Thursday, August 4, 2011

Rethinking the terms 'Liberal' and 'Conservative'

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Much too often people in the United States use the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ (dare I say) rather liberally as well as uncritically and without specifics. There seems to be a general (incorrect) assumption in this country that the term ‘liberal’ somehow is equivalent to left-wing, while the term ‘conservative’ is supposed to be the equivalent of right-wing. Also, the use of these two terms in a dialectical sense is quite problematic, because they actually refer to different types of things.

Liberalism refers to one or a collection of philosophies based upon the maintenance and expansion of individual liberty (freedom) in a number of dimensions; including political, social, and economic. Liberalism should thus be compared with other social, political, and economic philosophical traditions.

‘Conservative’ is a different type of term. Conservatism, as a label, is more appropriate when referring to a general outlook or approach to society. Conservatism thus signifies a desire to maintain the societal status quo (aka what one is ‘conserving’), whatever that may be in a given society. Conservatism thus sits at the center of a spectrum that has progressivism as the left-wing, and reactionism or ‘regressivism’ as the right-wing. Thus what is considered conservative and what is considered progressive is dependent upon a given society’s starting position. It therefore doesn’t represent an actual ideology. While conservatives can be slightly left or right leaning, overall they represent centrist or status quo positions. Conservatism can thus almost be used interchangeably with 'traditionalism.'

Having explained this distinction, it is vital to understand that the way that many people seem to use these terms is incorrect, to say the least, and can in fact be quite dangerous depending on how they are (mis)represented.

For example, the ideas of liberalism formed much of the basis for the United States Constitution, as well as being the beliefs espoused by many of the founding fathers (ex: Jefferson, Madison, to name a few). In that sense we should understand that in many ways, liberalism forms the basis of much of American conservatism (think market economy, civil liberties, etc).

While some might concede that this applies to liberalism in some sense, they would also argue that what is called ‘liberalism’ in the contemporary American sense, also known as ‘social liberalism’, is not ‘classical liberalism’ and therefore is not the principles upon which this country was founded.

However, the flaw in that line of thinking is the notion that an ideology must remain static in order to remain legitimate. Social liberalism, in recognizing the need for the government to protect citizens from the volatile nature of the market, simply represents the adaptation of those original principles of ensuring and promoting freedom to the contemporary context.

What we as a society must come to see and understand is that in our contemporary American society, the labels used to describe each of our two major parties distorts not only what each of the parties stand for, but it also greatly distorts American history and our understanding of the American tradition.

Democrats in their historical creation of and contemporary support for programs like Social Security and Medicare (which are both popular in this country and are supported by the majority of the American population) tend to represent what could most appropriately be called genuine American conservatism.

Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman
Paul Krugman makes this same point in his book The Conscience of a Liberal when he states that “One of the seeming paradoxes of America in the early twenty-first century is that those of us who call ourselves liberal are, in an important sense, conservative, while those who call themselves conservative are for the most part deeply radical.”

It is this absurd distortion that supports the deluded notion that what most Republicans believe in is actually consistent with the American tradition. In basically attempting to eliminate the legacy of the twentieth century, what Republicans stand for is profoundly reactionary and profoundly regressive in its goals. Also, their rejection of the principles of democracy, as well as their absurd rewrite of American history as a ‘Christian nation,’ and the rejection of science-based thinking is simply an outright rejection of the legacy of the Enlightenment.

None of that is consistent with the ideals of the American tradition and should in no way be described as ‘conservative.’ However, Republicans (and right-wingers in general) are able to portray themselves as moderates due to the ignorance of much of the American population about our history, as well as through the manipulative use of the rhetoric of 'faux-traditionalism' and of 'faux-libertarianism.'

In our contemporary society, the Democratic party tends to represent the ideas of American conservatism (in its actual form) with some members taking a slightly more progressive bend, while Republicans represent a profoundly reactionary and regressive worldview that seeks to overturn the achievements of the Enlightenment.

All Americans (but especially progressives, liberals, and Democrats) need to not dance around these terms and allow Republicans to falsely claim the legitimacy of ‘tradition.’ We need to assert the principles of the actual American tradition and also call Republicans what they actually are: reactionary aristocratic elitist Christo-fascist authoritarians.

When we use those terms, we should not give the impression that we are "name-calling", nor should we ever let right-wingers claim that we are just name-calling. What each person must emphasize is that these terms are merely accurate descriptions of their actual beliefs and tactics.

They actually are aristocratic. They actually are opposed to the democratic process. They do actually believe in making their own distorted version of 'Christianity' the official religion of this country. And they do actually believe in defending the interests of the wealthy AT ALL COSTS.

Those are not traditional American values, and these people are not conservatives!


  1. Great post. I cringe when I hear people mess up these labels. The majority of Americans have no clue on what "liberalism" and "conservatism" actually is.

  2. Progressives for a Better NationAugust 4, 2011 at 4:21 PM


  3. An excellent article, very much a 'must read.'

  4. This Blog Post is really only for Political Junkies and I mean that in the nicest way possible, as a Political Junky myself.

    As a liberal myself who's been accused of being a libertarian and a Classical Liberal. But who's actually a liberal and not a Democratic Socialist like the Progressive Caucus and others. But an actual liberal, I see the American Political Spectrum made up of six main Political Ideology's.

    On the left you have liberalism, people who believe in Limited Government, that the main role of government is to protect Individual Freedom thats guaranteed by our Constitutional Rights as well as individualism. Libertarians who believe in the same things but that government should be out of the economy as much as possible including a Welfare State. Liberals believe in a Safety Net but only for people who need it. And that everybody who's mentally and physically capable of working should. Thats one difference between liberals and libertarians. But both liberals and libertarians believe in something that Libertarian Economist Milton Friedman called "Maximize Freedom". That Free People have a Constitutional Right to live their own lives as they see fit as long as they are not hurting any innocent people with their freedom.

    Then lets say and I don't mean to offend further to the left, there are Democratic Socialists. Who believe in some form of a Private Sector but that government should be there to provide a lot of services as well, the Welfare State. So people don't get taken advantage of by the Private Enterprise. And they also believe in collectivism that government should try to make society as equal as possible. They also tend to be fairly liberal on Social Issues. But like libertarians somewhat isolationist on Foreign Policy.

    Thats just the Left Wing and on the right side, you have Classical Conservatives who represent what the Republican Party. Used to be about before the Christian Right took over. Who have similar feelings as liberals and libertarians on Social Issues and the Constitution. But like libertarians have more of a Private Market approach to Economic Policy. And using Private Market solutions to help people in need with government. And tend to be willing to use Military Force more often then liberals and libertarians.

    Further right you have Neoconservatives who believe the National Security is the main objective of government. And even though they have similar views as Classical Conservatives on Economic Policy. But that Constitutional Rights aren't as important as National Security. And believe the United States Military should be used to promote democracy around the World. Just look at the Bush Administration.

    Then there's Religious Conservatives who believe government should be used to promote their Moral Code as they see it. And see the Bible as their Constitution and that government should be as close to their view of the bible as possible.

    If your not a Political Junky, reading the American Political Spectrum, might look like reading the US Tax Code. Because you have all of these different Political Factions. That might seem similar at first but if you look closer, they have a lot of differences.

  5. So Maurice Cranston was correct: A liberal is one who believes in liberty.

    In our American conservatism, we believe deeply in liberty. And would it be correct to say that we support Social Security, Medicare, and other such programs because their purpose is to maintain and expand individual liberty? That makes sense to me. But I've never had these terms so clearly defined for me before. Thank you so much.