Our Sharon

October 20, 2011 3:53 pm ET — Ari Rabin-Havt

In the fall of 1960, approximately 90 conservatives, primarily students, descended on William F. Buckley's 47-acre family estate in Sharon, Connecticut. Joined by movement icons such as novelist John Dos Passos, libertarian political philosopher Frank Meyer, fundraiser Marvin Liebman, and Buckley himself, they spawned a new conservative organization, Young Americans for Freedom. More significantly, they drafted a statement of principles that helped guide the conservative movement for the next 30 years.

The path to the Sharon conference, which was described in Gregory L. Schneider's Cadres For Conservatism: Young Americans for Freedom and the Rise of the Contemporary Right, began during a seemingly minor campaign to defend a requirement that all students receiving money from the National Defense Education Act — an otherwise noncontroversial law passed in the wake of Sputnik's launch that sought to increase college enrollment, particularly in areas beneficial to national defense — sign a loyalty oath. Conservative students succeeded in beating back a challenge to the loyalty oath from more than 100 university presidents. (Their success, however, was short-lived, and the requirement that students take the oath to receive funding was repealed in 1962.)

Following their victory in the loyalty oath campaign, many of the same students joined together to fight for Barry Goldwater's inclusion on the 1960 Republican ticket as vice president. Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon, thwarting their efforts, cut a deal with Nelson Rockefeller to place Massachusetts Republican Henry Cabot Lodge on the ticket.

Goldwater's energetic supporters left the Republican National Convention in Chicago planning the meeting that would take place in Sharon a few months later. There, they would form a new conservative organization, but, more importantly, they would enunciate their cause as never before. The product of the conference was a 368-word statement, reading, in part:

That the market economy, allocating resources by the free play of supply and demand, is the single economic system compatible with the requirements of personal freedom and constitutional government, and that it is at the same time the most productive supplier of human needs;

That when government interferes with the work of the market economy, it tends to reduce the moral and physical strength of the nation.

This was not simply an intellectual exercise. "What is so striking in the students who met at Sharon is their appetite for power," wrote William F. Buckley after the conference. "Ten years ago, the struggle seemed so long, so endless, even, that we did not dream of victory."

Within four years, the ideology espoused by the students had taken over the GOP, as Goldwater won the Republican nomination. And a mere 20 years later, a presidential candidate perfectly embodying the values of the Sharon Statement was elected to the White House.

While mainstream in Republican circles now, the Sharon Statement was a radical expression of conservative thought at the time. Goldwater's extremism led to Lyndon Johnson's 44-state landslide in 1964. However, it inspired a group of activists, shifting the tectonic plates of our national politics and contributing to Ronald Reagan's 44-state victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980.

For at least a decade, progressives have sought our own Sharon Statement. At numerous conferences, retreats, and informal gatherings, progressives have sought to author a unifying statement of principles. Having been part of several of these efforts, I witnessed that most often, the discussions are constricted by mainstream political realities, the fear of the next election, organizational politics, or the general balkanization among the different factions of the progressive movement.

Unconstrained by these limitations, the General Assembly of Occupy Wall Street issued its own statement. The "Declaration of the Occupation of New York City" is not a partisan document — just as the Sharon Statement did not champion the Republican Party. It does not try to wedge itself into the narrow Overton Window that the consensus of the Washington elite suggests should limit our discourse.

Its first three clauses set a tone for the document, summing up in detail the reasons for protest:

They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process, despite not having the original mortgage. They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give Executives exorbitant bonuses. They have perpetuated inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one's skin, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.

The document continues laying out in stark contrast the failings of our elites in government, finance, and the media. There is no need to universally endorse every point in the document. With the wide variety of issues contained within, that would be nearly impossible. More vital is acknowledging the fact that our system is broken and that those in power have done nothing to fix it.

The New York Times summed up the feeling contained within most succinctly: "As the Occupy Wall Street protests spread from Lower Manhattan to Washington and other cities, the chattering classes keep complaining that the marchers lack a clear message and specific policy prescriptions. The message — and the solutions — should be obvious to anyone who has been paying attention since the economy went into a recession that continues to sock the middle class while the rich have recovered and prospered."

For decades, we have been shackled by the electoral process, unable to articulate a clear statement of our values, lest it interfere with the success of a Democrat from a "red" state or place our favorite "progressive" politician in an uncomfortable position.

Occupy Wall Street has issued a clarion call signaling the failure of our overreliance on electoral action, the hubris of believing leaders in Washington know better, and the danger of trusting those in power whose interests only temporarily align with our own.