Monday, October 24, 2016

Tonsor #13 -- Is a "Liberal Conservative" an Oxymoron?

Winslow Homer, "The Fog Warning" (1885)
After the trip to Washington, DC, where I thrilled at seeing the U.S. Constitution in a bicentennial celebration at the National Archives, I returned to Ann Arbor intellectually stimulated by the experience and eager to resume my history apprenticeship. There was snap in the morning air when I set out to meet Tonsor during office hours. I spied him crossing the Diag in front of the Undergraduate Library (aptly called "the UGLI" because it looked like an IBM punch card). It was the first time I saw him wearing a hat. It looked reminiscent of a boater's hat from a Winslow Homer painting -- or the hat worn by the Paddington Bear. Yes, that student I'd met the first day of class had spoken perceptively: there was something ursine about Tonsor.

As our paths converged, I hailed my professor. He said hello in that expectant way of his, and then caught me up about the latest Trollope novel he was reading. When we reached the fourth floor of Haven Hall, there was a young man waiting outside his office; he was wearing a Red Wings cap. Tonsor greeted the undergraduate, showed him into the office, and put his hat down on the table. I remained standing outside the office, and what I saw next was unlike any interaction I'd ever witnessed between a professor and his student -- or between any two people. The student sat down but did not remove his cap. Tonsor also sat down and, annoyed that the student did not have the manners to remove his cap, put his hat back on his head. It was a ridiculous scene: The professor sitting stock still with his boater's hat on, staring down a hapless student whose felony was to keep his Red Wings cap on. Finally the chastised student got the hint and took his cap off, at which point Tonsor took his hat back off, and the two began conversing as if nothing had happened. It was very strange. If my professor had lived in the Middle Ages, he no doubt would have been called Stephen the Irascible. When my turn came to go into his office, I made sure to remove my ivy cap before crossing the threshold!

Rendering of the Undergraduate Library (UGLI)
"Come in, Mr. Whitney. You have not yet told me about your trip to Washington."

"The organizers kept us busy," I said, taking a seat where Red Wing boy had just been dressed down. "The highlight was seeing the Constitution on its 200th birthday, and the Declaration of Independence, too. Your lecture on liberalism was in my head as I walked around Washington, DC, taking in the sights of the 'Imperial City.' I also thought about something you said after the first class, when you referred to yourself as a 'liberal conservative.'[1] I need help understanding what that means because it seems like an oxymoron."

"This is true," said Tonsor. "It's an important question, and we don't have time to do it justice before class starts. But consistent with the sound practice of intellectual history, we can at least start with definitions in their historical context. There is not one liberalism but many, and its American permutations differ in significant respects from the liberalisms found elsewhere, or that developed previously. So one has to qualify what one means by 'liberal' and 'liberalism.'

"The same must be said of 'conservative.' There are many hyphenated conservatives nowadays -- traditionalist, economic, anti-communist, evangelical, neocon. Moreover, the American permutations differ in significant particulars from conservative thought elsewhere, or that developed previously. One has to specify what one means by 'conservative.'

"To define the term, 'liberal conservative,' I start with the observation that modern man lives with tensions, paradoxes, and contradictions -- oppositions that arise from our civilization's conflicting sources of intellectual and moral authority. In our shorthand way, we call those conflicting sources the Enlightenment and Christendom. In reality, they have a complex and overlapping relationship to one another, something like that of a child to a parent. They are continually clashing, continually generating conflicting ideas and discourse in our public affairs. As a result, the liberal conservative must be discerning. For he believes in freedom as well as in order. He believes in individualism as well as in community. He believes in the equality of all men as well as in hierarchy, natural aristocracy, and excellence. He believes in private enterprise, competition, and the market mechanism as well as in those human, moral, and cultural values that cannot be defined by the competition of interests in the marketplace.[2] These contradictions bring to mind the Walt Whitman verse which I recited to your class: 'Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large. I contain multitudes).'[3] No good society has ever existed that has not struck a balance between these opposing sets of values. Personally speaking, I will even say this: My behavior would be less honorable and my world more impoverished were I to abandon any one of these contradictory ideals."[4]

My synapses were lighting up like the Las Vegas Strip. If I understood him correctly, then Tonsor was blowing up all my preconceived notions. Not only was he stretching my understanding of what a liberal and a conservative were; but he was also, unexpectedly, grafting the one onto the other the way a gardener creates a new subspecies. Often the result is a new plant that is stronger than the originals. I had little idea that Tonsor's liberal-conservative pairing could be so fresh, so undoctrinaire, so creative in his approach -- and I wondered how widely known this remarkable teaching was. I would later learn that Russell Kirk, in his influential The Conservative Mind (1953), would devote a section of his book to a prominent group of thinkers he called "liberal conservatives" -- foremost among them Tocqueville -- and the type would prove highly influential in Tonsor's intellectual development.[5]

