U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Progressive/Conservative: A Common Ground Summit

The following guest post by former S-USIH President Paul Murphy is his summary take on last weekend’s “Progressive/Conservative” common ground summit hosted by the Hauenstein Center at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Videos of all the talks are available for your viewing pleasure here.

The subject of politics is carefully avoided in much of my life – not a topic of discussion with other parents at my kids’ school nor with neighbors.  We usually succeed in avoiding it at family holidays, and generally move on to avoid big arguments when it does crop up.  It rarely enters into faculty meetings or even the classroom, except in asides or when treated as a historical subject.  Whether this represents a healthy situation or is typical of most is an open question, but it formed the background of my own participation in what Grand Valley State University’s Hauenstein Center billed as a Common Ground Summit:  Progressive/Conservative, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, over the weekend of April 15-17, 2016.  The summit featured many S-USIH members, including Claire Rydell Arcenas, Ray Haberski, Andrew Hartman, David Hollinger, Kevin Mattson, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Kevin Schultz, Chris Shannon, Lisa Szefel, and myself.  The Hauenstein Center’s director, Gleaves Whitney, dreamed up the Common Ground Initiative as an alternative to the contentiousness and polarization of contemporary civil discourse, although the conference program owed much to Joe Hogan, the Initiative’s program director, who hopes the academy and particularly the humanities will reclaim a cultural authority in national debates that it once had.  The aim of the weekend was to do that which I often avoid—talk about politics—and to do with people from across the ideological spectrum.  Is it possible, the organizers ask, to find “common ground”?

The answer to this question varied; all presenters valiantly wrapped their presentations around the question, though nobody was especially prescriptive.  In what follows, I will try to give a sense of the papers presented and present what I think are five distinct suggestions of what the common ground should be.

1. Shared Commitment to Institutions: The first idea of common ground might be defined nationalistically and institutionally, as a commitment to the nation’s traditions of civil discourse and norms of public debate.  This was the theme of the early morning Saturday address by Kevin Schultz on the vexed friendship between arch-conservative William F. Buckley and literary leftist and incendiary Norman Mailer in the fractious 1960s.  For all of their dissimilarities and pugnacious back-and-forth, the two men befriended one another and relished each other’s wit and spirit.  Schultz argued that each wanted to tamp down extremism and keep the center intact.  Mailer, for instance, fretted about retaining the nation’s “virtuous heart” and, despite his sometimes erratic and volatile personality, could sometimes display a “searing love of country” that moved him to the role of statesman, as when he spoke to the protesters outside the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, demanding that the speakers first be turned to the cops, to whom he spoke in a heartfelt way about his empathy for their difficult position, and then to the protesters, with whom he sympathized, talking them both down from physical confrontation.

2. Ideological Hybridity: A second version of common ground might be the recognition that in any particular individual social, moral, or political commitments often converge in ways that defy the rigid conservative/liberal dualisms in which we conventionally speak.  For example, Claire Rydel Arcenas discussed the complex American reception of John Stuart Mill, whose nineteenth-century liberalism, enhanced (or compromised, to some) by a significant admixture of socialism, disqualified him as an icon for postwar liberalism.  As a result, the U.S. became a Lockean nation rather than a Millian nation, in the consensus scholarship of the mid-century.  My own talk on the rival conservative and progressive “New Humanists” of the early twentieth fits this same category, as I found these two very disparate sets of thinkers—one determined to undermine modernist individualism and the other committed to a scientific, non-theistic religious humanism—shared a common root in the nineteenth-century ideology of culture and self-making and a common commitment to the modern project of replacing the authority of religion with secular values formation.

3. Civil Conversation: A third version of common ground was supplied by the philosopher Peggy Vandenberg, who delivered a short lecture on the Scottish Enlightenment in American constitutionalism, emphasizing in particular the legacy of conversation as the necessary means by which citizens come both to know each other and to know themselves.  This commitment to civil society as conversation is the basis, too, of the kind of pragmatic viewpoint sometimes attributed to Barack Obama.  The theme was picked up by her colleague Judy Whipps who presented the Deweyan conception and practice of democracy in similar terms.  Democracy is a practice necessarily born again in every generation and is most vitally inculcated in education.

