the purpose of government is to protect those freedoms through the preservation of internal order, the provision of national defense, and the administration of justice;

National “defense”, NOT international espionage, aggressive posturing and actual aggression – the hallmarks of subsequent conservative military policy, in the US at least. Then there’s this idea of “internal order”, the conservative definition of which is wholly unworkable, and very different from the liberal definition. The conservative definition, if recent moves by Republican lawmakers are anything to go by, is to hasten the demise of those people seen as a drain on the economy (ironically, an illustration of how political and economic freedom are indeed divisible – the wealth of the nation is apparently unable to purchase freedom for its populace).

 

6)

THAT when government ventures beyond these rightful functions, it accumulates power, which tends to diminish order and liberty;

Government accumulates this power in exact proportion to the amount of economic freedom individuals seek to express through excessive wealth coupled with lack of conscience. For example, the expression of economic and political freedom expressed by those in the military industrial complex is the reason why national defense has become pre-emptive international attack, often with little-to-no understanding of the repercussions or, as was the case with Cheney’s original position on Iraq, the outright ignoring of the expected repercussions:

 

7)

THAT the Constitution of the United States is the best arrangement yet devised for empowering government to fulfill its proper role, while restraining it from the concentration and abuse of power;

Note the virtual biblicization of the Constitution, here (which makes the occasional claim of Moses’ or Jesus’ hand in the writing thereof, or the claims about the Christian nature of the document, that little bit less surprising). What’s ironic is that the GOP seems to be intent on testing abuse of power to the limit – doing its best to concentrate as much power as possible into its own hands, as witness how the GOP punches above its weight, having far more power than its proportion of the votes has ever justified. As this analysis from Politifact indicates:

[In 2012] Democratic House nominees drew nearly 1.4 million more votes than Republicans and the GOP landed a 33-seat House majority. Redistricting was a major factor in that result, but experts also diverge over whether how districts were designed was the key driver. Incumbency and the concentration of Democrats in congested cities also have been aired as significant.

 

8)

THAT the genius of the Constitution – the division of powers – is summed up in the clause that reserves primacy to the several states, or to the people in those spheres not specifically delegated to the Federal government;

And yet it is the GOP that seeks to remove the power from the “people in those spheres” by ignoring the establishment clause left and right, and privileging the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant view over that of ever-larger minorities.

 

9)

THAT the market economy, allocating resources by the free play of supply and demand, is the single economic system compatible with the requirements of personal freedom and constitutional government, and that it is at the same time the most productive supplier of human needs;

Except, as pointed out above, the accumulation of wealth works against this value by distorting the ability for those in the market to engage in “free play”. (I would suggest that this is the basis of the liberal move to progressive taxation). In addition, the market holds people hostage through issues of inelastic demand. Furthermore, the failure of the market economy to deal with the “long” game, is illustrated by the over-valuing of skills in rapid wealth concentration, and the under-valuing of skills in health and education, and others where value and competition is less easily discernible.

 

10)

THAT when government interferes with the work of the market economy, it tends to reduce the moral and physical strength of the nation, that when it takes from one to bestow on another, it diminishes the incentive of the first, the integrity of the second, and the moral autonomy of both;

This is the ultimate expression of the conservative “nation as family” metaphor, wherein the politicians are cast as parents remonstrating their wayward children. Ignoring for a moment the arrogance of the idea that choosing to be a politician makes one morally superior (or that an elected official is in any way comparable to a parent), this fails to recognise that many necessary roles in society are under-privileged in remuneration. If anything, the level of remuneration is in inverse proportion to the moral caliber of the individual.

Additionally, this entire argument ignores that just how much of the money that those at the top capture as it moves up the food chain is the direct result of government spending at the bottom. If government doesn’t recoup that spending at the top, it passes into offshore accounts, foreign investments, and the like. Of course the GOP deify the wealthy and believe they should have unfettered access to the wealth they “create”, simultaneously ignoring how much that wealth creation depends on spending at the bottom, and how much of that, therefore, is derived from “profligate” liberal government spending at the bottom (of course, it’s only profligate when you remove the process by which the expenditure is recouped at the top – the mechanism that the GOP consistently remove).

 

11)

THAT we will be free only so long as the national sovereignty of the United States is secure; that history shows periods of freedom are rare, and can exist only when free citizens concertedly defend their rights against all enemies…

Ironic, then, that one of the greatest enemies to freedom at the moment is far right conservative America, a force gaining increasing expression through the primary instrument of American Conservatism, the Republican party.

 

12)

THAT the forces of international Communism are, at present, the greatest single threat to these liberties;

This statement is, of course, of its time, and had some truth to it, then. America’s responses to Communism, from McCarthyism to the fear of anything with the word “socialist” in it, is now casting the US in the role that Communism previously had, both in and of itself, and in its ongoing stoking of the fire of Islamic jihad through habitual interventionist foreign policy that started with the Cold War against Communism.

 

13)

THAT the United States should stress victory over, rather than coexistence with this menace; and

And here you see the root of the desire to attack rather than defend, and pre-emptive interventionism, as noted above. Popularity through fear is the bully’s tactic, and it ultimately undermines the position of the bully, even if commendably motivated.

 

14)

THAT American foreign policy must be judged by this criterion: does it serve the just interests of the United States?

 

Fine. I will judge it thusly. No, American foreign policy doesn’t “serve the just interests of the United States”. I’ve already mentioned Cheney’s correct assessment of the outcome of attacking Iraq, contrasted with his actions as VP. There is a long history of failed or mishandled intervention in complex political situations, most notably in the Middle East, but also Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua, Cuba, and so on.

 


 

I appreciate that I am not putting all of these statements into their proper historical context, but, as you would be hard pressed to differentiate between the Sharon Statement and the apparent underlying beliefs of the modern GOP (and vocal US conservatives), this is less of a problem than it might otherwise be. Furthermore, failure to recognise history is almost necessary to compensate for the ahistorical view that US conservatives hold, as the opening statement – “IN THIS TIME of moral and political crisis” – makes clear.

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