Stephen Tonsor (left) and Russell Kirk in 1977, courtesy of Annette Kirk
But to extend the biological metaphor, it seemed that Tonsor lived in an estuary of ambiguity; he was anchored in the richness that is found where salt water mixes with fresh; he feasted in an ecosystem where nature most flourishes. It struck me how this strain of thought repositioned conservatism. It had nothing to do with the popular conceptions of conservatism: of stalwarts fighting a rearguard action to defend the status quo, or promoting a politics of nostalgia to return to some golden age. Not at all. Rather, at the true heart of the conservative body of thought was the willingness to embrace the tensions, paradoxes, and contradictions of the human experience -- life as it really is experienced -- and subject it to critical analysis in light of abiding principles.

Tonsor continued speaking and my neurons continued lighting up. "Going all the way back to Aristotle," he said, "you see the development, in free societies, of the liberal-conservative pattern of thought. In the modern age, the liberal conservative has a powerful genealogy, expressed in the writings of Burke, John Adams, Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, Lord Acton, and Jacob Burckhardt.

When George H. Nash's classic treatment of
postwar conservatism came out in 1976,
Tonsor earned a spot on the dust jacket
as one of the nation's top 25
conservative thought leaders.
His photograph is in the lower left corner.
"Now, you may ask yourself: What is peculiarly conservative about the liberal conservative? Well, much of conservative thought is derived from the West's religion, from Christendom. The conservative is a tough-minded realist who understands that human beings are imperfect and imperfectible; that they are usually self-interested and often irrational. He thus values the historic reality of those statesmen, charters, and institutions that act as a check on man's libido dominandi which --"

Tonsor saw my brow furrow. "Libido dominandi comes from St. Augustine. It refers to man's disordered love of overreaching power. The liberal conservative is conservative in his belief that freedom is not enough. Freedom is only viable if it is ordered -- ordered by virtue. Virtue promotes order in the soul and order in society. Although freedom and virtue are in inner tension, they complement each other. The more a man can govern himself by an interior law, the less he needs the government to impose an exterior law. Thus freedom thrives, paradoxically, when it grows out of a tolerable order. Let me be clear on this point: freedom is not freedom if separated from order.

"You may also ask yourself: What is peculiarly liberal about the liberal conservative? Well, the liberal -- at any rate, the classical nineteenth-century liberal -- derives much of his thought from the Enlightenment. Think of the French physiocrats, Adam Smith, Friedrich von Hayek, and Milton Friedman. This type, the classical liberal, appreciates the spirit of freedom in man's nature, the restlessness to throw off oppression and improve his estate. Historically the classical liberal often had to struggle against the ancien regime and thus was a bit more eager for social, economic, and political reform than is his conservative friend. As John Cardinal Newman acknowledged, 'In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to aim for perfection is to have changed often.'[6]

"Newman's words suggest that the liberal believes freedom itself is part of the divine economy. Said his sometime friend, Lord Acton, 'Liberty is so holy a thing that God was forced to permit evil that it might exist.'[7] He understands that liberty is a worthy civilizational goal that has been hard won and easily lost. That's why he celebrates the organic growth of ordered liberty through time-tested constitutions, institutions, and laws. And it is why he frowns on revolutionary fixes and the do-your-own-thing behavior that soon results in anarchy or licentiousness. It is a faux freedom that cannot last.

"To tie these definitions together with your recent visit to Washington, DC, I would say that the liberal conservative today climbs onto the shoulders of giants -- of Aristotle, Burke, John Adams, Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, Lord Acton, Jacob Burckhardt, Jacques Maritain, and John Courtney Murray -- thinkers who were alive to politics as a form of conversation, of rational deliberation. Our American constitutions -- both written and unwritten, and at the state and federal levels -- seek to maintain a political order in which citizens can agree to disagree in a community of civil discourse, arguing and deliberating over the questions of how we shall order our lives together -- without resorting to civil war.[8]

"The liberal conservative thus values the virtue of prudence. He supports the prudent statesmen who can keep our state and federal constitutions balanced on a tightrope. On the one side is a government strong enough to enforce the rule of law as well as smother any incitement to mob rule; on the other side is a government weak enough that it cannot become its own self-interested, devouring tyrant -- because the governors will surely devour a people's freedom if given opportunity to do so. This perennial challenge in the human condition is what the framers of the U.S. Constitution debated. Their success is without parallel in world history. Indeed, at risk of oversimplifying because they possessed an extraordinary range of views, the founders turned out to be a great generation of liberal conservatives."

