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Climbing Mount Vernon

Republicans seem to have a preoccupation with defining themselves. Not for everybody else, we all get it by now, but for each other. They have an anal need to reassure each other that they really aren’t insane. Their latest attempt is called the Mount Vernon Statement, “a defining statement of conservative beliefs, values and principles“.

The Mount Vernon Statement resembles a “defining statement” in pretty much the same way  Mount Vernon resembles a mountain. Not so much. It is modeled on the Sharon Statement issued on Sept. 11, 1960 by Young Americans for Freedom. YAF is an ultra-conservative/libertarian group inspired by William F. Buckley and their “defining statement” was signed at his Connecticut estate in Sharon.

There isn’t a lot of difference in the principles espoused in either conservative statement. The new “Vernon” statement relies a bit more on God and Faith, but they both pretty much hit the highlights of Freedom, Liberty, Order, Rights, Enemies, and the Free Markets. Jay Bookman, columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, believes the statement “defines nothing whatsoever. It’s so bland and generic that I would agree with much of what it tries to say“.

Not to be outdone by the Sharon Statement, the radical left, Students for a Democratic Society released their own defining document, The Port Huron Statement in 1962, written mostly by radical SDS president Tom Hayden. Where the Sharon Statement ran to less than 400 words, Port Huron, in typical leftist style, came in at nearly 26,000 words. Democrats can’t say anything concisely. Of course both documents dwell a bit too much on commies, war and freedom, but it was, after all, the height of the cold war. For just a bit of comparison, let’s see how the various documents treat government:

Sharon: We, as young conservatives believe…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.

Vernon: A Constitutional conservatism based on first principles provides the framework for a consistent and meaningful policy agenda. It encourages free enterprise, the individual entrepreneur, and economic reforms grounded in market solutions.

Huron: The American political system is not the democratic model of which its glorifiers speak. In actuality it frustrates democracy by confusing the individual citizen, paralyzing policy discussion, and consolidating the irresponsible power of military and business interests.

“Market Solutions”, “Free play of supply and demand”, yeah that has all worked out well.  As a statement of Democratic principles, the Port Huron Statement really has a lot of good things going for it if you dig through all 2,000 lines and weed out the cold war, labor unrest and civil rights rhetoric and if you can get over the fact that it’s primary author was indicted for inciting a riot. Much of it still holds up today. For instance:

America must abolish its political party stalemate. Two genuine parties, centered around issues and essential values, demanding allegiance to party principles shall supplant the current system of organized stalemate which is seriously inadequate to a world in flux. It has long been argued that the very overlapping of American parties guarantees that issues will be considered responsibly, that progress will be gradual instead of intemperate, and that therefore America will remain stable instead of torn by class strife. On the contrary: the enormous party overlap itself confuses issues and makes responsible presentation of choice to the electorate impossible, that guarantees Congressional listlessness and the drift of power to military and economic bureaucracies, that directs attention away from the more fundamental causes of social stability, such as a huge middle class, Keynesian economic techniques and Madison Avenue advertising. The ideals of political democracy, then, the imperative need for flexible decision-making apparatus makes a real two-party system an immediate social necessity. What is desirable is sufficient party disagreement to dramatize major issues, yet sufficient party overlap to guarantee stable transitions from administration to administration.

That, overly verbose, statement still has a lot of relevance today after nearly fifty years. As does perhaps, this statement:

In short, the theory of government “countervailing” business neglects the extent to which government influence is marginal to the basic production decisions, the basic decision-making environment of society, the basic structure or distribution and allocation which is still determined by major corporations with power and wealth concentrated among the few. A conscious conspiracy… is by no means generally or continuously operative but power undeniably does rest in comparative insulation from the public and its political representatives.

Democrats do have principles and values that have remained with our party for decades. Although we don’t feel the need to update our basic dogma as often as conservatives and we often seem loathe to state our beliefs in mixed company or actually put them into political practice, they don’t change all that much. We believe that government can be an instrument of good. We believe in fairness, equality and community. We don’t see the value in torturing our enemies. We don’t believe that you are evil because you are poor, black, young or female. We care about each other, and yes, we even care about Republicans.

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