Address at San Francisco, CA

May 21, 1968


San Francisco, CA

It is clear by now that 1968 will go down as the year the new politics of the next decade or more begin. It is the year when the existing political wisdom had proven unable to cope with the turbulence of our times, inspire our young people, or provide answers to problems we face as a nation. And therefore this is the year when the old politics must be a thing of the past.

But if this is true—and I profoundly believe that it is—then there is no more important question than what the new politics is. What are its components, and what does it mean to the future of the country?

The most obvious element of the new politics is the politics of citizen participation, of personal involvement…

The [next] priority for change…is our policy toward the world. Too much and for too long, we have acted as if our great military might and wealth could bring about an American solution to every world problem…

We must be willing to recognize that the world is changing, and that our greatest potential ally is the simple and enduring fact that men want to be free and independent…

The second demand of the new politics is here at home. It begins with the recognition that federal spending will not solve all our problems, and that money cannot buy dignity, self-respect, or fellow feeling between citizens.

The new politics will recognize that these things do come from working together to build a country; and it will make the first domestic task of the next administration the creation of dignified jobs, at decent pay, for all those who can and want to work. It will be for a far better public assistance system, one which affords adequate help to those who cannot work, without the indignities and random cruelties which afflict the present welfare systems.

But the first priority will be jobs—a share in our great common enterprises, a life as men—for all those who now linger in idleness, unseen, unheard, and unwanted.

The third element of the new politics is to halt and reverse the growing accumulation of power and authority in the central government in Washington, and to return that power of decision to the American people in their own local communities. For the truth is that with all the good that has been accomplished over the last thirty years—by unemployment compensation, Medicare, and the fair labor standards, by the programs for education, housing, and community development—for all that, still the truth is that too often the programs have been close to failures.

If this is to change—and it must change—we must recognize that the answer is not just another federal program, another department or administration, another layer of bureaucracy in Washington. The real answer is in the full involvement of the private enterprise system—in the creation of jobs, the building of housing, the provision of services, in training and education and health care.

Through a flexible and comprehensive system of tax incentives, we can and should encourage private enterprise to devote its energies and resources to these great social tasks, which I believe [it] could help us to accomplish with far less cost, far more effectiveness, and far more freedom than with more government programs…

The new politics of 1968 has a final need; and that is an end to some of the cliches and stereotypes of past political rhetoric. In too much of our political dialogue, “liberals” have been those who wanted to spend more money, while “conservatives” have been those who wanted to present that all problems should solve themselves. Emerson once wrote that “conservatism makes no poetry, breathes no prayer, has no invention; it is all memory,” while reform, he wrote, “has no gratitude, no prudence, no husbandry.”

But the times are too difficult, our needs are too great, for such restricted visions. There is nothing “liberal” about a constant expansion of the federal government, stripping citizens of their public power—the right to share in the government of affairs—that was the founding purpose of this nation. There is nothing “conservative” about standing idle while millions of fellow citizens lose their lives and their hopes, while their frustration turns to fury that tears the fabric of society and freedom.

What we do need…is a better liberalism and a better conservatism. We need a liberalism, in its wish to do good, that yet recognizes the limits to rhetoric and American power abroad; that knows the answer to all problems is not spending money.

…We need a conservatism, in its wish to preserve the enduring values of the American society, that yet recognizes the urgent need to bring opportunity to all citizens, that is willing to take action to meet the needs of the future.

What the new politics, in the last analysis, is a reaffirmation of the best within the great political traditions of our nation: compassion for those who suffer, determination to right the wrongs within our nation, and a willingness to think and to act anew, free from old concepts and false illusions.

That is the kind of politics—that is the kind of leadership—the American people want.