Tonsor slapped his knees to indicate that office hours were up -- we had to walk across the Diag to our class in East Engineering. But I was dazzled by my professor's lambent intellect. He had just given me the rudiments of an interpretive method by which to order a conservative political philosophy and the practice of intellectual history. I would eventually coin a term for Tonsor's method: "the hermeneutic of accommodating opposites."

When we got settled in class, I noticed three words still on the blackboard: "Learn or die."


[1] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, August 17, 1987, p. 2; letter in GW's private possession, courtesy of Alfred S. Regnery.
[2] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Why I Am a Republican and a Conservative," in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), p. 235.
[3] Stephen J. Tonsor, "The Conservative Search for Identity," in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), p. 247.
[4] Tonsor, "Why I Am a Republican and a Conservative," in Equality, p. 235.
[5] Tonsor began adulthood as a war veteran and Truman Democrat. (See "Why I Am a Republican and a Conservative, in Equality, pp. 231-32; also my first of two interviews with his brother, Bernard Tonsor, July 1, 2014, in Jerseyville, IL.) So when did he begin defining himself as a "liberal conservative"? The seed was likely planted in high school when, thinking he was bound for the seminary, he was introduced to Aristotle's Golden Mean through the synthesizing works of Thomas Aquinas. When he resumed undergraduate study after World War II, he took philosophy courses that confirmed him as an Aristotelian thinker for the rest of his life. (GW correspondence with Ann Tonsor Zeddies, January 26, 2015.) The seed was watered when his dissertation advisor, Joseph Ward Swain, encouraged Tonsor to read Lord Acton in the late 1940s or early 1950s. Acton was "at the center of [his] world." ("Joseph Ward Swain," Equality, p. 316.) The seed was no doubt fertilized when Gertrude Himmelfarb's seminal study, Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics, was published in 1952 by the University of Chicago Press. But germination seems to have occurred when Tonsor encountered the work of Russell Kirk in 1953. He was employed by the U.S. Forest Service as a fire lookout in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, and he describes the remarkable experience of discovering The Conservative Mind on a mountaintop. (See "Joseph Ward Swain," Equality, p. 316; "Why I Too Am Not a Neoconservative," Equality, p. 303; "Russell Kirk," Equality, pp. 317-20; and "Conservative Pluralism: The Foundation and the Academy," pp. 1-2, no date, typed lecture in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery). Tonsor describes the effect The Conservative Mind had on him using a powerful figure of speech: "I dipped my hand in the holy-water fount of Russell Kirk and said, 'Home at last!'" Tonsor tells us that it was when reading Kirk's important book in 1953 that he discovered he was already a conservative: "The event," he later reported, "was not a conversion experience, but a moment of self-revelation" ("Why I Too Am Not a Neoconservative," Equality, p. 303). It is not a stretch to think that he already was defining himself as a "liberal conservative" around this same time. Further evidence is that in graduate school he was a great admirer of Tocqueville, who is explicitly treated by Kirk, in The Conservative Mind, as a liberal conservative. So the process of changing from a Truman Democrat to a liberal conservative probably occurred due to numerous influences between about 1949 and 1954. His later letters to Henry Regnery reveal that he continued to refer to himself as a liberal conservative as late as 1987 (Tonsor to Regnery, August 17, 1987, p. 2; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery).
[6] John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), chapter 1, section 1, part 7.
[7] Acton quoted in Tonsor, “The Conservative Search for Identity,” in Equality, p. 256.
[8] Matthew Rose, "The Liberalism of Richard John Neuhaus," National Affairs, issue no. 28 (summer 2016); at URL, accessed October 24, 2016.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

2016: What's Going On?

A shorter version of this written text was delivered by Hauenstein Center Director Gleaves Whitney at the 2016 Inaugural Wheelhouse Talk, Grand Valley State University, Friday, October 7, 2016.

Age of Anxiety

In 2016 Americans find themselves in one of the most contentious political contests in U.S. history. Soon there will be 51 elections to determine who will serve as the 45th president of the United States. Two very flawed candidates and the ethical controversies surrounding them have unloosed a Niagara of uncertainties, and Americans are feeling anxiety.[1]

Anxiety, because Americans' life expectancy is declining for the first time in two decades.

Anxiety, because two of every three Americans think our nation is on the wrong track.[2] The ISIS “JV team” has turned into an NBA pro team.[3] The murder rate in the last year has jumped more than 40 percent.[4] Racial tensions are as bad as they have been in decades.[5] Health care did not get fixed. The economy did not start rolling. And tensions with Russia are heating up to Cold War levels.

