News organizations were aflutter to report on the controversies at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this past weekend. Several socially conservative groups boycotted the meeting. Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were greeted with jeers and boos. One conference attendee was removed after calling the former Vice President a war criminal. Is conservatism imploding?
It depends. If the conservative consensus rests on support for specific policy proposals, then it is possible to find an issue to splinter the coalition. But, if conservatism is grounded “not as much at the level of policy as at the level of principle, where there is foundational agreement among a broad swath of the American people” then policy differences will not prove fractious.
What we need, argues Matthew Spalding in “A New American Fusionism: Recovering Principles in Our Politics” is a new framework for conservatism—a constitutional conservatism. This would remind “economic conservatives that morality is essential to limited government, cultural conservatives that unlimited government is a threat to moral self-government, and national security conservatives that energetic but responsible government is the key to America’s safety at home and prominence in the world.”
Following the call for a new constitutional conservatism, the leaders of conservative organizations around the nation joined together one year ago today to sign the Mount Vernon Statement, intended to be an updated version of the Sharon Statement of 1960. But, unlike previous statements of conservative principles, the Mount Vernon Statement hearkens back to America’s Founding documents. The statement proclaims that the change we urgently need in both conservatism and America “is 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.” The ideas of human equality, natural rights, and consent are under attack in America. It is up to conservatives to affirm these principles and to recognize that any meaningful policy agenda rests on a solid foundation of first principles. Policy differences are inevitable and debate ought to be encouraged, so long as that debate is grounded in principles.
The Mount Vernon Statement appeared at CPAC in Representative Paul Ryan’s speech. Ryan reminded the crowd that “economic conservatism and social conservatism come from the same moral root. You can’t give up one to defend the other and they must never be separated.” Policy alone is not enough to unite conservatism. Principles are necessary: they unite conservatives and also provide a basis to critique and reject liberals’ ambitions for government. America’s principles drove the Revolutionary War, survived the Civil War, and, although battered and abused, they have weathered the Progressives’ attack in the 20th century. These same principles can certainly survive jeering and the policy disagreements of CPAC and once again unite a movement to save America.