Understanding Liberalism and Conservatism

Many believe the political divide in the United States is quickly widening, and unfortunately, there’s data to back up that conclusion. Articles and publications from major research firms like Pew Research show a steady collapse of the middle of the political spectrum as America becomes more polarized. Here are some recent publications describing this division:

Political Polarization in the American Public
Key takeaways on Americans’ growing partisan divide over political values
The Partisan Divide on Political Values Grows Even Wider
In polarized era, fewer Americans hold a mix of conservative and liberal views

Any true American who cares about a harmonious society might honestly ask themselves the questions, “Is this division really necessary, or good for America? What causes this division? What can we do to reverse this trend?”

I invite you to read this article and to consider how much of the division in the United States is based in fundamental incompatibilities between the left and the right, versus how much of the division is founded upon cultural attitudes derived from news outlets, social media, and other divisive political commentaries.

Introduction

In recent years, I’ve attempted to understand how the Founders’ political spectrum compares to and reflects human nature. To me, what I discovered was ground-breaking and life-changing. However, different audiences have responded to my presentations on this material very differently. I was disappointed that some didn’t seem to grasp what I was teaching about human nature and the terms liberalism and conservatism.

Recently, I realized that there are at least two legitimate ways to use these terms, and the definitions we prefer really just depend on what we are trying to accomplish. My approach to defining and understanding these terms was focused on the desire to find common ground and to promote unity and mutual respect. Many others simply needed two terms to easily identify the two prominent political “tribes” in daily conversation. Consider this analogy…

Jack and Jill are trying to create definitions for the words “red” and “blue,” but for completely different reasons. Jack wants to thoroughly understand the color red and exactly how it has been incorporated into the two circles in the image below. On the other hand, Jill simply wants to use the terms red and blue to quickly reference each of the circles in the image below.

To make things simple, Jill decides to define the color red by referencing the circle on the left, and the color blue by referencing the circle on the right. Jack is disturbed by her definitions because he can clearly see that although there is certainly more red on the left and more blue on the right, each circle is made up of a substantial amount of both red and blue. He would rather make an accurate evaluation of the proportions of red and blue in each circle, noting that the circle on the left has a lot of red and some blue, while the circle on the right has a lot of blue and some red. Jill isn’t phased by Jack’s concerns because her definitions allow her to make quick and simple references to either circle, which accomplishes her goal perfectly.

Jack prefers definitions that will endure the test of time and never need to change. If, for some reason, the smaller circles were to grow within both of the two circles so much that they become proportionally dominant, Jill will still be calling the left circle red and the right circle blue even though the proportion of color has reversed.

On the other hand, using his timeless definitions, Jack can accurately describe each circle and the approximate proportion of red and blue in each circle. Jack can also point directly at the portions of each circle that are truly red or blue.

Some of you reading this article merely want terms that can easily be used to reference the two main political tribes in America. Others are approaching this issue with the same desire that I have—to become more understanding of others, find common ground, and promote mutual respect despite current disagreements.

The goal of this article is to identify, define, and evaluate two opposite yet complimentary aspects of human nature that exist inside every one of us. I intend to provide you with timeless definitions of liberalism and conservatism that will remain forever relevant and perpetually useful. Although this explanation may not be as cut and dried as Jill’s method of simply referencing tribes, I believe it will lay the foundation for dialogue that is both more compassionate and intellectually honest.

As I define liberalism and conservatism, I will try to avoid today’s popular application of the terms which seeks to reference our two political tribes. We all have elements of conservatism and liberalism in our natures. As I refer to conservatives or liberals throughout this article, I am not referencing our political tribes. Rather, I am referencing the group that responds to the given situation with the conservative or liberal part of their nature.

For most readers, this is a paradigm shift and it may be difficult at first to embrace these older definitions—but I promise it will be worth it.

What is liberal?

Today, “liberal” is a term that the conservative tribe throws around loosely to describe anyone who disagrees with or opposes “conservative” ideals. I believe this term is used incorrectly and falls short of truly describing what it means to be liberal.

