Liberalism is about liberty. Liberalism is nonpartisan in nature in that it advocates freedom for all. Conservatism is about the status quo and always has been. As Timothy Ferris puts it in The Science of Liberty (2010), conservatives are the “upholders of tradition, captains of a sea anchor that steadies the ship of state.” Anyone can become a conservative, including a liberal if they enact reforms they later come to defend, as that reform has itself become part of the status quo. Aren’t liberals who defend the New Deal defending what has since the 1930s become part of tradition? (of course conservatives want a return to what was tradition before that – the sharp class divisions that had existed since the Industrial Revolution so they’re not really liberals either).
We tend to see the Tea Party as the extreme fringe of conservatism as represented by the Republican Party, but that’s not the entire story. The Tea Party has a leavening of libertarians, who want to minimize the size and effect of government in order to maximize liberty, just as it has a component of religious fundamentalists, who believe in leveraging government to impose their own views on society – a most un-libertarian point of view. And Ron Paul, the ultimate libertarian in American politics is not really a libertarian. He is a conservative Christian who supports federal regulations concerning the moral behavior of the American people. And he is running as a Republican, participating with all the other would-be theocrats in the Iowa straw poll.
It’s easy to see progressives as the left-wing equivalent of liberalism (a sort of left-wing Tea Party) but that’s not accurate just because they’re President Obama’s most vociferous critics on the so-called left, and partly because the left-right paradigm itself is flawed. The complexities and many nuances of American politics cannot be adequately explained by a single line with liberals on the left and conservatives on the right, which is too easily transformed into “right” and “wrong”.
Progressives stress equality over liberty (as do socialists). Imposing equality (and it must be imposed) entails a lessening of liberty, after all, through government action. It is progressivism that is more properly identified with “big government” since progressivism’s goals require laws and regulations in order to impose equality on a manifestly unequal world. Franklin D. Roosevelt is a prime example of a progressive. Even the Constitution is progressive in nature, since it mandates equality before the law even while espousing the principles of liberty our founding generation fought for.
On the surface, liberalism doesn’t seem opposed to libertarianism, though libertarianism does seem diametrically opposed to progressivism given their views about the level of government control of our lives (Timothy Ferris pits conservatism as standing opposite progressivism). Surprisingly, liberalism has less in common with progressivism.
Liberals are not progressives, whatever many Americans – including those who call themselves liberals, may think. The two are distinct. Liberals and progressives are often at odds though many of our points of view overlap, at least in opposition to conservatism. As Ferris says, this tension between liberalism and progressivism “has long persisted.” He cites Reinhold Nieburh (1943) who said, “Whether democracy should be defined primarily in terms of liberty or of equality is a source of unending debate.”
Obviously, Americans have a lot to talk about, particularly with a presidential election in the offing. But where do we begin – or more precisely – how? It’s a shame our discourse is so muddled with indistinct terminology and muddled definitions. It is difficult to have a debate if we can’t agree on what exactly it is we are debating.
Ferris asks, does government have an obligation to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves? Seventy percent of Americans answer yes to this question, including many Republicans, whether they fully realize it or not. Thomas Paine, who is called a radical liberal by historians (and whom Republicans have tried co-opting to their cause), thought so as well. He was a very early proponent of the modern welfare system. Conservatives like to stress Paine’s opposition to government; they ignore his social welfare proposals and his opposition to Christianity as well.
How does this all work? It doesn’t, as you can see. But that’s far from the only problem we have in talking to each other.
Conservatives like to claim liberalism is all about the size of government. It’s not. Liberalism is about liberty, and as such it finds itself at odds with the staid old diktat of conservatism. Conservatives perversely sometimes imagine they are the original liberals – identifying themselves with the Founding Fathers. But that’s not true either. The Founding Fathers established a liberal democracy based upon the ideals of liberty, overturning the old order and therefore placing themselves at odds with the ideals of conservatism. The American Revolution was a liberal revolution.
While libertarians tend to be downright isolationalist in outlook, conservatives – at least these days – are interventionalist. And again, inverventionalism is against the avowed beliefs of the Founding Fathers. John Quincy Adams, though not a Founding Father as Michele Bachmann claims, still captures the spirit of those men:
“America…goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy…The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. the frontlet upon her brows would no longer beam with the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence; but in its stead would soon be substituted an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished luster the murky radiance of dominion and power. She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”
Yet this imperial diadem is precisely what modern American conservatism demands for America.
Moreover, conservatives have grown the United States government at every turn in the past half-century, including especially during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. If, as the Conservapedia claims, conservatives are for “limited government” then those same conservatives, who are busy bashing liberals for not being liberals, are themselves guilty of not really being conservatives.
They not only support the idea of big government but they’re not fiscally conservative either, as the history of the past half-century also demonstrates. Today’s American conservatives are big spenders, vastly inflating the federal budget. In fact the guiding principles of modern American conservatism seem to be support for big corporations and the ultra rich. Conservatives do not want to tax corporations (indeed, they think of them as “people”) and they do not want to tax the wealthy. They claim they are opposed to government regulation but they are more than happy to use the federal government to regulate women’s reproductive systems and people’s morals.
It’s understandable that a conservative would oppose “class warfare” because after all, if the rich are affected they are done so in violation of the status quo, which insists certain people are better than certain other people by virtue of their wealth or birth (social Darwinism). Yet conservatives are more than willing to wage class warfare of their own by taxing the working class in order to benefit the rich. Strangely, taxing the poor is not class warfare while taxing the rich is. Perhaps only a “conservative” mind can understand why this is.
Nor do conservatives protect the status quo very well, not when you take a long view of American history. The status quo means more than simply the status of the rich; if we go back to the founding of our nation, it is about liberty – about secular government, free speech, and freedom of religion. How is supporting the idea that corporations are people a traditional point of view?
And today’s conservatives have wed their cause to Christian conservatism, which advocates theocracy over democracy, applies freedom of religion to Christians only, and mandates the legislation of Christian belief. Look at what the Conservapedia claims: “Alternatively, a conservative is willing to learn and advocate the insights of economics and the morality of the Bible for the benefit of all, recognizing that the Bible is the most logical book ever written.” This isn’t a view shared by Thomas Paine, or Thomas Jefferson, and none of the Founding Fathers based the founding documents on the Bible. Jefferson even re-wrote it, taking out all the miracles and leaving only Jesus’ teachings. Superimposing the Ten Commandments onto the Constitution is not in any way support for tradition.
This is not at all what the Founding Fathers intended, as can be demonstrated by a simple reading of the Constitution (and if you’re so inclined, their private letters and diaries) and the type of government they gave us. Had they intended a theocracy, they would have established one.
How are we supposed to define the American political landscape when things are so confused? It’s hard to know what we’re talking about. Definitions seem less valuable, not more, once we start picking through the facts as we try to understand each other and the issues. It’s not so easy after all to define a conservative, or a liberal. In truth, it is difficult to have a conversation at all when so much is not as it seems. Reality, it seems, refuses to meet our expectations or match our definitions, defying our attempts to make sense of the world around us.
 Timothy Ferris, The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature (HarperCollins, 2010), 17.
 Ferris (2010), 22.
 Ferris (2010), 245.
 Ferris (2010), 21.
 John Quincy Adams, 4 July 1821