POLITICS ON COLLEGE campuses, they say, are so vicious because so little is at stake. Maybe that's why our national politics have turned so nasty in recent years: The differences are narrow, so the only way to win an argument is by raising your voice.
Let's take two issues -- welfare reform and affirmative action. We say the most awful things about each other. But why? Is it really true that one side wants to chuck helpless mothers into the street to be trampled, along with their unweaned babes, under the bootsoles of the callous throng? Does the other side really intend to cull through society's dregs and clothe them in purple to rule over us hard-working normal slobs?
Of course not. The argument is over the most effective means to the same end. It's an argument among liberals.
Uh-oh! Now I've done it. In America nobody admits to being a liberal. But, actually, everybody is.
Liberalism and its kin-word liberty are rooted in the idea of freedom. There was no liberalism until, scarcely 200 years ago, the notion took hold that man should be freed from the established hierarchies of church and class. "All men are created equal," it says in the very liberal Declaration of Independence. The great arguments since then have been about how to liberate the power and potential of the individual human being.
Thus a Civil War determined that slavery was incompatible with our ideas of human rights. Bloody labor strikes and antitrust laws set out the boundaries of a market economy. The great totalitarianisms -- fascism and communism -- posed communitarian or egalitarian alternatives to soulless, dollar-driven capitalism.
The debates are over, and we're pretty much satisfied now that we know what kind of America we want: private property, economic competition, equality before the law, separation of powers, competitive elections, freedom of the press, religious toleration. Everybody agrees on these great principles -- everybody! Teddy Kennedy and Newt Gingrich, Jesse Jackson and Ross Perot. It's a liberal society, and we are all liberals.
That is, we are concerned with liberating the individual. Democratic liberals say government power can reinforce the individual against social or corporate oppression. Republican liberals (but don't call them that) say the way to free the little guy is for government to butt out.
It's an honorable argument, but it's an argument of means, not ends. Welfare policy, everybody agrees, should be directed toward helping society's unfortunates to become independent and active. Democrats say that means providing a decent living standard through feeding, housing, training and employment programs. Republicans say the programs often are boondoggles and, worse, the supposed beneficiaries become dependent and passive.
Since people are all different, it seems likely that some would fare better under Democratic programs and others under Republican prodding. We are arguing, then, about the proper mix. Yet we insult our adversaries as heartless brutes or lunatic social engineers. In fact, they are our spouses, neighbors and co-workers.
Same with affirmative action. We all say that opportunity in America is everyone's right. Some people think that the persistence of racism requires minority prerogatives to be written into law. Others fear that doing so will introduce new rigidities into society, to the detriment of everybody, including the minorities themselves.
Again, both are honorable arguments with valid points. The disputants are not "radicals" and "racists" but liberals (admitted or not) who want America to be the freest society on earth and to work for all her children.
Close calls are the hardest. To buttress uncertain positions, we resort to name-calling and distortion. The most vicious arguments are always right in the family.
Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion Commentary page.
Pub Date: 10/19/96