The word liberal comes from a 14th-century word meaning “generous, selfless, magnanimous, admirable, willing, zealous, munificent, or gracious.” From the 12th century, it also has a slightly negative connotation: “extravagant, unrestrained.” Also, “of freedom, pertaining to or befitting a free person” and “free, unrestricted, unimpeded; unbridled, unchecked, licentious.” A liberal is someone who sees social injustice and asks themselves, “What can I do to solve this problem as quickly as possible, whatever means necessary?” When a liberal sees suffering, poverty, sickness and disease, malnutrition, or any other combination of wicked problems, they are driven by compassion to develop solutions. This is why liberals dominate the field of social innovation or social entrepreneurship, the industry of solving world problems. These liberals love what they do and their whole heart is in the work because it is deeply connected to their compassion and desire to serve and lift others.

Self-identified conservatives would be surprised to learn that the word liberal comes from a word suggesting “freedom, pertaining to or befitting a free person,” and “tending in favor of freedom and democracy.” This essentially means that classical liberalism wants to free a person from the chains of poverty, abuse, injustice, or other debilitating conditions and that they are willing to give of themselves liberally, or freely, to make this happen. True liberals are willing to give the shirts off their backs to help those in need. They make change happen. Jesus Christ was the perfect example of a classical liberal.

However, the most extreme liberals are actually willing to cause social injustice to solve what they consider to be a greater social injustice, and this is what has conservatives scared. These radicals give liberals a bad name and cause conservatives to retaliate violently against this new and direct assault on justice. Think of Robin Hood who is so distraught about poverty and suffering that he steals from the rich to give to the poor. Conservatism, which loves law and order, leads people to demand justice for the wealthy despite the suffering of the poor.

Here is the danger in “unbridled” or “unchecked” liberalism: emotionalism without direction is a threat to freedom. Ideas that seem like good, sound solutions may actually make problems much worse.

What is conservative?

The term conservative comes from a 14th-century word meaning “tending to preserve or protect, preservative, having the power to keep whole or safe,” and “to keep, preserve, keep intact, guard,” as well as “keep watch, maintain.” Additionally, conservative meant “disposed to retain and maintain what is established, opposed to innovation and change.”

When confronted with a proposed solution to a problem, a conservative is someone who asks themselves the questions, “What is this going to do to our rights and our resources? Can we afford this in the long run? Would this ‘solution’ actually create more periphery problems as we try to solve this single problem? Is this the right way to solve the problem, or is there a better way of doing this? Do we trust the people who are initiating this proposed solution, or do they have ulterior motives?” The questions really do go on and on.

Conservatives often experience paralysis by analysis. They are often so afraid of “breaking” things further that they would rather deal with a broken system than rally together to make a change and risk making things worse. Conservatives have a serious trust issue. This is why conservatives will disunite over the smallest difference while liberals unite over the slightest similarity.

I know conservatives who recognize problems with the current system but are so afraid of change that they resist any efforts to pass amendments to restore checks and balances. They preach that the original Constitution was inspired by God but resist all efforts to restore it to its original strength.

The most radical or extreme case of conservatism may be Ebenezer Scrooge who, when confronted with the proposition that people would rather die than go to the Union workhouses, heartlessly said, “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” A 100% conservative is insensitive, unconcerned for others, harsh, cruel, and exclusively concerned about retaining resources. I sure hope this does not describe any of us.

One reason conservatives are slow to promote change is that they don’t necessarily consider all change truly progressive, good, or beneficial. They do want to promote good change but struggle to identify truly innovative solutions that they believe would produce the desired impact.

Comparing the Two

I believe classical liberals are always the first to serve and sacrifice for others, including those they don’t know. If you are a conservative who considers yourself quick to serve, then I submit you are much more liberal than you have previously thought. If you are a liberal who considers yourself someone who acts with wisdom and foresight and avoids making problems worse by really considering the long-term effects of proposed changes, then I submit you are much more conservative than you have previously thought.

