Saturday, August 20, 2005

Conservative and Liberal - Let's define the terms

Political hegemony aside, let's talk about the definitions of the terms Conservative and Liberal. We (the populace at large, meaning you and me) are assaulted daily by relative use of these terms. Are you a Conservative or a Liberal? Politically, these terms are loaded with presumption and mis-direction. From each side of the political spectrum the terms mean different things. I think it is a appropriate to talk about the words from an objective point of view and then we can discuss the relativism on the meanings that pervades our political process.

First, a recitation from the dictionary. For this, I'm citing my antiquated volume from 1975, The Random House College Dictionary, revised edition, unabridged version published by Random House, Inc. ISBN- 0-394-43600-8 thumb-indexed edition.

Conservative: adj. 1. disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc. and to resist change. 2. cautious; moderate: a conservative estimate. 3. traditional in style or manner; avoiding showiness: a suit of conservative cut. 4. (cap.) of or pertaining to the Conservative party. 5. of or pertaining to political conservatism. 6. having the power or tendency to conserve; preservative. 7. of or pertaining to Conservative Judaism or Conservative Jews. - n 8. a person who is conservative in principles, actions, habits, etc. 9. a member of a conservative political party. 10. a preservative.

Now, let's see what Random house says about the term Liberal:

Liberal: adj. 1. favorable to progress or reform, as in religious political affairs. 2 (often cap.) noting or pertaining to a political party advocating measures of progressive political reform. 3. of or pertaining to representational forms of government that aristocracy and monarchies 4. of, pertaining to, based on, or advocating liberalism. 5. favorable to or in accord with concepts of maximum individual freedom possible, esp. as guaranteed by law and secured by governmental protection of civil liberties. 6. favoring or permitting freedom of action, esp. with respect to matters of personal belief or expression. 7. free from prejudice or bigotry; tolerant. 8. open-minded or tolerant, esp. free of or not bound by traditional or conventional ideas, values, etc. 9. characterized by generosity and willingness to give in large amounts. 10. given freely or abundantly. 11. not strict or rigorous; free; not literal. 12. of, pertaining to, or befitting a freeman. - n. 13. a person of liberal principles or views. 14. (often cap.) a member of a liberal party in politics, esp. of the Liberal party in Great Britain.

Ok, now we've got the academic definitions out of the way, which definition would you apply to yourself? Interestingly enough, if you are a member of the National Rifle Association, you would have to assume the "Liberal" label for your beliefs regarding the individual freedom as defined in the Liberal definition above. But we know from our current circumstances that most people who are advocates for unrestricted gun ownership align with the Conservatives which in most people's eyes are represented within the Republican party. I'm an avowed and confirmed Liberal, but the clothes I wear are extremely conservative in cut and description. The point of this is that we make the words fit the definitions we want. Relativism abounds with these words, as we all have a tendency of defining the terms in varying their meaning to meet our requirements or circumstances.

Why then, do we have these strong, visceral responses to the terms? Politicians today will run as fast as they can away from the term Liberal. The meaning of the word has become synonymous with anti-god, gay loving, tree-hugging pussies that hate America and all she stands for. During the recent presidential election, Senator John Kerry refused to be "labeled" a Liberal because he knew that if he aligned himself with the term it would cost him votes. Since the Reagan Revolution in the early 1980's, Conservative has become closely associated with the iconic "John Wayne" type of American. This person is god-fearing, fair, individualistic, self-made, and all around righteous. Compound this with the influence of fundamentalist Christianity, and Conservative basically means that you are part of the community of the blessed. You believe in God and that He has chosen America as his beacon for the rest of the world. Conservative as a term used to be scorned not so long ago, as it was associated with those out of touch, out of step, older generations of people who hated that "hippie music", and all that "free love" that was pervasive in the 1960's.

Attributed (although probably falsely) to Winston Churchill, this phrase has another view of portraying the differences in the terms: "If you're not a liberal when you're 25, you have no heart. If you're not a conservative by the time you're 35, you have no brain." The point of this is that when we are young, we are idealistic, open-minded and tolerant of other people, but when we get wiser and older, we become more convinced of our views and less tolerant of others.

