Progressives and conservatives have occasion for meeting of the minds


by Cynthia Price
Legal News

In the popular conception, or misconception as some argue, progressives are equivalent to liberals and conservatives are more or less the alt-right, and never the twain shall meet.

The truth is much more nuanced in all three of those assumptions, though there is subtletly and individuation that makes it all difficult to pin down.

But no one is trying harder than the people at Grand Valley State University’s Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies. The Center’s Common Grounds Initiative seeks to clarify some of that uncertainty and help people understand just what the differences and potential similarities might be.

Last Friday and Saturday marked the second Progressive-Conservative Summit held by the Hauenstein Center as part of its Common Grounds Initiative.

Director Gleaves Whitney wrote an article distributed at the conference asking, “Is Common Ground Possible?”?In the introduction, he states, “A lot of people are skeptical about what the Hauenstein Center is trying to do. Seriously now, common ground between progressives and conservatives?” He concludes, “The historic reality of America is that We the People have worked together enough to find common purpose around important issues at critical historic moments. When that happens, we all benefit as members of the same American community.”

For example, though Robert Nisbet — the subject of a Saturday afternoon talk by the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies at Hillsdale College, Bradley J. Birzer — was a thoroughgoing conservative, one of his first books, The Quest for Community, was well-loved by progressive radicals in the 1960s.

In that day and age, conservatives (of whom Nesbit was one) actually undertook the first criticisms of the war in Vietnam, which later became associated with radical leftists.

An example in today’s world is the opposition to free trade agreements, but again the two spheres of thought offer different reasons for opposing them.

The Common Grounds Initiative has offered some telling insights over the years, and will continue the effort, in the tradition of the Center’s namesake.

Ralph Hauenstein was a leader, public servant and philanthropist whose intellectual curiosity resulted in funding the Center with the goal of helping develop future leaders who will be ethical and effective. Ralph Hauenstein was covered several times in the Grand Rapids Legal News before his death in early 2016 at the age of 103.

There are other streams of influence on the urge to find common ground, including the obvious influence of former President Gerald R. Ford. Another often-overlooked individual form the area is Russell Kirk, after whom Birzer’s university chair is named.

Kirk was born in Michigan and, after becoming disenchanted with teaching at Michigan State University, started inviting students to his home in Mecosta, north of Grand Rapids. Both that outreach and his writing, including the famous 1953 book The Conservative Mind, led to his being immensely influential in shaping the conservative thought revival  after the second World War.

Kirk’s widow Annette, who has a lively mind in her own right, attended the conference.

At the Progress-Conservative Summit, leading lights of both persuasions came together to explore the ideas of both traditional conservatism and the progressive left.

The conference kicked off with an evening discussion called “Intellectuals and Trump? Understanding Our Disruptive Moment.” On Saturday afternoon, there was a panel on “Conservative Thought in the Age of President Trump,” but otherwise there was little mention of current politics.

It is interesting to note in that regard that, at a panel discussion the following day, conservative Winston Elliott said that organizations with which he is associated, including the Free Enterprise Institute (as President) and the blog The Imaginative Conservative, eschew partisan politics almost completely.

In answer to a question posed by moderator Joseph Hogan, who hosts the Hauenstein Center’s podcast series, Elliott said, “Trump doesn’t make much difference to us. We’re dedicated to publishing the truth and the beautiful, and that means we focus primarily in the area of the arts and culture. We try to limit politics to no more than 15-19%. And I’ve always found that political art is bad art.”

Indeed, if there is a consistent philosophy behind traditional conservative thought — in an essay on The Imaginative Conservative site, Kirk says “...conservatism is the negation of ideology” — it is that the best way to counteract the tyrannizing aspects of government is by preserving Western culture and traditions.

The other conservative panelists, Ingrid Gregg, who was President of the Earhart Foundation until its intentional closing in 2015, and Daniel McCarthy, a widely-published writer also associated with  The Imaginative Conservative, agreed that the temporal politics of today have little effect on the continuity of conservatism. All called Trump a populist and not a conservative.

The three members of the left were Sarah Leonard, senior editor of ?The Nation, Bhaskar Sunkara, Editor and Publisher of the socialist journal Jacobin, and David Marcus, literature editor of The Nation and editor-at-large for Dissent, seemed all to feel that the populist movement represented by Trump’s taking office was an opportunity for the left to revitalize and renew outreach efforts to all of the disenfranchised. All three observed that their publications’ circulations had increased since the election.

Sunkara and the highly articulate Leonard had co-authored a book, The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for  New Century, and since the three leftists were colleagues and friends, they expressed a more homogeneous view than others might have. All agreed that there was, indeed, common ground in some of the critiques of what has happened in recent history, if not ultimately the goals for what is to come.

Robert Nisbet, the subject of Bradley Birzer’s talk, was an interesting case in point. Nisbet did not fit the current conservative mold at all, and, for example, he was opposed to the “marriage” of conservatism and religion, as were many of his fellow conservatives.

Said Birzer, “Nesbit, along with his colleagues was very deeply concerned about the growth of the American state. They feared conformity arising out of corporate America, they were worried about technology and how it might de-
humanize us,” all concerns with which many leftists would agree.

Birzer also pointed out the history of conservatives championing “intermediate institutions,” such as family, neighborhood, community, church, in safeguarding against those threats.