Liberals and Conservatives: Who Are They Really?

Keith's commentary (American Counterpoint - 11/14/11), along with the NYT article he encapsulates, raises an elusive question: who are liberals and conservatives? What defines them as such, and what makes them so contrary to one another?

For me the most useful part of what Keith has to say is his analogy between our modern political groupings and sports teams. Considering this I think can help elucidate at least one dimension of the current political impasse in the United States. A substantial portion of our voters identify themselves as either "liberals" or "conservatives", and once they've done so, have a tendency uncritically to swallow political notions officially emanating from their "side". At the same time, they quickly disparage notions arising from across the field, regardless of possible merit.

Anyone who has had the experience of sitting in the wrong set of bleachers at a high school football game understands the dynamic at work here. You can be a perfectly nice person and still get a drink poured down your neck if you're wearing the wrong color jersey. This may be OK in sports, where blind boosterism is part of the fun. It's less OK in politics, where rational discourse is necessary for achieving progress on issues of great importance to everyone.

Keith made his "team" analogy only in passing, however. In the actual substance of his commentary, he drifts onto less insightful territory. To define conservatives as "authoritarians" who "opt for isolation, force, and simple solutions" is stereotypical at best. Then to state, in the next breath, that liberals "rely almost exclusively on rational thought, without much concern for emotions" veers close to delusional thinking, if the point is meant somehow to apply to liberals in general. Moreover, I'm sure that many liberals themselves would take issue here, since they're often proud of their willingness base political views in part on emotional considerations. In fact, they see rationalism as more a conservative proclivity, tending as it does to put abstract reason above humanistic values.

I've thought a great deal about what the defining characteristics of liberalism and conservatism really are. These are, of course, old terms that have carried different meanings in different places and eras, and my focus here is on what they've come to mean in our contemporary United States. I've concluded that in order to answer the question, it's necessary to engage in a two-stage inquiry. First, we have to examine the laudatory self-definitions both groups are prone to using. Then we need to observe the actual political behavior of the opposing groups and its impact on the welfare of the nation. Only after we have probed both subjective self-definitions and objective practice can we can begin to understand the true contrasting political identities.

For this inquiry to be worthwhile, it is in my opinion necessary to start from the proposition that there are intelligent, sincere people on both sides who have constructive views. It follows then that rational dialogue among these people, including at times fierce debate, will lead to better public policy than will a process conducted by politicians operating from within a closed set of ideas. We also have to recognize that both groups contain people who are not sincerely principled or really committed to establishing good public policy. These are the people prone to using ideology as a cover for hidden agendas. Liberals and conservatives both at times talk as though they believe somehow that all the principled people reside in their camp, with all hypocrites and wreckers banished to the other. It is this degraded perception that leads to the kind of intellectual apartheid that the author of the NYT article appears to consider the common state of affairs. Such would be the case only for a nation preparing itself for partition or civil war.

So, let's start with the liberals. They see inclusiveness as their core mission. They consider personal happiness an imperfect goal so long as others are excluded from it on the basis of social class, race, sex or other innate conditions. Like conservatives, they generally believe in hard work, but they want the resulting rewards to be shared as widely as possible. Because inclusiveness is not a universal human virtue, liberals look to government as the necessary vehicle for forcing it on people otherwise intent on selfish lives. Higher taxes on the wealthy, and even middle-income people, are almost always justified if necessary to fund programs that help disadvantaged people improve their lives. Wealth is more the by-product of lucky circumstances than of hard work, and simple justice requires it's equitable distribution.

While some liberals are religious, many are suspicious of organized religions for promoting spiritual elitism, and for encouraging monetary donations and outward acts of piety as substitutes for social responsibility. With respect to foreign policy, liberals are often open to listening to America's detractors, in the belief that their enmity may turn out to be justified. It may in fact stem from the very worldview that American liberals themselves promote, which sees our nation's wealthy elite as plundering the Earth's resources for private gain. If geopolitical conflict can be understood through this lens, the obvious solution is for liberals of good conscience everywhere to push their greedy conservatives aside and come together in honest negotiation. The money now being wasted on military preparedness could then be diverted into beneficial social programs.

Turning to the conservatives, they see self-reliance as their core mission. Conservatives believe that through hard work and responsible living, anyone can succeed and receive rewards commensurate with their achievements. Some will benefit more than others, of course, as is befitting an economic system that differentiates among people according to their varying contributions. The prospect of gaining wealth is the vital incentive that motivates talented people to work hard, innovate and take the risks necessary for the nation's economic development. It's the labor of these high-achievers that provides the jobs and creates the bountiful flow of goods and services which is the foundation of everyone's prosperity. Allowing these people to grow rich is a small price for society to pay in return for their services.

On the other side of the coin, conservatives regard the threat of poverty as a necessary discipline for dissuading people from lives of sloth and dissipation. While not everyone has the talent to become wealthy, they all can find places in society and earn a decent living in accordance with what they contribute. If, however, overly-generous government programs eliminate the economic consequences of lassitude, too many will be tempted onto the course of least resistance and never find productive roles for themselves or pull their weight in the economy. Conservatives see free markets as the ultimate arbiter of value. Markets attach relative value to the labor of people and to the goods and services they produce. Since market value is by definition "true" value, the judgments of the market are sacrosanct and should never be countermanded by government policymakers or social engineers.

Many conservatives are religious. They tend to view our variegated social structure as the natural order of things and regard wealth as a sign of God's favor. At the same time, they tend to accept social Darwinism as the mechanism by which the social structure evolves, with God helping those who help themselves. In foreign policy matters, conservatives generally advocate a muscular response to the encroachments of foreign adversaries. They see other nations as being jealous of America's economic success and often seeking to undermine it because comparison puts an unflattering spotlight on their own national failures.