I believe we all have liberal and conservative traits that we carry. I'm very conservative when it comes to what my 14 year old daughter watches on TV or listens to on the radio. This music today. Jeez! I'm pretty liberal though when she asks me to explain matters of religion. Most of us probably have similar characteristics.

Politically, the terms are very relative when applied to the entire world. Would you consider the former Soviet Union "Liberal" or "Conservative"? Characteristics of the U.S.S.R. included an atheistic credo disavowing religion. Afghanistan, under the Taliban, by contrast was a fundamentalist Islamic theocracy whose legal system was a particularly conservative interpretation of the Koran. The former U.S.S.R. was a communist country, led by a few well-heeled dictators whose enforced autocracy was incredibly restrictive. Both examples in my view are an example of an extreme form of conservatism. Liberal countries are generally more closely associated with democracies. England, France, the United States, Australia, Canada, Spain, Italy, Japan, etc. etc. could be classified as Liberal because of their general tolerance for other points of view and for their relatively progressive political approaches. We, as a society hold dear the term Liberty and indeed, have fought wars to attempt to bring it to those that are held hostage by a dictator (see recent adventure in Iraq).

Bring the terms back to America and we have to ask ourselves a few questions. What does it mean to be conservative or liberal? If you go by the strict definition supplied above (I, by the way have absolutely no idea whether or not the publishers are liberal or conservative) then the term conservative means resistant to change. If one agrees with that, then you conservatives by all means should believe we should still have segregated schools, women shouldn't be allowed to vote or own property, and we should still be burning witches in the public square. I would contend that we have no true conservatives. I think instead, we have different degrees of liberalism. No one wants to go back to the days of Dred Scott or Jim Crow. We like our scientific progress. Anyone want to give up their cell-phone or their microwave?

Conservatism and Liberalism alike have been polluted by special interests. The Liberals are co-opted by PETA and the Sierra Club, the Conservatives by the Moral Majority and John Birch society. I think very few people would align themselves with these groups. So, why do we get so worked up when someone calls someone else a Liberal, or Conservative? I think these terms have been Madison Avenued by a small group of people to really confuse and irritate the rest of us. Let's stop this. If you want to be conservative on some things fine, just recognize the word means that you don't want things to change. If you want to be liberal on some things fine, just recognize that the word means you are open and tolerant of other ideas and opinions (including conservatives, so stop whining).

Tell me what you think,

Best Regards,



  1. Anonymous11:58 AM

    Typical Left Wing Liberal crap. Why are you trying to justify Liberal lies and failures? We've tried your way for years and things have failed. Only when we get back to serving Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior and throw off Liberal "Secular Humanism" will we see things improve. Thank God for strong Christians like President Bush. If you don't like it here, move to France.

  2. Anonymous11:19 PM

    You are not truly an american (conservative) until you buy a couple of $4, ribbon shaped, Support Our Troops/God Bless America magnets for your SUV... made in china.

    ...In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king. - Tom Waits

    Good work Dennis

  3. Anonymous5:27 PM

    Absolutely perfectly stated!!! Thanks for clearing things up for me. I feel so sorry for the far right wingers who miss out on all the great people in this world simply because they are not "Christians", heterosexual, and on and on.......Cindy

  4. I am a Conservative but either way I read things with an open mind and I must say this helped me a lot with a Government paper. I even cited your website under my Wokres Cited page. It is a very interesting peice of work and your writing style is clean and interesting to read.

  5. Anonymous9:55 PM

    2 more years....(She wonders if she can hold her breath that long.)I am so sick of religious whackos slandering anyone who feels that gays, women, and African Americans aren't as good as their god-fearing pasty asses. The only reason we have gradients of liberalism is because the Freaking Republicans couldn't rig every election between 1776 and now. We progressives won a few and made laws to shield ourselves from the religious right wing. (Takes a deep breath and stares at calendar.)bump...bump...

  6. Anonymous5:43 PM

    Thank you. It seems the only way to get the facts about politics is read biased writings. Because unbiased sources don't want to get "political." Which means twice the reading for me, I have to find biased writings in both directions (liberal & Convservative) for my UNBIASED speech.
    Thank you for making it easier on me.

  7. fuck i've researched this topic for so long now tonight and im still not sure whether im conservative or liberal. one thing is for sure i live in canada and i hate these bastards, they are like zombies. so im probably a libetarian or a conservative with some liberal tendencies.

