Three reasons the Mount Vernon Statement misses the mark

Finally, someone put pen to paper and defined what it means to be “conservative.”  Authorities on the subject released the “Mount Vernon Statement” to define conservatism this week on the eve of CPAC.

Even viewed through the lens of skepticism, the document is unsurprisingly disappointing.

1.  It’s off-message.

From the document:

Some insist that America must change, cast off the old and put on the new. But where would this lead — forward or backward, up or down? Isn’t this idea of change an empty promise or even a dangerous deception?

What the hell does that even mean? (I think they ripped that line off from the Kang vs. Kodos debate on the Simpsons.)  The statement alternates between calls for  the “change we need” and “movement… toward our founding principles.”

To gain real traction, political movements must think forward, not backward.  Framing debates in terms of “founding principles” might work in a debating society, but that’s not where political battles are fought.  People do remember that the principles of the founders included an Al Jolson-esque tap-dance around slavery, and that our history includes bigotry, racism, oppression, and discrimination.  They also know that our ability to progress and evolve based on the ideas of liberty have helped us overcome and continue to help us overcome those challenges.

The use of the word “change” in and of itself appears to be a nod to the Obama presidential campaign, but that is as misguided as it is dated.  The liberal use of “change” underscores the main problem with the Mount Vernon Statement’s message: it defines conservatism in the other side’s terms, and talks more about what it is against than what it is for.

2.  It’s anachronistic.

The Mount Vernon Statement is subtitled, “Constitutional Conservatism: A Statement for the 21st Century.”  Since we’re already done with about 10% of the 21st century, it’s a good thing they got this thing out.

The statement’s web presence betrays the old-school thinking behind it.  The site is geared to look like the U.S. Constitution – a 222-year-old document written by hand on parchment.  It’s a great document, but graphic design has advanced since then.

Thousands have signed on to add their support, but there is no Facebook group (at least not linked on the site).  The “news room” has a press release announcing the signing of the document, but nothing else.  After the likes of Adolph Hitler and Joe Dufus “signed” the document the organizers simply shut down user involvement.  There’s no links to Facebook, no invitation for users to post video reactions on YouTube, and no places to click to share the statement on social news services like Digg.

Beyond the online problems, the very idea of a manifesto hearkens back to a time – in truth, a fairly recent time – where political movements were centralized and relied on national leaders.

3.  It speaks to the wrong audience.

The Mount Vernon Statement counts as its signatories a who’s who of the “New Right” – the New Right being defined as the conservative organizational entrepreneurs who helped sweep into office a President who promised to get government out of the people’s way.  That was in 1980; the New Right is therefore no longer new.

The conservative movement – and the country – owe a debt of gratitude to these people.  But the grassroots energy that has marked recent conservative activism – town halls and tea parties – also includes a strong skepticism of inside-the-beltway voices of all political stripes.  Top-down attempts to “unite” activists under a single banner have met with mixed results.

The Mount Vernon Statement isn’t particularly harmful, but it isn’t helpful either.  As a mission statement for the conservative movement, it simply doesn’t fulfill its mission.

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