Saturday, June 16, 2012

Liberals vs. Conservatives: Sixty Pages vs. One Page

Daniel Akst provided an interesting article in the Wilson Quarterly: A Manifesto at 50. The occasion for his piece was the fiftieth anniversary of the issuance of the Port Huron Statement by sixty members of a group that called itself Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). It should be kept in mind that in 1962 there was not yet a war in Vietnam to protest against, and the radical turn that some members would take was far into the future. 

The SDS had gathered together to establish what might be called the "New Left." What is most interesting about Akst’s article is the way in which he contrasts the gathering of the left to fashion a manifesto to the gathering of the right to do the same thing only two years earlier. Akst refers to this second document as the Sharon Statement. While the 1960s are often remembered as an era of leftist agitation and political evolution, there was just as much planning and plotting underway on the right.

"In September 1960, just a few months after the very first meeting of SDS and nearly two years before the Port Huron conference, more than 100 young conservatives from 44 colleges and universities descended on the estate of conservative author and editor William F. Buckley Jr., in Sharon, Connecticut. The meeting was inspired by a suggestion from Senator Barry Goldwater, the up-and-coming Arizona Republican who was helping transform the GOP, that America’s youthful conservatives set up a national organization. Goldwater, don’t forget, was a ruggedly handsome and outdoorsy former fighter pilot who, for a while at least, was a magnet for young activists—including Joan Didion and Hillary Rodham [now Hillary Rodham Clinton]."

The meeting sites of the left and the right were clearly indicative of where their hearts resided.

"At both events, excitement was in the air. Idealistic young Americans gathered to reshape the future and reveled in being among like-minded people. While the SDS folks would retreat to a United Auto Workers camp to formulate their manifesto, the conservatives in Sharon brought forth not just a statement, but an organization—Young Americans for Freedom (YAF)—at Great Elm, the Buckley family’s 47-acre country seat, where parts of the vast main house dated back to 1763."

Interestingly, both groups were driven by distress over an overly powerful government.

"Above all else, the Huronites were determined that Americans should gain control of their own destiny through a democratic process that would supersede the power of government bureaucrats and corporations alike. Their own fervent deliberations embodied the group’s obsession with participatory democracy...."

The document of the right was just as ambitious.

"....the Sharon Statement was perhaps no less utopian. Its tightly ordered vision of free people and free markets, with the role of government limited to protecting individual freedom ‘through the preservation of internal order, the provision of national defense, and the administration of justice,’ narrows the public sphere almost to the vanishing point."

The Huronites had set for themselves the much more difficult task. The left had issues like, the Cold War, civil rights, corporate power, and nuclear weapons to worry about. These are all issues that require the active participation of government to address. They had to figure out how to use government wisely, and how to prevent government from becoming unwieldy and distanced from the citizens who nominally control it. In other words they had problems that needed solving and only the blunt tool of participatory democracy at their disposal.

Akst captures the differences between liberal and conservative philosophies beautifully as he notes that the Port Huron Statement ran to 64 pages, while the Sharon Statement required only a single page.

"The great economy of the Sharon Statement simply reflected its much clearer message: the less government, the better. The basic idea was to let people take care of themselves, a viewpoint not very difficult to elaborate then or now."

If you are a liberal you are faced with complex problems in a complex world, where solutions are often difficult and uncertain. It is the duty of citizens and their government to address problems, as required, in search of improvement in the common good. That is rather hard to fit on a bumper sticker. The liberal message is often murky and ill-defined because liberals tend to be an assembly of people with a variety of priorities. The nation has many problems that need addressing; not everyone will agree on which has the highest priority.

If you are a conservative, life is simpler. The notion that government is the problem is as seductive as religion. Just believe this one thing and all will become clear; there will be no more decisions to make; there will be no more uncertainty.

Joan Walsh published an article in The American Prospect discussing the tribulations of those who would consider themselves liberals: Our Battle Scars. It is an interesting read, but we visit it here merely to cherry-pick some excellent and relevant quotes she provided.

"....liberalism is more temperament than ideology. As Jacques Barzun said of the great mid-twentieth-century liberal Lionel Trilling, we’re the people who answer every query with ‘It’s complicated’."

This one is even better.

" Robert Frost put it, ‘A liberal man is too broad-minded to take his own side in a quarrel’."

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