Are Today’s Conservatives Upholding Their Own Historic Principles?

Are Today’s Conservatives Upholding Their Own Historic Principles?

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This past week marks the 50th anniversary of the first meeting of a group of young Republicans in Sharon, Conn., at the late William F. Buckley’s estate. They called themselves the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF). Their purpose was to set forth the guiding principles of American conservatism. Drafted by M. Stanton Evans and Annette Kirk, the “Sharon Statement” was an attempt to fundamentally alter the perception of college students -- the new blood in the Republican Party– about the true nature of conservatism.

Drawing in part on Senator Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative, published earlier that same year, YAF laid out 12 vague but easily recognizable principles. The most important involved an undying belief in personal liberty, a free market economy—and fierce resistance to federal interference (regulation)--and combating the threat of international communism.

Like other documents that emerged from the turmoil of the ’60s, the Sharon Statement could have (and perhaps should have) engaged the public in a serious national discussion about their relative merit. Instead, they were largely forgotten in the Republican losses and embarrassments of the following years.

The YAF was nearly maniacal in its support for Goldwater in the 1964 presidential race. He was an appealing character, more for his honesty than for his ideas. The silver-haired senator from Arizona let you have the brunt of his character openly – he pulled no punches and startled those unaccustomed to candor. Most American voters, however, found his proposals too extreme and he ended up winning only his home state and five others from the Deep South.

After the devastating loss of their hero, a man whose complexities they simply did not understand, factions broke out in the YAF. One group split away to become the Libertarian movement. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas best represents their thinking.

The rest of the YAF struggled on, but lost direction under Nixon, Reagan and Bush. They now border on the strange. In 2007, the Michigan State chapter became the first university-based student organization to be classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

But the political use of those early principles persists, particularly among the volatile in the Republican conservative ranks.

Today the Sharon Statement endures an ambiguous legacy. Many of the political indictments we now hear from Republicans about big government, deficit spending, or social services have their origin in the Sharon Statement and Goldwater’s Conscience. And yet these principles stand in direct contradiction to what Republicans have actually done when in power.

Consider:

*Big Government: Certainly the size and scope of the federal government has dramatically increased in the last 50 years. But who increased it? Under Ronald Reagan, the national debt went from around $800 billion to over $2 trillion. His spending doubled the size of the federal government. Of course, most Americans suffer from dementia and forget that any increase in government spending is in fact always a tax increase.

Though the size of government increased under the Clinton years, it did so at a slower pace. Then came George W. Bush, who inherited a budget surplus. He violated every principle of the Sharon Statement’s conservatism. He launched two unfunded wars, an unfunded tax cut, an unfunded No Child Left Behind Act, an unfunded Social Security drug prescription program, a new unfunded department of Homeland Security, all adding up to an additional $4 or $5 trillion to the national debt.

Bush increased federal spending more than any of the six preceding presidents. Clinton – no man (except Barack Obama) was ever so viciously attacked by conservative extremists – increased federal spending by 11%; Bush increased it by 104%.

*Liberty: “Conservatives” gave us an incredibly repressive move against personal liberty, the Patriot Act, and the scandalous treatment of real and suspected “terrorists” in an elaborate system of jails around the world. Torture became our policy, even though neither the FBI nor the CIA believes little actionable intelligence ever results from such practices.

*Religion: Small-government conservatives take the separation of church and state seriously, and believe that wall should be breached. But in 1981, Senator Goldwater himself argued, “I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me that if I want to be a moral person, I have to believe in A, B or C and D. Just who do they think they are? . . . I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of ‘conservatism’.”

Even social conservatives should be disappointed in recent office holders: David Kuo, former deputy director of President Bush’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, now claims that the administration cynically used religion for political ends, mocking Christian leaders and “taking Jesus and reducing him to some precinct captain, to some get-out-the-vote guy.”

If the American electorate wants principled government and political action in keeping with those principles, it should not depend on today’s Republicans.

By their own record, they have abandoned the complexity of pressing issues for the blind actions of know-nothing and do-nothing. Sadly, they find the malevolent in everyone but themselves. They fear a real discussion because their enemy, Barack Obama, is so thoughtful and good at it. If the voters put them back in power -- the speeches and behavior of some bearing a striking resemble to a Looney Tunes cartoon—we just might as well abandon reason altogether, for the discrepancy between what conservatives say and do is a vast territory.

Ron Manuto writes on civil rights and legal issues in California. Sean Patrick O’Rourke teaches courses in American public discourse and protest at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.