While I generally agree with conservative values and policies, I believe that God really cares about whether we have loved and served one another and whether we have actually put action behind our words and our intentions to do good. I believe conservatives have many of the right ideas but are often too complacent and don’t put their hands where their mouths are.

A liberal, who is motivated by compassion, is more likely to say, “Will you just listen and try to consider what it must be like for [people who are suffering]? When will you stop and feel some compassion for [people who are suffering]? If you really cared, you really would listen more.” A conservative might act like the dispassionate husband who with a stubborn, matter-of-fact attitude said, “It IS about the nail!” (reference)

I am convinced that the liberals’ Achilles heel is that they almost place too much trust in the nature of man. A classical liberal is so full of love that it almost seems beyond their capacity to believe that someone could exercise power in such awful and wicked ways. Conservatives, always mindful of past experience, believe that “it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion” and they instinctively resist trends towards giving anybody more power, particularly the government. Conservatives are extremely risk-averse.

Liberals are “free from prejudice in favor of traditional opinions and established institutions,” which makes conservatives defensive and nervous. Conservatives are of the opinion that “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” While liberals want to progress towards “bigger and better” solutions, conservatives believe attempts to “improve” the system are simply attempts to reinvent the wheel and have only moved us away from the best system for solving problems.

Consider the fact that Jesus Christ was crucified by ultra-conservative Pharisees for his opposition to the status quo. Jesus advocated what the Jewish leaders considered a radical change to their Mosaic law.

Here is a practical example of this contrast between liberalism and conservatism. If a couple is struggling in their marriage, a conservative marriage counselor might suggest practical solutions like 1) get a budget, 2) live within your means, and 3) make plans and set goals together to be more purposeful in the marital relationship. On the other hand, a liberal marriage counselor might passionately exclaim, “Start loving and serving each other more!” Both recommendations are perfectly valid, but they highlight the different ways conservatives and liberals think.

Classical liberalism and conservatism complement one another. They are not incompatible opposites. Rather, they are unique strengths that emphasize different honorable priorities. Conservatives and liberals who work together will ultimately become better people through it.

I think of liberalism as a horse and conservatism as the bridle and reins. Having just a bridle and reins won’t get anybody anywhere and having just a horse with no reins will likely get you somewhere fast, but probably not where you were hoping to go. We must have both.

When we talk about what is liberal or conservative, we should first consider what that means about our nature before we have specific policies come to mind. For example, if you believe with me that we need to heal the Constitution by restoring vertical and horizontal checks and balances and the balance of powers, then you are, in one sense, a liberal because you see a problem and you want to work towards making a change. If you see problems in the current system but are afraid or slow to make any changes, then you are taking a conservative position, at least in that circumstance. Here is a quote to illustrate this point:

Strictly speaking, conservatism is not a political system, but rather a way of looking at the civil order. The conservative of Peru … will differ greatly from those of Australia, for though they may share a preference for things established, the institutions and customs which they desire to preserve are not identical. [Russell Kirk (1918-1994)]

So a person living in Jordan who is passionately working to establish a constitutional republic patterned after the original American system would be considered a liberal, since conservatives would be working to preserve the royal kingdom. A liberal in Jordan and a conservative in the USA could essentially be promoting the exact same policies. This demonstrates that “liberal” and “conservative” are relative terms that mean different things when considering different locations and periods of time.

If we don’t understand what a true, classical, liberal is, conservatives are inclined to think that liberals are the real political enemy, and vice versa. However, being liberal doesn’t inherently make a person an enemy of freedom. In the truest sense of the word, liberals actually want to promote freedom, possibly even more than conservatives who want to maintain the status quo and are slow to act to bring about positive change.

I believe the greatest enemy to freedom is the uninformed person on either side of the political spectrum who acts based on emotionalism, unwilling to listen, learn from others, love others, or consider the things others have to say.

