Walter de Vries passed away in Wrightsville Beach on November 27, shortly after his 90th birthday. His legacy includes an accomplished career in politics and academia, venerable institutions, and countless, heartbroken friends in North Carolina and beyond.
A son of Dutch immigrants, Walt was a pioneer. His 1972 book The Ticket-Splitter: A New Force in American Politics, co-authored with Lance Tarrance, became an instant and revelatory classic. He helped found the American Association of Political Consultants. After relocating to North Carolina in the early 1970s, Walt taught generations of students and future leaders at Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and the organization he created and led for many years, the N.C. Institute of Political Leadership.
I first encountered Walt more than two decades ago, when he asked me to join the IOPL faculty, along with my frequent sparring partner Chris Fitzsimon. One of the fellowship’s most-popular sessions was “The Conservative Mind and the Liberal Mind,” a discussion about the sources of political difference and how leaders can learn to navigate it.
The presenters had been longtime state Sen. Hamilton Horton of Winston-Salem and longtime activist Rev. W.W. Finlator of Raleigh. Accepting the baton from these two North Carolina legends was intimidating, to say the least. But with his characteristic encouragement and wit, Walt made us feel right at home.
My involvement with IOPL deepened a few years ago when I joined the board of directors, where I currently serve as chair. Then retired, Walt was the opposite of retiring. He and I talked regularly over the phone about IOPL, personal matters, and the latest political news. Even more regularly, Walt visited my Facebook page to comment on my newspaper columns and posts.
His comments were usually critical. Walt and I had strong disagreements. While he once worked for Republican politician George Romney (Mitt’s dad), Walt was by no means a conservative. If all you knew about our relationship came from one of our spirited online debates, you’d wonder why either bothered to argue with someone so obviously “the enemy.”
That was the kind of thinking that Walt spent his life seeking to dispel. The realm of politics exists precisely because humans are inherently varied in our views and interests but also face some inescapable “collective action” problems — situations in which we cannot just go our separate ways or make voluntary deals and must instead produce and live under policies mandated by governments.
Walt thought there were many such collective-action problems requiring government intervention. I think the real number is far smaller. Still, as we debated, we shared a common language. We both understood that the gap between conservatives and progressives is at its root a conceptual one, a disagreement about the implications and malleability of human nature — or, indeed, even of its very existence.
As our debates continued over the years, Walt was simultaneously lavish in his public praise and unfailingly kind. He complimented pieces I wrote. I reciprocated when I saw one of the guest columns he continued to churn out until shortly before his passing. When he learned I was going to teach a graduate seminar on conservatism at Duke, his old stomping grounds, Walt asked for the syllabus, made suggestions, and talked up enrollment.
Walt was a class act. He could also be cantankerous, even bull-headed. Couldn’t we say the same about other pioneers?
Two years ago, we created the Walt De Vries Fellows Fund at IOPL to help sustain the signature program of our friend’s life of public service. You can find more information about it online at the institute’s website.
Supporting it would be one way to honor Walt’s legacy. Here’s another one. You know those friends or relatives of yours whose political views you abhor? Compliment them for their passion. Then, by all means, argue — but without bickering or bitterness. Do your part in leading us out of our current political thicket. Walt De Vries has already blazed the trail for you.