Anxiety, because 80 percent of Americans do not trust the federal government or think its programs are well run. It's at the lowest level since polling on the question began more than 50 years ago.[6]

Anxiety, because this year’s Republican and Democratic presidential candidates are, depending on whom you talk to, either the most repugnant or the most untrustworthy in American history.[7]

Edvard Munch, "The Scream" (1893)
Anxiety, because Donald Trump, who is neither a Reagan Republican nor a conservative, nevertheless captured the Republican nomination. The GOP is his party now, and as a result both the party and the movement[8] are in disarray.

Anxiety, because Bernie Sanders, a socialist, made a credible run for the Democratic nomination and successfully moved the Democratic Party platform farther left than it has ever been. It is fair to say that, had it not been for the electoral interference of the massive Clinton machine, Sanders would have won the nomination and we would be looking at a Sanders-Trump contest for the White House on November 8th.[9]

Anxiety, because the odds-makers' favorite to win the election, Hillary Clinton, is under the greatest cloud of distrust (64 percent) a modern, major-party candidate has experienced. Even if she wins she loses.

Anxiety, because we are bracing for the Next Big Thing when it comes to political realignment. The necessary conditions seem to be gathering like storm clouds on the horizon. We can only guess what it will look like, but realignments occur when some combination of (1) crisis, (2) demographic change, (3) the serious fracturing of a major party, (4) a rising third party, and (5) new leadership and ideas push themselves to the fore. People are increasingly wondering if realignment on the order of 1860, 1932, and 1980 is under way or on the way.[10] It certainly seems that the neglected, white, working class has become a resurgent political force with which to reckon.

There’s anxiety about a new force in politics, social media. Outrageous sums of money will be spent on this presidential contest – more than one billion dollars.[11] Millions of those dollars are for television buys, to no effect. Meanwhile, tweets are moving mountains. Not ground games but rallies will get people to the polls. Are we headed for rule by crowds and plebiscites?

There’s anxiety on the right about the left, because of its open declarations of victory in the culture wars.

There’s anxiety on the left about the right, because of its lurch toward populism, nativism, and protectionism.

There’s anxiety throughout the political establishment because the cozy relationships with special interests are being shaken to the foundations. Did you know that the largest category of voters today is not Democratic, not Republican, but Independent?[12]

We can sum up the Age of Anxiety with two quotations. One is by MSNBC personality Joe Scarborough: “Sanders and Trump fulfill the urge many Americans feel to punch Washington in the face!” The other is by filmmaker Michael Moore: “I live in Michigan. Across the Midwest, across the Rustbelt, a lot of people are angry. They see Donald Trump as their human Molotov cocktail. They get to go into the voting booth on November 8th and throw him into a political system that has made their lives miserable.”[13]

America Transformed

Beyond these election-year surprises, there are long-term forces that pile on the anxiety, at least for certain groups of people. These forces show that we are a different nation from the one passed down to us a generation or two ago.

Look at America’s changing class structure: For the first time in our adult lives, less than 50 percent of the U.S. population is middle class.[14]

Look at our new “greatest generation.” As of April 2016, millennials had overtaken baby boomers, so future elections will increasingly be determined by today’s 18-35 year-old set.[15] The World War II generation is, electorally speaking, insignificant. The baby boomers are increasingly irrelevant because they are starting to die off. They also, as Yuval Levin points out, split roughly down the middle in presidential elections. Baby boomers are consumed by the politics of nostalgia. One half of us embrace nostalgia for the 1950s/1980s and tend to vote Republican. The other half of us embrace nostalgia for the 1960s and tend to vote Democratic. The two halves often cancel each other out in presidential elections.[16] That’s why the real action is shifting to the millennials. Bernie Sanders knows that they are still in intellectual and moral formation. He will concede that Hillary Clinton won the battle of 2016 – she is the Democrats’ nominee – but he intends to win the war. The social democrat has said that, come January 21st, after celebrating Hillary Clinton’s inauguration, he will go to work to win the hearts and shape the values of college-educated millennials since they will determine the future of our country.[17]

These millennials are different from their parents.[18] For one thing, they do not have the historic memory of socialism that their elders do. When you say “socialism” to baby boomers or the World War II generation, they think: gulag archipelago, Checkpoint Charlie, and the Berlin Wall. When you say “socialism” to millennials, they think: Volvo and Ikea. The different mix of associations perhaps explains why millennials are not as wary of authoritarian regimes as older Americans are.[19]

Look at our changing demography. Whites will no longer be a majority but a plurality in 2043[20] – that’s just 27 years from now. Already one of every eight counties is majority-minority. In large part because of the Immigration Act of 1965,[21] families are being transformed. Take, for example, the WASPish Whitney family. When I was a child every last member of my family was a white Caucasian. Today I have a Vietnamese stepmother, an African-American niece, a Chinese-American niece, two Jewish nephews, and (hopefully) a soon-to-be Sri Lankan daughter-in-law.

