The Sharon Statement

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I was reading Dave Weigel’s article on yesterday’s loopy right-wing event at Mount Vernon and was interested to read a glancing reference to William F Buckley’s 1960 Sharon Statement. Erick Erickson of Red State spells the analogy out in some detail:

Back in the 60’s, people did things like get together and hammer out shared statements on unifying goals. In 1960, William F. Buckley and a group of likeminded conservatives, put together the Sharon Statement. Adopted on September 11, 1960, the statement provided a broad, general statement of principles around which conservatives could rally.

The statement has stood the test of time.

Today, fifty years later, conservatives are gathering at Mt. Vernon outside of Washington, D.C. to sign on to the Mt. Vernon Statement. I’m a signer and I’m out at Mt. Vernon today.

Now I want to try to be clear about the claim I’m going to make next since I know conservatives get defensive about this stuff: Even though the Shannon Statement doesn’t say anything explicitly about race or civil rights, if you read the document in historical context then it’s clear that these seemingly rote clichés about limited government and federalism convey, among other things, opposition to civil rights legislation.

The context is really key here. In 2009, the main issues of the day are health reform, economic stimulus, and climate change. Whether or not private business and state government should be allowed to collaborate in erecting an apartheid social system is not a big deal. Things were different in 1960. In 1954, the Supreme Court handed down the Brown v Board of Education decision. In 1957, over the objection of a coalition of Southern Democrats and a right-wing minority of Northern Republicans, the congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1957. William F Buckley Jr denounced this act and the civil rights movement in general in statements like his famous article “Why The South Must Prevail.” In 1960, congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1960 which established federal inspection of local voter registration polls and introduced penalties for anyone who obstructed someone’s attempt to register to vote or actually vote. 1960 was also the year in which Buckley, an avowed opponent of the civil rights movement, wrote the Sharon Statement whose principles would clearly rule such an effort to secure black people’s rights as illegitimate.

In 1962, Young American for Freedom, the group whose founding document the Sharon Statement is, bestowed its “Freedom Award” on arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond. This is because in the conservative/libertarian orthodoxy prevailing in the 1960s, freedom meant white people’s freedom from federal efforts to interfere with racial discrimination, not black people’s freedom from racism. In 1964, congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. The vast majority of congressional Republicans supported it, but Barry Goldwater did not, and he—with strong backing from YAF and other conservative movement organizations—captured the ’64 Republican Party presidential nomination.

Now, people are very invested in the idea that Buckley’s opposition to civil rights and Goldwater’s opposition to civil rights was principled and honorable and not motivated by racism. Fine. As usual, no conservatives are ever racist. But as I’ve said many times, the central view of the modern American conservative movement on race is anti-anti-racism—zealous defense of the interests of white people who may find themselves unduly inconvenienced by minorities’ efforts to secure equality for themselves. Nowadays this is a pretty muted theme. But in 1960, at the time of the adoption of the Sharon Statement, the civil rights issue was highly salient and the division within both parties between wings that favored and opposed civil rights was very politically significant. One of the principle aims of the early conservative movement was to put forward a kind of ideological fusion that would link libertarian economic principles to white supremacist cultural principles to hawkish foreign policy principles and the Sharon Statement is just such a “fusionist” document.

Modern right-wingers, of course, would never say that their views on federalism or limited government lead them to oppose civil rights. Instead, their views on federalism and limited government lead them to oppose anti-discrimination legislation aimed at helping gay, lesbian, and transgendered Americans. It’s totally, totally different.