Mount Vernon Statement: the contradiction at the heart of this conservative fusion
Do conservatives really think that two of history’s most radical documents – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – were conservative?
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More important, the signatories imply that the limits of the Constitution present historical and political, rather than legal questions. The judiciary, however, is empowered to interpret the constitution. And from Chief Justice John Marshall on down, the Supreme Court has broadly interpreted the Commerce Clause, which allows the federal government to “regulate Commerce … among the several States.”Skip to next paragraph
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The federal government can rule on almost any issue that mildly affects interstate commerce, including, as we learned in Gonzales v. Raich, the home cultivation of marijuana for personal use. Healthcare, representing 1/6 of the economy, would be an even easier case of constitutional regulation. If we are to respect “the rule of law” above all, as the signatories admonish, well-established Supreme Court precedent is a good place to start.
Just because big government is constitutional, however, does not mean government must be big. What constitutes good political theory is a separate issue. On this point, the Mount Vernoners miss more directly, at least in terms of consistency. There’s a reason conservatives feel the urgent need to reassert fusionist principles: earlier efforts to braid the various threads of conservatism have repeatedly unraveled.
The inherent tensions of conservatism are more glaring today than in 1960. Christian Right domestic policies and neoconservative foreign policy have little to do with small, unobtrusive government. The former’s mission is to use the government to curtail individual cultural and lifestyle choices. And an aggressive belief in the ability of the federal government to create gigantic institutions abroad – indeed, new governments – founds the latter.
The hard-core cold warriors involved with the Sharon Statement, with their opposition to illiberal totalitarianism, were more obvious bedfellows for a libertarian conservativism than neoconservatives. And as to the libertarians, why should they be enmeshed with a conservative cause that sees Christian morality as the basis for economic development, when China and Singapore show that a free market can thrive in countries hostile to religion?
One reasonable response to this is that ideology is a process, these groups do identify with one another in some sense, and this presents a step in the direction of discovering potentially shared values. Fair enough. Burkean conservativism, however, and its commitment to organic social growth, rather than limited government based on the rule of law, might present more fertile common ground.
This statement, in the end, is really about Presidents Bush and Obama. Its lamentations of the values of “recent decades” includes Mr. Bush’s eight momentous years and reveals the right’s now desperate attempt to find a way around that history, and return to Reagan.
As for Mr. Obama, the statement says, “Isn’t this idea of change an empty promise or even a dangerous deception? The change we urgently need, a change consistent with the American ideal, is not movement away from but toward our founding principles.”
Obama is at an ideological breaking point. Whether his promised reforms represented new American values, as opposed to merely new American policies, was always the lingering question.
He attempted to sidestep the philosophy debate under the cover of “pragmatism.” But that has failed politically.
Even if it’s mildly incoherent and historically inaccurate, the right has thrown down the ideological gauntlet. It is time Obama and the left clarify their own values.