Look at our changing religion. The last decade has seen the most dramatic decline in U.S. history of Americans who are 100 percent certain that God exists – from 70 percent to 60 percent.[22] And even though the United States still has the largest number of Christians of any nation, there has been a similar decline in people who self-identify with that religion. We know about the dramatic growth of the “nones,” young people who describe themselves as spiritual but who are not members of an organized religion.[23]

Look at federal spending. Our national debt is reaching an unsustainable level – it is $19.5 trillion and growing. Into the foreseeable future, American taxpayers will be paying hundreds of billions of dollars each year in interest on the national debt -- about one in every four tax dollars.[24] Soon it will be the federal government's third largest "program." This is money that will not go to social services or defense or other priorities in the future. As my son Alasdair says to me, “The baby boomers ripped off my generation. My generation will have to pay for the reckless spending spree your generation went on in Washington year after year. Both Democrats and Republicans are at fault.”

As if the foregoing were not enough to rock our world, look at the revolution in our midst that is proving to be every bit as far reaching as the French and Industrial revolutions. And it’s not finished, and we are starting to see it as a driver of massive change.

We cannot even wrap our minds around this upheaval that, for convenience, we shall call the “digital revolution.” Johns Hopkins fellow Alec Ross[25] points to a stunning fact. Every two days as much data has been produced as all the information humans produced between the cave paintings and 2003. The applications of a world coded in zeros and ones are dizzying – driverless cars, precision agriculture, artificial intelligence, robotics, the digital transfer of entire libraries. Did you know that every six hours, the National Security Agency (NSA) is gathering as much information as is stored in the entire Library of Congress?[26] And that it can fit in an object smaller than a key fob?[27] I should think that fact alone would make most Americans anti-statist!

Ross also notes that you can divide the digital revolution into two phases: the world’s last trillion-dollar industry that arose from digital coding, and the world’s next trillion-dollar industry that is coming from genetic coding; the genomic therapies that are being developed now will soon be eliminating diseases and extending life by three to five years.

The digital revolution is breathtaking to those who have the education to access and manipulate it; and it is heartbreaking to those who do not. While many industries and communities are making the digital pivot, not all will. Those that successfully pivot and embrace the digital revolution will prosper. Those that don’t will become slums of despair. The people in the slums of despair will be susceptible to radicalization by the far left and the far right. The truck drivers, the janitors, the hotel maids, the people who fold clothes – if they are not part of the digital revolution, they might become part of a counter-revolution, and tear down what they cannot build up.

Ross illustrates what is happening with a powerful anecdote. There is a businessman in China who owns factories that used to employ almost one million people on assembly lines. He made the digital pivot and brought in robots to work the assembly line. As he said, robots don’t ask for raises; they don’t steal from the company; they don’t get sick; they don’t get tired – they work 24/7 with nary an HR issue. The robots were so successful that this factory owner let go 600,000 people. Ladies and gentlemen, scaled to America, such layoffs could generate a lot of realignment.

As my friend Joe Lehman, president of the Mackinac Center, likes to say: “Here come the robots and the pitchforks aren’t far behind.”

When thinking about the consequences of the digital revolution, it’s not a failure of understanding that worries me; it’s a failure of imagination. To visualize what a digital dystopia might look like, I’d recommend you read Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano. It was written in 1952 and describes a world in which physical labor is eliminated, a world in which people whose vocation it is to work with their hands are left out in the cold.[28]

All this confluence of change was unthinkable just 18 months ago.

One thing has not changed in this exploding landscape: The center does not hold; our society is torn, this way and that, by disintegrating forces that coarsen and cleave the culture.

To understand how we got to this point, I urge you to familiarize yourselves with an international bestseller that went through thirty editions and that has already articulated almost every one of the challenges we face. Its author warns us not to neglect the rising national debt, the growing inequality, the inexorable generational change, the eroding power of the middle class, and the intractable racism that continues to plague society. Did I forget to mention that this bestseller was written in the eighteenth century by the Abbé Raynal, and that he predicted the outbreak of the French Revolution?[29]

Liberal Education

When my wife Mary Eilleen heard the first draft of my remarks, she worried that it was too depressing. She said everyone should take Prozac before coming to the talk. Don’t despair -- I have a hopeful message. Shortly, in fact, I will give you 71 reasons to hope.