  8. Anonymous9:06 PM

    Here are two options. One is the conservative standpoint in a nutshell; the other is the liberal view in a nutshell. Make your choice which is best and then see what you chose.
    1. These people believe that the government should do as little as possible and let people live their own lives with their own choices. If others are less fortunate, they should be helped by private charities which the government and wealthy support.
    2. These people believe that the government should do as much as possible and make decisions for people. This infringes on personal freedom but is said to be done for the common good.

    Which sounds best to you?
    Here you go. Well, the first option is what conservatives believe, and the second option is what liberals believe.

  9. To Anonymous,

    I don't subscribe to your definiitions of Conservative or Liberal, so neither sounds "best to me". Your definition of conservative is the classic definition of a Libertarian more than a Conservative. Additionally in today's conservative perspective, there is a significant amount of government oversight in our lives. Conservatives today would ban abortion, keep gays from marrying, etc. Doesn't sound like a "hands-off" approach to me.

    Your definitions may work for you and that's fine.

    As a Liberal, I reject your definition of such outright. True, government plays a larger role in our lives for the common good, but I don't believe it's an either or situation. Government should be a tool used by the people for the common good. What you describe is statism, which everything is done for the state at the expense of the people. That's not a philosophy I support.

    I like clean water, food that is not toxic, interstate highways, public education that is available for all, etc. I like the fact the fire department will come to my house if I have an emergency.

    That's my definition of a Liberal and it certainly differs from yours.


  10. Anonymous2:59 PM

    I think one of the best things about your article is that you point out the tense emotions most people now equate with conservative and liberal. One is good and the other is completely evil, depending on which side you are on. Unless you are specific about the use of the term, such as "I a dress conservatively", or "it was liberally sprinkled with salt", you are likely to raise people's emotional level.

    I think it is probably best to abandon the terms as much as possible, since they promote division between people. Like your article said, we are all conservative in some ways and liberal in others. If you say to someone, "I am a conservative/I am a liberal", their minds might close to you completely and they might think instantly that you are a bad person. If you say, "I believe strongly in God and am very concerned about the apparant lack of faith and family values in our country", most people would call you a conservative, but it sounds more positive - you are stating your specific beliefs. The same with "I am concerned that many people are becoming more intolerant. I try to let people live their own lives if it doesn't hurt anyone". Most people would label you a liberal, but it sounds less inflamatory than just saying you are a liberal.

    My recommendation - say what you mean about the issues that matter to you, and let others slap a label on you if they want. If you call yourself a liberal or a conservative, people might think thinks about you that aren't true, since virtually none of us are complete conservatives or liberals. Here are two big examples; real life could be much more subtle. You might make the conservative statement above and yet be pro-choice. You might make the liberal statement above and yet be very strictly religious.

    My biggest concern about the liberal-conservative divide in the US is the division itself. The more that we start thinking about "us" and "them", the more hate, distrust, and lack of communication we will have. This is how violence begins. Please be gentle with people, even if you disagree with them.

  11. Anonymous7:49 AM

    Annonymous at 2:59 PM;

    WELL SAID!!!!!Perfect in my opinion!!! Perfect!

  12. algorythym11:48 AM

    Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we've been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?

  13. "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."

    The phrase above, copped from Ronald Reagan is a tired ruse to get people to thing government is a "thing" that must be derided or as Grover Norquist said "drowned in a bathtub".

    AlGorythm, you must realize, government is "you". Government is the machine set up by us to do our bidding and see to our protection. You get what you pay for (not in financial terms per se, but certainly in terms of the amount of effort and attention you pay) with government. The more active you are, the more you get a government that reflects your opinions. Don't like taxes? Work your ass off and get Libertarians elected. For as certain as the sun coming up tomorrow, Republicans like taxes just as much as Democrats.

    Government is simply our proxy. Just like we pay the Utility Company to manufacture and distribute electricity to our homes, we don't have time to make the laws ourselves and implement them so as to not have utter chaos in the country.

    It is annoying when someone who says "government is the problem". Government isn't the problem. Ineffective government is the problem.

    Unless you are an outright Anarchist, then you subscribe to some notion of society and society has rules, rules have to be governed, hence government. Not hard to fathom. Easy to criticize, especially for those who don't do it.

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