Progressive/conservative panel laments futility of labeling



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The panelists were organized according to political philosophy, progressives on the left, conservatives on the right. Hauenstein Center Executive Director Gleaves Whitney , who served as moderator, sits between.

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“Conservative” panelists were Barbara Elliott, President of Center for Cultural Renewal in Houston; Winston Elliott, Editor-in-Chief, The Imaginative Conservative, and President of The Free Enterprise Institute; and Ted McAllister, Edward L. Gaylord Professor and Associate Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University, and currently scholar-in-residence at Princeton University.

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“Progressives” include Noreen Myers, Grand Rapids employment law and civil rights attorney and recently retired chair of Grand Valley State University’s Board of Trustees; Michael DeWilde, GVSU philosophy professor and founder of the Working Classics philsophy program; and Paul Murphy,  history professor at GVSU and author.

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

“Labeling things, putting very particular people and ideas into abstract categories, is a form of coercion,” said Ted V. McAllister of Pepperdine University at a panel discussion called “Why Progressive? Why Conserva-tive?” last Monday.

Indeed, as the discussion continued, it was clear that the two political categories have blurry edges, and the three representatives for each “side” of the debate had more in common than any of them would have suspected.

“At dinner, I was dismayed to find myself liking them,” joked Grand Valley State University (GVSU) Philosophy Professor Michael DeWilde, who represented the progressive point of view.
This was by design in the sense that, as McAllister noted afterwards, the organizers  chose panelists who are flexible enough to see the others’ points of view, and who were likely to have numerous points of intersection.

Or as “conservative” panelist Barbara Elliott put it, after saying it had been a delight to get to know her “progressive” counterparts, “All of us are a little quirky and not exactly easy to pigeonhole.”

The Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at GVSU hosted the panel, billed as an attempt to answer the question, “Is common ground possible in our polarized political and cultural environment?”

The Hauenstein Center is named for centenarian Ralph Hauenstein, a West Michigan philanthropist whose fascinating life has been the subject of previous Grand Rapids Legal News stories. Its Director, Gleaves Whitney, shapes the aggressive schedule of public offerings by the Center and served as moderator of Monday’s panel.

Probably the most telling portion of the Hauenstein Center’s mission is: “We promote civic engagement that (1) honors the Founders’ vision of a constitutional republic; (2) builds on existing democratic institutions that promote justice, freedom, opportunity, sustainable prosperity, and the rule of law; and (3) envisions the possibilities for creating better communities.”
Better communities was one focal point of the discussion. There was agreement about that being a necessary and laudable goal, but the distinction between the panelists’ views on how to achieve it isolated one factor that they

themselves thought was pivotal in describing their differences: the centrality of the individual.

The progressives seemed to take the individual and individual rights as their touchstone. Ayn Rand aside, the conservatives represented on the panel felt that the “family,” broadly construed, was a sufficiently important institution that it superseded the individual, and further that the individual can best be understood in terms of the family and the community. “Anything human is contextual,” McAllister said. “One principle I believe in is that individuals do not form the family, the family — by which I don’t mean Leave it to Beaver, it’s more complex than that — is prior to individuals.”

Added Winston Elliott, who is President of the Free Enterprise Institute and editor of The Imaginative Conservative, “We need to ask if American conservatism does play a part in bringing order to liberty. I think we see clearly the constant tension between order and personal freedom.”

Panelist Noreen K. Myers, an attorney in Grand Rapids who has served on GVSU’s Board of Trustees since 2005, only recently retiring as its chair, responded that it is a mischaracterization of her position to say that she regarded individual freedoms as paramount. Referring to her opening remarks, Myers said, “I don’t think I said that the individual is autonomous, and I agree the individual flourishes and grows within the family as the basic societal unit. While we’re social beings who need community to thrive, I just think that reasonable people have the capacity to look beyond their particular circumstances.”

Conversely, Barbara Elliott asserted that one thing she has learned from her work is that in order to make real change it must be approached at the most individual and particularized level. She is the president of the Center for Cultural Renewal, “a resource center for faith-based organizations working to renew the cities of America,” and the founder of the highly successful WorkFaith Connection, helping prisoners, the homeless, and the addicted find jobs.

Others referred to this as localism, a tradition which certainly has adherents in both the liberal and the conservative communities.

It is important to note that all three of the conservative panelists derived their beliefs to some degree from the famous Michiganian Russell Kirk. Author of The Conservative Mind and one of the founders of the well-known conservative journal National Review, Kirk worked for (and later reviled) Michigan State University until 1959, and spent the rest of his life writing both fiction and non-fiction in the small village of Mecosta, north of Grand Rapids.

His wife Annette Kirk, who has run the Russell Kirk Center since her husband’s death in 1994, was present at Monday’s event, and the Russell Kirk Center was a sponsor.

Said McAllister, “When I spent time with Russell Kirk on my first pilgrimage to the Russell Kirk Center, he insisted that he and I go plant a tree. This seemed to symbolize his understanding: you recognize you owe something to the environment and to the people who come after you.”

Grand Valley State University History Professor Paul Murphy, who is also author of The New Era:  American Thought and Culture in the 1920s,  identified what he felt was a flaw in early progressivists as their aggressive belief in efficiency, in a sense leading to the notion of making the best return on your buck. Having already stated that he preferred the term liberal to progressive, he said, “I think modern liberalism is different from its earlier roots, which had to do with ensuring  freedom from the monarch, from authorities restricting your ability to act in your own interests. By the late 19th century, individuals could see much that had gone wrong with their society in terms of capitalism and industrialism. As they became aware that there is a danger not only from governmental power but also from private sources of power, they saw the need for some kind of restraint.” He later added in response Barbara Elliott’s question about what the progress in progressivism was toward, “I’m not a fan of progress.”

McAllister responded, “I agree with everything Paul has said. I think we have to realize that corporations are not natural entities, they’re governmental entities. Incorporation laws fundamentally transformed the nature of American business, but those were government decisions often reinforced by progressives. I’m not arguing against having corporations, but I do believe that corporations are not the same thing as businesses.”

Emphasizing that neither conservatism or liberalism is monolithic, Winston Elliott replied to McAllister, “I don’t necessarily agree with anything you said.” He added, “I would simply say that this is an example of the tension between order and freedom.”

The Hauenstein Center continues its thought-provoking event schedule in the fall with an October session on “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion” by national expert Jonathan Haidt. To keep up with the center’s  Wheelhouse Talks, American Conversation series, and other public events, visit


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