But first, let’s counter the anxiety by looking at some of the good things right under our nose. Our university, for starters. We are fortunate to learn and work in a place committed to a liberal education. What is a liberal education?

1. A liberal education transmits the civilization's intellectual patrimony to the rising generation. This task is important because, as Daniel Boorstin observed, "Trying to [impact] the future without knowing the past is like trying to plant cut flowers." So it is essential to the intellectual and moral formation of future leaders.

2. Further, in these increasingly fractious times, survival belongs not to the strongest, but to the most adaptable. The liberal arts develop the perennial skills – close reading, rigorous analysis, critical thinking, clear writing, ethical understanding, and fluency in a foreign language or two – skills that help people adapt in a rapidly changing world. I have an entire file of clippings about successful CEOs who are liberally educated and want to surround themselves with others who are likewise educated.

3. Moreover, a liberal education is a liberating education. As the past president of the University of Chicago, Robert Hutchins, used to say, “A liberal education … frees a [person] from the prison house of his class, race, time, place, background, family, and even his nation.”[30] This does not mean that a person becomes disrespectful of their background, family, nation, and traditions. It means that a person liberally educated is empowered to tap into our common humanity. Sooner or later every thoughtful person must grapple with meaning and mortality, principle and purpose. It is no exaggeration that the liberal arts can give us a reason to get us out of bed in the morning.

Say again?

Consider the story of Admiral James Bond Stockdale. You may recall that he was a vice presidential candidate on the Reform Party ticket in 1992.[31] But the most critical chapter of his life occurred a quarter-century earlier, during the Vietnam War. Admiral Stockdale tells an unforgettable story of why his liberal education was not just an ornament on his resume but the key to his survival. At the start of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, Admiral Stockdale was deployed to fly combat missions over North Vietnam. On an early sortie, his plane was badly shot up and he had to eject. As he floated down to the ground, soldiers started yelling and aiming their guns at him. All of a sudden the thought struck him that if he survived and was confined as a POW, he would need to remember the lessons he had learned in graduate school. In the seconds before he was captured, his mind flashed back to his days at Stanford University, to a philosophy professor who took him under his wing, to a Stoic author they had read together: the author was Epictetus and the book was the Enchiridion. Epictetus taught that there is only one thing that belongs to the individual fully, and that is his will, his sense of purpose. We must distinguish between what we can change and what we cannot change. It does no good to rail against the gods about the things we cannot change. Epictetus’s Stoic outlook equipped Admiral Stockdale to face extreme adversity in a North Vietnamese prison. He credited Epictetus with keeping him morally free during many years of brutal captivity. And he credited his philosophy and faith for empowering him to see the humanity of his captors and thus to forgive them.[32]

4. We have all had the experience of identifying with a hero in a biography, novel, or movie who inspires us to reach higher, go farther, be better. Well, a liberal education has the same goal. It seeks to instill sympathetic identification (German Einfühlung) with all manner of people. It extends our awareness of the different types of individuals who inhabit our world. It habituates our minds to see our common humanity with others. Look at how a novel draws us into a type of person we’d never otherwise encounter. Look at how history is time travel that takes us to that wonderfully distant country, the past. Successful study of the past requires that we step out of the parochial present, put ourselves in the shoes of another human being, and try to see life from their viewpoint. This is why the liberal arts go a long way to tempering racism, sexism, and other destructive biases in our social relations.[33]

Common Ground Initiative

As can be gleaned from the foregoing, at the heart of our university is liberal education; at the heart of liberal education is sympathetic identification; and at the heart of sympathetic identification is the possibility of finding common ground with others.

Indeed, common ground is the organizing principle of the Hauenstein Center’s aptly named Common Ground Initiative.[34] Established in 2013, our Common Ground Initiative is the first if not the only such program in higher education in the U.S. We seek to rebuild confidence and participation in our public institutions. To do so we invite progressives and conservatives to come together on the same stage and explore their similarities and differences. Of course, there is always risk when bringing conservatives and liberals together. As the wit, Ambrose Bierce, observed, a conservative is “a statesman enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal who wishes to replace them with others.”[35]

The focus on sympathetic identification does not mean that we shy away from intellectual and moral argument. Au contraire, we encourage respectful argument because “to hone one’s mind against the gritty stone of another” produces moral and intellectual excellence.[36] It forces us to examine our truth claims in a real and honest way.

Election year 2016 could not have played out better for showing how needed our Common Ground Initiative is – not just because of the polarization of the electorate; not just because of the extreme discourse; but also because progressives and conservatives have started to rethink their first principles. In the process, we challenge the two camps to discover where common philosophical, historical, political, and cultural ground might exist.

The liberal arts are indispensable to the endeavor.

