AMAC Exclusive – By David P. Deavel
Do you know what time it is? The phrase, coined by the political strategist and Twitter warrior David Reaboi, means that one must understand the reality of the present and not act as if we are living in the past. This past week was a wake-up call for some conservative thinkers and politicians on this score. Two events—the release of another conservative manifesto and a very early candidate forum for GOP presidential hopefuls—that might seem only of interest to diehard political junkies actually showed how some conservatives still are acting as if they live in a world that does not exist. It is a world in which they can avoid difficult questions and repeat old answers that will allow them to appeal to some sort of “neutral” political ground. Because this doesn’t exist, this untimely behavior is separating them from both conservative voters and the public.
The first event was the July 13 release of a new statement by a group of 82 signatories calling themselves Freedom Conservatives. “Freedom Conservatism: A Statement of Principles” lays out a series of ten principles that they think can stand as a unifying statement for American conservatives in the way that the famous 1960 Sharon Statement did for an earlier generation of American conservatives. Most likely designed as a response to last year’s “National Conservatism: A Statement of Principles,” it puts the emphasis on individual liberty, federalism, the need for fiscal sanity and a repudiation of the “corrosive combination of government intervention and private cronyism” that is making the basics of life so much more expensive in today’s America. It is pro-immigration but allows that America has a right to secure her borders. It affirms freedom of conscience and religion. And it supports the traditional family as the best way to build our society.
So far, so good. There is not a lot to disagree with. But this is the problem. In an introduction to the document published at RealClearPolitics, John Hood of the North Carolina-based John William Pope Foundation wrote, “We stress what we are for, not what we’re against.” But this is part of the problem. The original Sharon Statement was certainly for the same principles but forthrightly understood that there was an enemy: “the forces of international Communism.”
The idea that any political statement that does not identify what it is opposed to today seems dubious at best. As a friend texted me about the statement, “It seems blind to the specter of debilitating nihilism all around us.”
Yet Hood’s introduction alluded to what he perceives as the real problems, presumably on the right: “We offer real solutions to pressing problems, not utopian dreams or authoritarian schemes.” If by that he means the small number of Catholic “Integralists” who are proposing a Catholic Church-State union, I’m certainly on board.
But there is a worrisome tendency on the more classically liberal and libertarian end of the conservative movement to disdain the use of government to achieve any ends in our society. Should Ron DeSantis rebuild one public Florida college with conservative leadership or take away Disney’s sweetheart deal that allowed the corporation to effectively be the local government? Heaven forfend!
There is also a worrisome tendency toward thinking only of economic topics. When the document gets to the principle of equality under the law, one expects to see something about the extraordinary way in which the Biden Department of Justice and the many Soros-funded district attorneys have persecuted their political enemies and allowed their political allies to evade justice. Or perhaps the extraordinary way in which the government used supposedly private social media companies to censor their political enemies and supposedly independent media for propaganda? Yet the only thing mentioned is “the explosion of unaccountable and unelected regulators who routinely exceed their statutory authority and abridge Americans’ constitutional rights.”
True. But the fact that limiting the language to this particular example ignores both the offenses already mentioned and the extraordinary abridgement of economic and other rights (done in completely unequal ways) during the COVID fiasco shows how untimely this document is.
Perhaps that was the price of compromise. It’s particularly unimpressive that some of the signatures on this document belong to people such as Jonah Goldberg and Brent Orrell, American Enterprise Institute (AEI) fellows, who, along with Bulwark editor Charlie Sykes, went far out of the conservative mainstream with their continuing NeverTrumpism. Goldberg and Sykes have allowed themselves to be seen much more as anti-Trump than as conservatives.
Considering Hood’s worry about “authoritarian schemes,” I remember attending a conference in March 2022 with Orrell, of whom I had never heard before. I was shocked that this American Enterprise Institute (AEI) fellow had only problems of details with the technocratic claims of our “public health” officials claiming to protect us from Covid. He thought that exercising doubts about the wisdom of mask mandates and school closures was a sign of selfishness and perfidy.
Orrell didn’t have much appreciation of “freedom” when it came to private schools, churches, businesses, and Republican states that had reopened or issued policies of freedom against the wisdom of the “experts.”
Similarly, yet another AEI fellow who signed the document, Dalibor Rohac, is in favor of globalism, by which he means explicitly that “countries and nation states [including the U.S.] should be able to pool sovereignty and decision-making and create common structures that potentially constrain the discretion that the elected officials in these nation states possess.” No doubt we should keep the treaties we make with others, but why exactly ought we to enter into agreements tying our own hands? And he had urged the EU in 2021 to adopt COVID “vaccine passports.” This is freedom? It’s not surprising that many people in the conservative world wonder if AEI is a conservative organization anymore.
