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Buckley Critique of Mount Vernon Statement Misses Point

The Mount Vernon Statement of political conservatives’ principles was bound to incite a good deal of comment, most of it hostile, given the general tenor of the U.S. press. Criticism from a right-of-center luminary such as Christopher Buckley is rather more significant, however, regardless of whom he voted for in the last election. Buckley’s stature as a satirical novelist and only child of modern conservative movement co-founder William F. Buckley means we must take seriously his scathing article on the matter at the Daily Beast.

Briefly summarized, “The Mount Vernon Statement: Constitutional Conservatism: A Statement for the 21st Century” (MVS) is a 537-word document arguing for a “recommitment” “to the ideas of the American Founding,” signed by a who’s who of U.S. conservative political and intellectual leaders.

Denouncing change done simply for change’s sake (an obvious slap at President Obama’s immensely effective campaign theme), the document calls instead for “a change consistent with the American ideal, … not movement away from but toward our founding principles. At this important time, we need a restatement of Constitutional conservatism grounded in the priceless principle of ordered liberty articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.”

Exhorting the right to “Quit Redefining Conservatism,” Buckley criticizes the MVS for being … too long: “a windy yadda-yadda about first principles and why are liberals wiping their arses with the Constitution.” Coming from the man who described President Obama’s boring, ultra-partisan, and rhetorically hollow State of the Union address as “one hell of a speech,” this criticism may not carry much credibility.

Undaunted, Buckley goes on to criticize the MVS as not being motivated by conservative policy goals but instead a simple animus toward Obama. He gives no evidence for this claim, instead promptly quitting the field of battle after discharging this projectile from his rhetorical popgun (although he promises to return). In addition, the motives behind the document are irrelevant: if its ideas are good, we should accept them, and if not, not. The anti-Obama claim is just an obvious ad hominem attack and merits only instant dismissal.

Buckley is certainly right, however, about the MVS being a rhetorically awkward document, one all too obviously written by a committee trying to accommodate a variety of perspectives. And he is right about the conservative movement often being too talky, pompous, and elderly. But that’s also true of liberals — and even of some people writing for the Daily Beast. These quibbles don’t have any bearing on the philosophical and strategic contentions in the document — which are of course what’s important about it.

Much worse than his concentration on irrelevant side elements, however, it is the things that Buckley gets quite wrong that make his critique so disappointing.

He’s dead wrong, for example, about there not being a need for conservatives to get down to first principles. Anyone who has any memory at all of the George W. Bush administration and the profligate Republican Congress must understand this. First principles are exactly what the right needs if it is to persuade people that the mistakes of the past decade were anomalous and don’t reflect what the movement is truly about and would do if it obtained political power.

Moreover, if Buckley believes that the answers to all of our problems are all to be found in conservative writings and political strategies of the past half-century — which is the thrust of his piece — he must explain why these things did not do the trick in the past, why people are still waiting for the conservative millennium to arrive.

And he’s dead wrong to claim that this is all about Obama. Does he think that Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and the Orwellian tax-hikers and rights-stompers that infest state governments across the nation don’t bother anybody on the right? Does Buckley really believe that Barack Obama is president today despite some great passion among conservatives for John McCain’s political program?

The assertion that the right’s big concern today is limited to the person of Barack Obama is a truly spectacular WTF moment.

What is motivating the tea party movement, the conservatives’ navel-gazing, and the backlash against the policies of the Obama administration and the congressional Democrats is the grotesque expansion of government at all levels in the past decade, an expansion perpetrated by Democrats and Republicans alike. All of these people are dismayed by the growth of government, and they are all searching for ways to restore some of the liberties that have been wrenched from our grasp in recent years. In fact, some mad idealists even dare hope for a restoration of liberties obliterated throughout the past century of progressivism.

Worst of all is Buckley’s failure to see what the real problem for the right has been and remains. A sympathetic but pointed analysis of the Mount Vernon Statement by the young conservative writer Daniel Crandall in The American Culture stands out, in my view, for its recognition that the problem with the MVS is not the principles stated there — they are in fact very good notions indeed — but instead the almost certain paucity of positive consequences one can expect from the exercise:

Where I see this document’s main shortcoming is in its focus on politics and public policy, embodied in the following: “If we are to succeed in the critical political and policy battles ahead, we must be certain of our purpose.”

Politics is a lagging indicator to cultural trends, not a leading one. If we want our politicians and policymakers to reflect the values that made America great, then the broader culture must promote those values. Once that happens on a regular and consistent basis, the nation’s politic leaders will follow. …

Are policy wonks and lawmakers going to affect the steady stream of left-liberal propaganda Americans get through television, film, the visual arts, novels, media, and journalism? Not likely. As long as conservatives focus their energy entirely on politics and public policy, the [progressive cultural] Narrative will continue undisturbed among these cultural influence professions.

Crandall’s point is extremely important: contra Buckley, the MVS is not an effort to redefine conservatism but instead an effort to restore its traditional definition while sustaining the right’s valorization of politics over culture.

Thus it’s particularly sad to see Buckley, a prominent cultural figure associated with the right, fail to see that the real issue here is culture. As Crandall notes, the MVS signers’ goal of “retaking and resolutely defending the high ground of America’s founding principles” must be done through institutions of cultural influence, including the arts (popular and elite alike), education, media, and journalism. Principles cannot be inculcated through political fiat, but only through cultural engagement.

Buckley is in fact a fine example of this line of attack. His brilliant satirical novels have admirably and cheekily punctured some of the most prominent and damaging illusions of our time, and I believe that his tales have done more toward “retaking and resolutely defending the high ground of America’s founding principles” than a mountain of policy papers, magazine articles, and get-out-the-vote efforts.

Now if only Buckley would stop writing essays and get down to his more serious business of making people laugh at the idiocies of our time, we’ll all benefit greatly.

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