What Makes Us Conservative or Liberal?

I am convinced that children are extremely liberal and that through gaining experience we become conservative as we grow older. While conservatism is more risk-averse, liberalism seems to be risk-loving.

Initially, children have very experimental and explorative natures. Wise, conservative parents are constantly working to protect their children from danger—something that virtually never crosses the mind of young children. Children run into streets, put toxic material in their mouths, walk off ledges, stick utensils in outlets, play with strangers… all things that experience teaches us we probably shouldn’t do. In my experience, the average child will trust a stranger unless they are given a reason to distrust them. Children open up about their thoughts and feelings to people who haven’t worked to earn their trust, making them more liberal. On the other hand, most of us adults generally require that others prove they are worthy of our time and trust before we really open up to them. This makes adults more conservative.

Disappointment, heartbreak, betrayal, and physical pain are very uncomfortable. We want to avoid those experiences. The more we experience those things, the more careful, or conservative, we are about the situations we place ourselves in, who we associate with, and what we tell others. We start to avoid things that are unfamiliar or appear unsafe and become extremely loyal to the people, places, and ideas that have consistently brought us happiness and security.

Liberalism is a drive and willingness to discover new, amazing things and to share the resulting excitement and joy with as many people as possible. It obsesses over “what could be.” Conservatism is a loyalty to that which is safe, familiar, true, consistent, and dependable. It obsesses over “what works.”

The more confident we become in the things, people, and ideas that we trust, the more we risk becoming close-minded.

We become conservative as we have negative experiences with change and positive experiences with what is familiar. We become more liberal as we have positive experiences with change and negative experiences with what is familiar.

Let me put it simply. We each have drawn a circle around us which defines and surrounds the things and people that we trust, are willing to experience, and want to preserve. This is conservatism. We are all willing to operate very liberally within that circle of trust, but we are cautious with anything that falls outside of that circle. Some people have a much larger circle than others, but everybody has a circle.

This means that nobody can be classified as just liberal or conservative. We are all conservative and liberal on a topic-by-topic basis. Granted, those with very large circles could be identified as generally liberal and those with very small circles could be classified as generally conservative. However, these generalizations are mostly useless. If we want to be intellectually honest, we shouldn’t label people as just liberal or conservative. We should only identify decisions, behaviors, and attitudes as liberal or conservative.

Conservatism and Liberalism in America

In the 5,000 Year Leap, W. Cleon Skousen taught that the founders believed America would survive as long as conservatives and liberals balanced one another. He uses the three-headed eagle to demonstrate their relationship. The left wing represented liberalism and the right wing represented conservatism (liberalism and conservatism being used to reference today’s political tribes, not elements of human nature. See the next section for clarification on this political spectrum). In order for the eagle to soar, both wings must be strong. If either wing became either dominant or weak, the nation would suffer and potentially fall.

So what does this analogy look like in real life? Since the founders intended for only the Legislative Branch to create legislation, or laws, they designed Congress to incorporate both energy and wisdom.

The founders of the Constitution designed the House of Representatives to be liberal. There are provisions in the Constitution that specifically ensure that the House remains liberal, regardless of what party “controls” (can we start saying “leads”?) the House. Representatives are to be elected directly through the democracy of the people for a term of 2 years. There are more representatives than Senators and they are designed to represent the people and the issues that the people care about at a given time. They are closer to the people and more sensitive to the passion and emotions of the people, by design. Since they only serve for 2 years, they are under a lot of pressure to make things happen and get things moving very quickly—hence, the liberal nature of the House of Representatives.

