Liberals and conservatives on Labor Day

(John Andrews in the Denver Post, Sept. 4) Labor Day is a liberal observance, initiated in 1882 by the labor movement. Labor Day 2005 finds that movement in decline. The AFL-CIO is breaking up, and union membership is an ever-smaller percentage of the work force, while middle-class affluence continues to rise. Does this mean Americans are becoming more conservative? British journalists John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge devoted a book to that question and gave a tentative yes (“The Right Nation,” 2004). I won’t retrace their lengthy analysis. Instead let’s take this Labor Day – with its mingling of summer leisure, fall politics, back to school, and struggles over sharing the wealth – for a look at the uses and limits of those timeworn terms, “liberal” and “conservative.”

Should voters approve $3.7 billion in higher taxes and $2 billion in deeper debt, the Referendum C & D proposal? Should we fight on to victory in Iraq? Should education be a competitive, parent-centered arena or a bureaucratic monopoly? Should laws protect the life of the unborn child? Should our border with Mexico be a sieve, or secure?

Your position on such issues probably derives less from your socioeconomic status or party registration than from your worldview as a liberal or a conservative. TV reporter Adam Schrager, a friend from my legislative days, asked me to contrast those worldviews in 10 ways. I went him one better:

1. Liberals favor feelings, conservatives favor reason.

2. Liberals favor theory, conservatives favor experience.

3. Liberals favor sociology, conservatives favor theology.

4. Liberals tend to utopianism, conservatives tend to realism.

5. Liberals favor the collective, conservatives favor the personal.

6. Liberals favor the state, conservatives favor the family.

7. Liberals favor the government, conservatives favor the market.

8. Liberals favor equality, conservatives favor freedom.

9. Liberals emphasize excuses, conservatives emphasize responsibility.

10. Liberals trust appointed judges, conservatives trust elected legislators.

11. Liberals favor the United Nations, conservatives favor the United States.

Now notice we’re talking about leanings, not about all one way or the other. Notice, too, that while I am a conservative and proud of it, I am not saying the opposite tendency, the liberal worldview, is wrong or bad. I acknowledge some validity in the liberal side of all 11 pairs. I just believe that when our country leans too far that way, harmful consequences result.

Opinion polls on the issues mentioned earlier, Referendum C, illegal aliens, and the rest, suggest we are in fact becoming more a “right nation,” more conservative than in FDR’s or LBJ’s time. The rise of an investor class and the woes of organized labor suggest the same. Still there is much about us as Americans that the conservative-liberal polarity can’t measure at all.

“All created equal,” the core truth of the American founding, penned by Jefferson and vindicated by Lincoln, is not conservative but radical in its defiance of the Old World hierarchies. Similarly, blogger Jeremy Schupbach notes the absurdity of bumper stickers seeking to claim Jesus as liberal or conservative. What he taught and did, how he died and why, should shame such babble into silence.

Writing in 1782, a century before the first Labor Day, Hector St. John Crevecoeur marveled at “the American, this new man… who leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced (and) the new government he obeys.” Here, said Crevecoeur, “individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors… will one day cause great changes in the world.”

It's true. Our labors have changed the world, vastly for the better. Liberating men and women by the millions, here and abroad, yet conserving the best of what mankind has learned and achieved, we Americans are a new race indeed, not quite described by any of the old political categories. And we can trust that laboring on together, our greatest work is still to be done.