For example, from literature we learn the truth taught by Walt Whitman, that we can respect the opinions of others because we first recognize those same opinions in ourselves. As his poem “Song of Myself” puts it, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then. I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.”

From Jonathan Haidt’s work in evolutionary psychology, we learn another truth. When it comes to their moral outlook, conservatives and progressives actually have more in common than they usually recognize or are willing to admit.[37]

From psychology we learn a truth taught by Dr. John Gottman in his lab at the University of Washington.[38] He details the nonverbal signals we can and must avoid if we want to communicate with each other and find common ground.

From political philosophy we learn a truth from two scholars, Cornel West and Robert George, who hold quite different views. They delighted a Hauenstein Center audience when each said of the other: “He is my brother in the search for truth.”[39]

From anthropology we learn that there have been some 6,000 cultures. Most are unitary in that there is one authoritative source of beliefs, values, and attitudes in the culture. By contrast, a few cultures are binary because they have two authoritative sources of beliefs, values, and attitudes; the members of binary cultures must learn to mediate between the two competing sources if psychological integration and social harmony are to be preserved.

From history we learn that Western civilization is a binary culture. Members of our culture must mediate between the modern, scientific, Enlightenment source of values on the one hand, and the ancient philosophical and medieval religious source of values on the other. Both are authoritative. The former has helped shape our conception of nature, natural law, and natural right; the latter, our belief in the dignity of all human beings.

From political history, we learn how delegates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, despite holding quite diverse opinions and even different anthropologies, forged one of the world's great political documents. The U.S. Constitution is a masterpiece of power dilution. Indeed, the framers diluted and dispersed power so effectively that political parties had to come into being to get anything done.

Cynics in 2016 will wonder if that was a good thing! Cynics will also say we are Pollyannaish: “In America,” they will say, “there are two parties. One is the evil party and the other is the stupid party. Occasionally they get together and pass legislation that is both evil and stupid. They call it bipartisanship.”[40]

We are not so cynical. At the Hauenstein Center, grounded as we are in the liberal arts and dedicated to the pursuit of common ground for the common good, students learn a lot of different ways to build bridges to each other.

My own approach to common ground starts with our binary Western civilization and its two sources of values. Borrowing from physics, I apply the metaphor of the force field that keeps the two sources together. On the one side you have the liberal source of progressive values from the secular Enlightenment; on the other side you have the philosophical and religious source of conservative values from antiquity and the Middle Ages. A principal reason our civilization has been so dynamic is that those two different sources of values have for centuries remained in productive tension, as though held together by a force field. Our Common Ground Initiative throws itself into this force field. It recognizes the value of both sources and seeks to keep them close enough to remain in communication with one another, yet distant enough to make their own distinctive contributions to humankind.

What impresses me in my study of history is the staggering number of areas – in law, science, the arts, and humanities – where there has been overlap between the two sources. Look at the abolition movement. Abolitionists used both Enlightenment values and Judeo-Christian values to build their case against slavery. Students were at the forefront of the reform. We forget that there has always been a powerful tradition of student activism in our nation, one that goes back further than the sixties. America’s first great student protests were organized in 1834 around opposition to slavery. That student rebellion turned out to be a dress rehearsal for the Freedom Summer of 1964, when the civil rights movement swept the land.[41]


Let’s take a moment to recap. Thus far in these remarks, we have looked at the divisiveness and anxiety surrounding Election 2016. We have looked at how a liberal education can play a promising role in bringing Americans back together. A liberal education imparts the sympathetic identification that can help bridge the chasm between people whose life experiences are different from one another. We also looked at the binary nature of our western culture with its two different sources of values. The fact that they are different means a lot of civic energy and policy tensions are constantly being generated in the public square.

Allow me to reiterate that our Common Ground Initiative embraces this civic tension, this cultural polarization that has characterized American life from the start. We focus not just on the liberal Enlightenment source of values, nor just on the Judeo-Christian source of values, but on the force field that keeps the two in productive tension. Ladies and gentlemen, for our democracy to work, it is imperative that Americans harness the civic energy that is generated by this cultural polarization, and channel this energy on behalf of the common good. That’s precisely what the Hauenstein Center’s Common Ground Initiative aims to do.

Another way of understanding our Common Ground Initiative is through the work of the historian Carl Becker, who studied how the Judeo-Christian tradition brought forth the secular Enlightenment.[42] It’s a parent-child relationship: they are distinct entities; one is older than the other; there is always tension in the relationship; but there is also much common ground between them, because they are family, after all, and can relate to each other, hopefully without resorting to patricide!