On the upside, some libertarians were upset that the document was not libertarian enough. See Ilya Somin’s worries that the document doesn’t make clear whether the signers are ok with porn, the legalization of prostitution, drugs, and abortion—all of which he appears to support. He further worries that most (if not all) attempts to secure our borders will improperly restrict the liberty of would-be immigrants and citizens.
Some of the signees, a few of whom are friends, realized that the document is unlikely to do much in its present state. Jay Richards, who directs the DeVos Center at the Heritage Foundation, released a couple of tweet threads over the weekend that explained how he thought of the document “as a *minimal* summary of the American principles of ‘ordered liberty’ that is at risk of getting lost in the shuffle happening on the right.” He went on to identify a number of points that he thinks need to be remembered, including: the challenge of China; the recognition “that private corporations have often become partisans in the culture war—almost always on the wrong side—and we should push back hard”; that, accordingly, the fight today is not simply business versus government; that we need to fight against “globalism and the dissolution of borders” and the confusion of free trade with “globalist ideology”; that we need to focus on culture, even going so far as to “emphasize God as a public truth, and robust religion as essential to the survival of the American Experiment”; and to focus on the reality of sex in the face of radical gender ideology.
If the document had looked more like Richards’s threads, it might have been a lot more interesting and given the impression that the authors knew what time it is. As it is, it looks, as my skeptical friend put it, as if it were written in 1985.
But the Freedom Conservatives’ statement was not the only thing that seemed stuck in 1985. The second event that revealed the need for conservatives to figure out what time it is was the presidential candidate forum broadcast in Des Moines, Iowa, by Blaze TV with Tucker Carlson grilling all the GOP candidates except the frontrunner, Donald Trump. This event had both a media and a political lesson.
In terms of media, Fox News failed to figure out what time it is for a conservative network. While once upon a time, the network would have been the natural place for a big GOP event, it is no more. Not only was The Blaze’s production a massive success, but Carlson, whom Fox unceremoniously canceled earlier this year despite his being their highest-rated host, announced this week that he is starting his own media company. Fox’s straits are now dire enough that reports are leaking out that the network is laying off employees across the company and raising salaries for those who stay at a rate below inflation. (At the TPUSA event that President Trump did attend this weekend, the crowd booed mercilessly when the network was mentioned.)
With regard to the actual politicians, the satirical site The Babylon Bee summed things up best with its headline “Authorities On Hunt For Arsonist Who Just Burned Down Three Presidential Campaigns.” While Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy were impressive and Nikki Haley did ok, Carlson unveiled the candidates who don’t grasp the American people’s sense that both American foreign and domestic policy is not responding to the present reality.
Former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson showed that the man seems to have no idea why people would object to his vetoing of a bill that would outlaw giving children puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and gender reassignment surgeries. While Hutchinson affirmed the reality of “two genders” and seemed to say he would draw the line at surgeries, he couldn’t answer why the hormonal treatments were bona fide medical care and thus why they should be allowed. In other words, though he talked about “parental guidance,” he couldn’t explain why parents should be allowed to have doctors do such things.
South Carolina Senator Tim Scott and former Vice President Mike Pence were both tripped up by Carlson’s questioning about America’s involvement in the Ukraine-Russia War—a topic that is particularly poignant given that this weekend President Biden authorized sending three thousand reserves to Europe. We are sending massive amounts of money and arms to Ukraine already. Even assuming our support in this case is both effective and in our national interest, can we afford this? Why aren’t we spending money on our own beaten down cities and our practically open border?
Pence and Scott both answered with clichés. Pence said we can “be the leader of the free world and solve our problems at home” while Scott said we can “chew gum and walk at the same time.” The crowd in Des Moines seemed unmoved by such answers. They are no doubt aware not only of the taxpayer money going without any oversight to Ukraine, but also the problems of our military with its emphasis on woke indoctrination, its recruitment problems, and the loss of solid soldiers and sailors who refused to take on the risk of COVID vaccines that neither prevented disease nor the transmission of disease to others.
Conservatives have a great opportunity to convince America of their ability to solve, or at least ameliorate, a great many of the problems that are afflicting the body politic. But thinkers and politicians who think they can coast on yesterday’s speeches and solutions will soon find that interest in them is purely historical.
David P. Deavel teaches at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, and is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. Follow him on Twitter @davidpdeavel.