A few things I like about you

Mitch Pearlstein, Dane Smith
Mitch Pearlstein, of Center of the American Experiment, and Dane Smith, of Growth & Justice.
Courtesy of Mitch Pearlstein, Dane Smith

Editor's note: We asked the heads of two local think tanks, one liberal and one conservative, to describe what they like or admire about each other's sides of the political divide.

DANE SMITH: What I like about the right

Dane Smith is president of Growth & Justice, which describes itself as "a progressive think tank committed to making Minnesota's economy simultaneously more prosperous and fair."

Hard-headedness. Compassion and soft-heartedness are dominant values for progressives, and hard-headed mental toughness about the bottom line and the way the world really works is a corresponding and complementary strength for conservatives. It makes rough sense for the conservative cause to be taken up by CEOs and business managers and independent operators, while people in the teaching and helping and communicating professions are somewhat less likely to be conservatives. Conservative skepticism about utopian liberal schemes (both sides are guilty of utopianism, actually) can be useful.

Respect for the past. Keeping the better parts of the way we were, as we progress and improve our economy and society, is a sound idea. It's been said that conservatives are unconcerned or oblivious to current evils and injustices, while liberals wish to replace them with new evils and injustices. Not throwing the baby out with the bathwater is the trick to good policy, and conservatives tend to be strong that way.

Emphasis on family values, work ethic and personal responsibility. The argument that we can't replace the nuclear family, or smaller voluntary communities, with government programs or a larger family of humankind is basically sound. Evidence seems to be conclusive that children with intact, two-parent families have a better chance of success. Loving human kindness for all of humanity is the answer, but it's hard to argue with the complementary values of working hard, paying your own way, taking care of yourself and your own, refusing to wallow in victimhood, striving to succeed and refusing the free lunch if you don't need it.

Religious faith. Humanism can be too secular, too dismissive of the spiritual dimension and too arrogant about human primacy, in my humble opinion. And this notion that a Higher Power is in charge, or at least that we ought to seek more humility and spiritual enrichment in our lives, is something most of us embrace. Unfair as the "irreligious left" label might be, conservative enthusiasm around God and church works well with the American electorate.

Grooming. This one is off the wall, and no doubt influenced by my upbringing in a fundamentalist Christian denomination that had me wearing ties to church twice a week and often door-to-door, and then by my serving in the U.S. Navy, where being "squared away" mattered a lot. Having attended Republican and DFL events as a journalist for 30 years, I can attest to the validity of the stereotypical image that conservatives tend to be dressier and less grungy than their progressive counterparts. No big deal, really, and not new. Capitalists and the "petit bourgeoisie" always dressed fancier than iron miners and small farmers and community organizers.

MITCH PEARLSTEIN: What I like about the left

Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of Center of the American Experiment, which describes itself as "a nonpartisan, tax-exempt, public policy and educational institution that brings conservative and free market ideas to bear on the hardest problems facing Minnesota and the nation."

Beyond the fact that many of my best friends are liberals, what I respect and appreciate most about Americans of the responsible left are their passion and energy for equity, or social justice if you prefer. This has been the case for a long time regarding civil rights. With matters of abortion very much aside, it has been the case even longer when it comes to the most vulnerable among us. And it's also the case regarding citizens who feel increasingly boxed in by powerful, worldwide economic changes that demand job skills many people just don't have.

(As for the opening claim, by the way, about "many of my best friends," it helps to be at least 60 years old with still-vivid memories of some of yesteryear's more painful locutions associated with black-white relations so as to laugh rather than take offense.)

More specifically in regards to the civil rights movement — America's most important social quest ever — while congressional Republicans voted for both the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act in greater proportions than did congressional Democrats (who suffered southern segregationists amongst their members), the more important and fundamental truth is that the movement, especially in its early years, was more a devotion and ministry of the left than of the right.

As for vulnerable men, women and children, Hubert Humphrey famously spoke of "those in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped." I can happily point to research showing how good conservatives are just as eager as good liberals about helping people in need and in fact do so; it's just that they're far less enthused about mega-governmental programs as main remedies. Still, I admire how liberals are regularly quick in spotlighting the imperative of lifting shadows by helping people who hurt.

And as for men and women for whom the demands of globalization are proving economically and in other ways limiting, I have no doubt that conservatives are ultimately right in arguing that lighter governmental involvement in the economy, and the prosperity such a course better assures, is the best route to enlarged opportunities for the greatest number of Americans. Yet my sense is many liberal commentators currently have a better grasp than do many of their conservative counterparts about an unease and worry across the country — not in this particular instance having to do with too much government and too much debt, as conservatives have that subject nailed cold, but rather with fears on the part of millions that they and their children just don't and won't occupationally fit in anymore.

It's fair to say I consistently disagree with liberals in their tendency to take matters too far, as in contorting rightly fervent calls for civil rights into rigid strains of affirmative action. But none of that is to say that I'm not grateful, because I am, for the keen moral sense, frequently triggered, of many progressives.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.