Moving forward, what is to be done? Voltaire had a good answer. When you live in tough times, at the very least you can tend your own garden. How do we tend our garden at Grand Valley, at the Hauenstein Center, at our Cook Leadership Academy? We grow leaders.

Since this is a Wheelhouse Talk, let me direct the conclusion of these remarks to the emerging leaders in our Cook Leadership Academy. I promised you 71 reasons for hope, and this year’s 71 CLA fellows are that hope.

Leadership fellows: During your time with us, I want you to do four things.

First, get the most out of your education at this university. Learn as much as you can. Be engaged. Be conversant about the key challenges Americans face. Train your mind to refocus not just on the liberal view of things nor just on the conservative view of things, but on the force field that holds them together. One first-rate resource is our Common Ground Podcast at, which originates in New York City and hosts leading thinkers and thinking leaders from both the left and the right.

Second, be alert to the ways that your major is teaching you to find principled common ground in your discipline and your profession.

Third, get to know your mentor. The scholars who have examined the Hauenstein Center inform me that, in higher education, our Cook Leadership Academy has become a center of excellence in the Midwest. Among the reasons is that we have one of the best mentor programs in the nation. Most college leadership programs match students with academic mentors. Ours is unusual in that we have both community and academic mentors, all helping with your development into ethical, effective leaders.

Finally, begin to discern your civic mission. As apprentice leaders, it is not too soon to carve out a space for common ground in your community and beyond.

If you lean left, you are no doubt committed to helping historically marginalized groups enter the mainstream. You seek social justice on their behalf. Find the local organization that best expresses your values. Be alert to how that work will prepare you to move to a larger stage in business, government, or non-governmental organizations. An inspiration for many progressives is Barack Obama, who went from being a community organizer, to an Illinois senator, to a U.S. senator, to the 44th president of the United States. Each step of the way, he had to challenge increasingly diverse factions to find common ground.

If you lean right, recall how people skilled at finding common ground built up postwar conservatism. It began with the vision of a remnant who could keep the embers of freedom glowing (Albert Jay Nock). It grew to include the leaders of various little platoons (Russell Kirk of the traditionalists, Milton Friedman of the libertarians, and Whittaker Chambers of the anti-communists). It then relied on the fusionists who could build a movement (William F. Buckley Jr. and Frank Meyer). Next came the politicians who could forge an electoral majority (starting with Barry Goldwater and culminating in Ronald Reagan). Finally it needed statesmen who could govern a diverse coalition of Republicans, Independents, and Democrats (Reagan, G. H. W. Bush, congressional leaders, and Supreme Court justices). The ever-enlarging scale required greater and greater skill at forging common ground. It’s how power is managed in America. 

I must add that Ralph Hauenstein’s last great hope for the center that bears his name was that one or more of you leadership fellows will set your sights high and accept the ultimate leadership challenge, that of a statesman who can unify our nation.

Students, you may be only 10 percent of our population,[43] but you are 100 percent of our future. Our country will be looking to you for inspired leadership. You have a mission and that mission is not impossible. As you seek out the heroic mantle you will assume as leaders, wow us with your energy, your idealism, and your hard work. Go forth, and dare to do great things.

*     *     *

[3] Alex Castellanos, commentary on ABC, This Week with George Stephanopoulos, October 9, 2016.
[4] Rudi Guiliani, commentary on ABC, This Week with George Stephanopoulos, October 9, 2016.
[10] Lee Edwards, “Is 2016 a ‘Critical Election’?” remarks to the panel, “Democrats and Republicans Today: Chances of Realignment Looking Forward,” Philadelphia Society 2016 Fall Meeting, Philadelphia, PA, October 1, 2016.
[13] Joe Scarborough and Michael Moore, commentary on MSNBC, Morning Joe, October 3, 2016.
[16] Yuval Levin, The Fractured Republic (New York: Basic Books, 2016).
[25] Alec Ross, “A Look at Industries of the Future and the Disruptive Trends and Changes Happening in Business,” speech presented to the West Michigan Policy Forum and Economic Club of Grand Rapids, September 26, 2016.
[32] James Bond Stockdale, Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior (Stanford University: Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, 1993).
[35] Ambrose Bierce quotation at URL, accessed October 6, 2016.
[36] Stephen J. Tonsor, Introduction, The Legacy of an Education, by James C. Holland (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and LIberty, occasional paper no. 11, 1997); Kindle edition, loc. 34. 
[37] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon, 2012).
[38] URL, accessed October 7, 2016.
[40] Attributed to M. Stanton Evans, and quoted by George H. Nash, “History and Meaning of American Political Parties,” luncheon address to the Philadelphia Society, October 1, 2016.
[41] Jack Kelly, Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2016), p. 221-25.
[42] Carl L. Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932).