The Senate was designed to be conservative. “George Washington is said to have told Jefferson that the framers had created the Senate to ‘cool’ House legislation just as a saucer was used to cool hot tea” according to senate.gov. Senators were originally elected, or hired, by the state legislatures to represent them in Congress. The people who elect the representatives in the House want change to happen quickly, but that energy is liable to be reckless. So the Senate was designed to bring experience, wisdom, and foresight into the equation. They are to be older than House representatives, elected for a term of 6 years, and are supposed to be less concerned about making change happen quickly. They were supposed to temper the emotionalism of the House. They are to be the primary protectors of states’ rights. The states hired them to represent them in Congress to make sure the people don’t give away states’ rights to the federal government as they attempt to solve problems. This balance has been obliterated by the 17th Amendment.

To save this nation, conservatives must learn to appreciate the compassion and energy that classical liberals have, for that is their greatest talent, and liberals must learn to value the wisdom and foresight of informed conservatives. Healing America won’t be done exclusively by either side of the spectrum. It will take a coalition of conservatives willing to support and work with and benefit from the energy and motivation of liberals, and liberals who are willing to listen to and honestly consider the perspectives and lessons learned by conservatives. Consider what America would look like today if we had liberal hearts and conservative minds.

Thoughts on Liberalism and Conservatism in Government

At the beginning of the previous section, I referenced Dr. Skousen who placed conservatism on the right wing and liberalism on the left wing. Over the years it has become clear that Dr. Skousen was referencing the political tribes in America with the Republican-ish groups as the “conservatives” and the Democrat-ish groups as the liberals. However, I’ve become convinced that we have these terms backwards.

In many other countries, liberals are people who are promoting liberty while conservatives are the people working to maintain the status quo. If the country is currently a dictatorship, conservatism prefers strong government while liberalism prefers the freedom to change and experiment. So why does America associate conservatism with freedom?

I believe this is because while liberalism moved us away from dictatorship towards freedom, the moment we designed a Constitution that secured liberty by landing in the balanced center of the Founders’ political spectrum, it was conservatism’s job to keep us there. Conservatism is our anchor. It seeks to maintain what we have come to trust. While liberalism was extremely useful in pulling us out of tyranny, the constant experimental tendencies of liberalism threaten to pull us away from that balanced center. That, in my opinion, is why liberty-loving patriots are called conservatives in the United States.

Moving away from the country-specific applications of these terms, I have become convinced that conservatism as an aspect of human nature actually prefers government while true, classical liberalism prefers freedom. When we come to trust a certain lifestyle, a philosophical school of thought, a system of religious beliefs, etc., the people want to maintain those norms. The only way to feel consistently secure and to anchor ourselves to those values is with the power of government. Conservatism wants to use the power of government to maintain what appears safe, true, and dependable.

Promoting Unity and Mutual Respect

On a more personal note, my religion records Christ as teaching, “I say unto you, be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine” (source). Also, “And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them” (source).

The only way I can see us truly becoming a “zion” people, where both our hearts (the root of liberalism) and minds (the root of conservatism) are united, is if we understand why people think, speak, and behave the way they do. If we can recognize that the human nature and motivations that drive the decisions of others are exactly the same as our own, we can give others the benefit of the doubt and be patient when we don’t yet see eye to eye.

The goal of this article isn’t merely to establish a framework for understanding liberalism and conservatism. Rather, the goal is to make it easier for us to understand ourselves and one another. When we disagree with others, we can deescalate the situation by considering whether we are being too close-minded, risk-averse, and emotionless, or excessive, reckless, and emotional.

We should strive to incorporate the best elements of both conservatism and liberalism into our natures while abandoning the negative aspects of both tendencies.

Where do you stand?

I hope that each of you reading this post recognizes that although you will certainly lean one direction and resonate more with one side than the other, you are likely far more liberal or conservative than you previously thought. As for myself, I’m striving to perfectly balance the liberal and conservative aspects of my nature. I want to consider myself a true moderate, a classical liberal, or a “liberal-conservative”, in the sense that I’m willing and motivated to work to make positive change happen, but I want my energy and emotion to be guided by conservative judgment, wisdom, and foresight.

I believe the insanely massive problems facing America today can only be solved as we learn from one another and work together to promote measures that solve huge problems in sustainable ways while protecting rights and resources.

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