4. Culture and Tradition: A fourth take on common ground emerged from a panel  focused on traditionalist conservatism and featuring Brad Birzer, author of a recent biography of the traditionalist conservative Russell Kirk (the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, located in Mecosta, Michigan, which is about one hour’s drive north of Grand Rapids, co-sponsored the conference—as did, it must be noted, the local Progressive Women’s Alliance—and its director, Annette Kirk, was a vivid presence in the audience); Ben Lockerd, a T. S. Eliot specialist; and Lisa Szefel, who is currently working on a biography of Peter Viereck.  Each discussed mid-twentieth-century cultural traditionalism, which was often believed by its proponents to be apolitical and non-ideological.  For conservatives, as Lockerd pointed out in discussing Eliot and the Catholic historian Christopher Dawson, culture needs to be free of politics and linked with Church and faith.  Birzir presented Kirk as briefly calling into being in the early 1950s what the National Review circle later spent years trying to achieve—a broad anti-progressive coalition of traditionalists, libertarians, humanists, anti-Communists, and miscellaneous others on the Right.  Kirk based his appeal on a claim to be apolitical and non-ideological yet the limits of such a strategy were self-evident; the coalition evaporated within a couple of years.  Lisa Szefel previewed her new book on the controversial awarding of the Library of Congress’s inaugural Bollingen Prize in Poetry in 1949 to Ezra Pound despite his World War II fascist radio commentaries in Italy and the offensive content of The Pisan Cantos.  This misbegotten effort to uphold a republic of letters defined by canons of artistic excellence independent of authorial intent or artistic impact revealed the ultimate impossibility of these visions of transcendent cultural authority, whether that authority was to be interpreted by great authors or religious seers.  Ray Haberski’s reflections on the intertwining of civil religion and nationalism ties into this same impulse to define a transcendent, seemingly non-political common ground.  Nationalism is not only an alternative to traditionalist religio-cultural authority but also, as Ray suggests, the essential project of civil religion.  The results can be profoundly troubling, as the common ground of fervent wartime unity, embodied in secular saints (recently Ray argues, in the life of the sniper Chris Kyle, lionized in film by Clint Eastwood), can be wielded uncritically to support a morally catastrophic war.

5. Coalition-Building: A fifth conception of common ground characterizes the keynote by Ignatieff and the plenary lecture delivered by George H. Nash on the history of intellectual conservatism in America.  In merging the careers of intellectual and statesman in his ill-starred time as leader of the Canadian Liberal Party, Michael Ignatieff gained a deep respect for the practical politician and, in his keynote address and the remarks that followed, evinced a great respect for the painstaking coalition building required of politicians.  It is a noble political tradition in itself, he suggested.  Nash’s well-known account of conservative intellectualism as essentially just such a process of coalition-building reflects the same impulse.  Nash updated his account, commenting on the recent Trumpian divagations, presenting modern intellectual conservatism itself as a desperate search for common ground, premised on an essentially transactional understanding of ideas as the means to meld political allies.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela’s work on the 1960s controversies over sex education in schools converges in some ways with this last Coalition Building version of common ground.  She hints at the possibility of political coalitions emerging when the rival disputants over sex education ended their campaigns and actually tried to make the curriculum work.  Echoing Schultz’s Shared Commitment to Institutions version of common ground, she also noted a profound commitment to common schools and public education shared by both liberals and conservatives—a commitment deeply challenged, alas, by the contemporary charter-school movement.  The difficulty of finding common ground was on display between Kevin Mattson, who tossed out identitarian politics, which he suggested characterizes groups like the Tea Party, as a particularly insular, self-affirming, and problematic form of politics.  He was followed by Paul Moreno, who gave a contemporary conservative attack on progressive constitutionalism and the administrative state.  In the comments that followed, a bemused and increasingly baffled Mattson pushed Moreno to admit the negation of free-market mechanisms by corporate capitalism.  Surely an administrative state is needed to check corporate self-interest and power?  Moreno would have none of it, defending even monopolistic capitalism as beneficial to consumers.