With such self-definitions in view, it's then not hard to see how both conservative and liberal ideals can inflate themselves into counterproductive ideologies. When that happens, political discourse becomes dysfunctional. Convinced of their own virtue and wisdom, liberals and conservatives alike become angry and defensive when confronted by limitations. They blame their adversaries for everything that goes wrong and refuse to consider contradictions possibly inherent in their own favored policies.

The central crisis of the present moment is paralysis of the global financial system and the lethal threat it poses to the real economies of all developed nations, including the United States. People's jobs, savings and way of life are at stake. Conservatives and liberals, of course, have their diagnoses of the problem and their proposed solutions, mostly rooted in their respective ideologies.

Conservatives tend to blame everything on welfare-state economics. They see generations of government give-away programs, most importantly the big "entitlements", as having finally pushed the nation to a breaking point. The money to pay for these compounding obligations cannot be raised through taxes, and the debt being used instead has become a millstone around the neck of what would otherwise be a vibrant American economy. Further aggravating the problem are the regulatory and tax burdens that hobble private enterprise and make it impossible for America's growth engine to gain its footing again and create the surplus needed to restore fiscal balance. Conservatives see liberal ideology as, at least in part, a cover for crony capitalists, tort lawyers, high level bureaucrats, public service union kingpins and others who cynically benefit from the inexorable growth of government.

Liberals tend to blame everything on private greed and social negligence. In fact in their view, far from being the source of our problems, the welfare state needs expanding at the present time. Despite the liberals' best efforts over the years and despite all the federal money that has been spent, poverty, social inequity, environmental degradation and healthcare inadequacy all appear to be getting worse. And the only thing wrong is that America's wealthy elite seem intent on hoarding their riches rather than paying the taxes needed to fund the programs that could fix all this.

Furthermore, in accordance with the Keynesian doctrine they favor, liberals consider increased government spending as the key to economic recovery. During hard times such spending becomes an end in itself, because it stimulates a stalled economy. Liberals largely dismiss the value of the supply-side nostrums favored by Republicans. They're less worried than Republicans about budget deficits and suspect handwringing over this issue of being little more than political theater.

They see financial instability and economic weakness as being largely the fault of conservative ideologues anyway. In one of their favorite narratives, the enlightened Keynesian policymakers who engineered America's post-WWII prosperity were expelled in a palace coup during the Reagan years. Free-market zealots took their places and twenty years later finally ran the economy into the ground. The laissez-faire doctrines of this new crowd were nothing but cover for their crooked Wall Street cronies bent on manipulating and looting financial markets for their own profit.

And so it goes. Getting away from their constructive principles, liberals and conservatives have come to paint one another into corners. Once on the defensive, both groups can start actively embracing the caricatures laid on them by their adversaries. When that happens, they all become very ugly people and a political death spiral is underway.

Luckily we're not there yet. The upside of all this is that liberals and conservatives can bring out the best in one another if constructively engaged. Inclusiveness and self-reliance, the core principles of each group respectively, are complementary rather than mutually exclusive. Liberals would do well to remember that social problems can be addressed effectively only within the context of a robust economy. This in turn is only possible when talented managers and entrepreneurs are allowed appropriate incentives and the necessary freedom to so their jobs.

Conservatives, for their part, might do their cause a service by stepping back to ponder the religious principles so many of them claim to espouse. They need to remember that inclusiveness is the foundation of Judeo-Christian ethics.

If the two sides can come to appreciate one another's legitimate priorities, they can work together to address the present crisis more effectively than has so far been the case.


  1. Keith Roberts12/1/11, 4:25 PM

    Sigh. While I agree with much of what Mark says, I don't agree with HIS definition of the difference between liberals and conservatives. He acutely criticized my claim that liberals are more rational and less emotional than conservatives, and I think he's probably right that my claim was largely mistaken. He also properly notes the strong libertarian streak in conservatives, which would seem to contradict my notion of authoritarianism. Nevertheless, it's wrong to claim that liberals blame everything on greed--we understand Adam Smith's invisible hand. The reality seems to be that the liberal approach, while kinder, easily leads to counterproductive bureaucracy and wasteful spending, while the conservative approach, while more careful of public funds, easily leads to cruelty and a mistaken disregard for what the government can actually accomplish. Both, I'm afraid, tend to favor such ills as crony capitalism.

  2. After considering Mark's useful and thoughtful remarks, I would like to venture a reformulation of the difference between political liberals and conservatives.
    1. Both positions offer a variety of attractions, so that people become one or the other for any of several reasons. Liberals, for instance, may be tolerant of private sexual practices, whereas conservatives want to regulate some of them. Conservatives may believe that operating with deficits is always bad policy, whereas liberals may sometimes favor such a policy. And so it goes.
    2. Once someone has enrolled in a party for one or another reason, there is a great temptation to consider the other positions of that party, and even if one disagrees here or there, to become increasingly fond of that party's positions--team spirit, if you will.
    3. As a result of these factors, there seems to be a coherence and continuity to peoples' political affiliations.
    4. I do believe that Republican positions, with some inconsistent exceptions (that liberals love pointing out), tend to be on the side of authority, force, and direct action. Democratic positions differ from those of Republicans because, even while they usually accept the need for authority, force, and direct action, they seek alternative approaches such as helpfulness, persuasion, and a focus on the social or economic roots of problems as well as prohibiting the bad behavior directly.
    5. In other words, I see liberals as including conservative positions, but often going beyond them.