The remainder of the program—a Saturday evening conversation between David Hollinger and the columnist and scholar E. J. Dionne and a Sunday morning debate between Andrew Hartman and Chris Shannon over Hartman’s new book on the culture wars, A War for the Soul of America—demonstrated the nature of common-ground discourse when weaponized for debate.  Hollinger tapped into the politics of Coalition Building and Ideological Hybridity in commenting on the common ground shared by ecumenical Protestants (or Protestant liberals) and secular liberals.  Martin Marty’s model of the Protestant two-party system (evangelical versus liberal) almost perfectly maps our current divisions, so, Hollinger asked, will ecumenical Protestants please engage their evangelical brethren with their shared scriptural language in a way that might free them from the hammerlock of the political Right?  In arguing that liberal Protestantism won the cultural battles of the twentieth century by inculcating broader social solidarities, Hollinger might also have been suggesting a Shared Commitment to Institutions.  Broader social solidarities might be the beating “virtuous heart” that Mailer sought to protect.  Moreover, in insisting that public debate requires value positions to be judged on shared warrants rather than on testimonies of personal motivation, Hollinger also suggested that the institutions we share include a civil discourse based on a commitment to rules of rational argument.

In disputing the cultural wars, Hartman and Shannon found something clear to agree on, the utility of A War for the Soul of America, which Shannon identified as an indispensable guide to the cultural debates of the late twentieth century.  Yet, Hartman’s perspective on the essentially political nature of the culture wars as well as the ways in which the multicultural Left, in his view, wanted to be included in the greater whole of America rather than promote fracture and fragmentation was fundamentally at odds with that of Shannon, who identified himself as a New Deal Catholic social democrat.  Hartman positioned himself in the zone of common ground as Civil Conversation:  It is through this conversation and the pragmatic process of value formation that the resolution of the culture wars arrived.  To echo Peggy Vandenberg’s morning talk, we come to know ourselves, both individually and as a nation, through conversation and thus the  interlocutors we choose as partners are all-important.  As Americans who had been overlooked and marginalized by the dominant community pushed their way into the conversation in the 1960s and afterward, the “normative” America so dear to the white ethnic working and middle class became untenable.  Hartman finds this all for the good; Shannon finds it appalling.  He is of the Culture and Tradition party, seeking a common transcendent authority ultimately rooted in religion, moral absolutes, or perhaps “nature” (the last of which is disregarded, in his Catholic viewpoint, by those advocating abortion, euthanasia, and even contraception).  For Shannon, the state has intruded into the sociocultural realm of values to disastrous effect.

That was the end.  After all the farewells and wishes for safe travel, I wandered back hom early Sunday afternoon with much to contemplate, back into my habits of evading ideological engagement with neighbors and colleagues.  E. J. Dionne echoed the Civil Conversation ideal outlined above:  As a pro-religion liberal, he declared that we need to talk about religion and politics together more.  He fears our unwillingness to talk; he admires the prophetic figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Lincoln, who melded the secular with the religious, who saw in civil society and public life the possibility of moving minds through sheer moral suasion, who entered society ready to make converts.  All the same, I returned home and resumed my prosaic tasks, yardwork, preparing a lecture, raising the kids, and thinking about politics in the privacy of my study.

3 Thoughts on this Post

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    • Thanks Tim. It was a pleasure, and I appreciate Andrew’s suggestion to do it. We should all do this after a conference — think through how to make sense of what we learned.

      • Agreed. You never really know how you’re processing a conference, talk, session, etc. until you try and write it down.

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