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Political Ideologies 101, Part 1: Liberalism and Conservatism

Image courtesy of CNN

Most scholars today recognize five different political ideologies: conservatism, liberalism, socialism, anarchism and absolutism. Although presidential elections are happening this year, many people do not know the difference between political ideologies and political parties. According to Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary, a political ideology is defined as the set of ideas and beliefs of a group or political party, while a political party itself is meant to elect a candidate who will help further their ideas and beliefs within the party. This two-part series will explain the differences and similarities between the most relevant ideologies: conservatism, liberalism, anarchism and communism. In this article, liberalism and conservatism will be explained from a historical viewpoint, as well as how they relate to Republicans and Democrats as political parties.

Many people today use “conservative” and “Republican” interchangeably, when in reality conservatism is an ideology and Republican is a political party. The same goes for the words “liberal” and “Democrat.” It is correct that at this point, the Republican Party has adopted largely conservative ideology and the Democratic Party has taken on a more liberal ideology. However, the history of how the United States’ two major political parties and these two ideologies became intertwined is complicated.

The central belief of classical conservatism is that systems should evolve gradually in order to maintain stability over longer periods of time. Conservatism values tradition and the tried-and-true, while liberalism values progress and transformation. Conservatives would agree that although current practices and systems may have flaws, it is more beneficial to keep these systems in place rather than replacing them with newer ones and risking the possibility of the new, untested systems failing. Liberals are often more interested in philosophical debates and abstract theorizing which could lead to the creation of systems that better express the liberal values of individualism, freedom, equality and rational thinking — John Locke is a great example of a classical liberal. Conservatives also tend to be less idealistic in their views of human nature compared to liberals, who believe that humans are rational, logical and fundamentally good.

Because the U.S. was born from a revolution and the ideologies of the Founding Fathers were largely liberal, with values including individualism, limited governmental power, natural rights and human logic, conservatism takes on a slightly different meaning in the context of the United States. Classical conservatism favors more government involvement, and in the past tended to support monarchs and aristocratic leaders who exercised more control. Conservatives later in America’s history supported Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal — which consisted of governmental programs created in response to the Great Depression — as well as the United States’ decision to stay out of WWII until the attack on Pearl Harbor. Conversely, the Republican Party favored the 19th century version of liberalism that called for separation of the government and the market. However, by the late 20th century, neoconservatives began to emerge with a new ideology.

Neoconservatives were different from classical conservatives because they called for the government to take a more hands-off approach and preferred more involvement in foreign affairs. An example of a neoconservative leader would be Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush. Many branches of conservatism with opposing beliefs came into being in the 1990s, and there are still many variations of what it means to be conservative today.

On the liberal side, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and James Madison were all Founding Fathers of the U.S., and they were all considered classical liberalists. They emphasized this by advocating for the freedom of the mind: freedom of thought, expression, religion and self-invention without regard to the customs of caste, creed or crown. These ideas were all transferred onto the document known as the Constitution. Liberalism wants to emphasize the importance of the ability and the responsibility of each individual to think individually and to be able to do as they please. However, though liberals have strived to maintain this concept, it slowly began to melt away due to the exponential growth of businesses in the 19th century. The idea of the importance of freedom was slowly adopted by conservatism as well, because large corporations began to find ways to restrict individuals through the harsh working conditions of the Industrial Revolution. Though these restrictions may have broken down some of the individual’s freedom, it also helped lead to the concept of “resilience” in tough situations as well as the concept of the “freedom” to make one’s own prosperity. However, this idea of classical liberalism changed slightly when Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901. He helped establish the idea of an “activist” president as he helped regulate various industries during his term; he would later be viewed as an example for his younger cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, with regards to the New Deal.

Historically, the Republican Party used to be more tied to liberal ideology, while the Democratic Party was more tied to conservative ideology. The South used to be solidly Democratic, and in the time of the Civil War, the Republican Party was pro-emancipation. When Eisenhower was president (1953-1961), the Republican Party started to see some overlap with conservative ideology, such as its anticommunist stance and support of efforts to lower taxes on the upper class. With the election of Nixon, a moderate Republican who gained traction in the mostly Democratic South, conservatism began to be more associated with Republicans, while liberalism began to be more associated with Democrats. The South started to become less homogeneously Democratic at that point. At that point, there was a complete shift in ideology of the two major U.S. political parties. In the 1970s, there were many political movements: the second wave of feminism, the civil rights movement of African-Americans and the rise of science and environmentalism. These political movements were mostly carried out by the Democratic Party, and, typically, the Democratic Party supports similar values of equality and progress today.

With this history in mind, what do conservatism and liberalism look like today and how does that relate to what it means to be a Republican or Democrat today? The word “conservative” has many different meanings besides that of an ideology, which does not help us in understanding it strictly as a political ideology. Many people conflate the different meanings of this word with the political ideology. For example, to say someone “is conservative” or “is a conservative person,” it can mean anything from “this is a person who holds traditionalist values” to “this is a modest and understated person.” As a noun, however, saying that someone “is a conservative” refers to the person’s embrace of conservative political ideology.

Some people today also describe themselves as “fiscally conservative,” usually meaning they prefer lower taxes in general and value the ideas of the American Dream, Bootstrap Theory and the middle-class beliefs described by Samuel Smiles in his book Self-Help. These values often reject the idea of government programs — like the New Deal that conservatism actually supported in the past — that provide basic necessities to those living in poverty in the United States. Today, people who describe themselves as conservatives are typically referring to this definition, sometimes mixed with the adjective definition of “conservative” due to it being somewhat tied to (and often incorrectly used interchangeably with) Christian religious values.

Liberalism today is less tied to the capitalism and free market systems that were once hallmarks of liberal ideology. There is still an emphasis on progress and change within liberalism, as well as the belief that all humans are equal, rational and good rather than evil. These two central beliefs inform most modern liberal stances, such as the rejection of the neoconservative idea that people can lift themselves out of generational poverty by simply “working hard” as the Bootstrap Theory suggests.

As for Democrats and how they play into the liberal role, they identify with the idea that people should have the liberty of choosing who they want in power. They would consider this to be the “power of the people” and are ultimately against any sort of unaccountability in politics. Today the Democratic Party relies closely on modern liberalism, which advocates for social equality, civil liberties and mixed economies. However, there are several different sub-ideologies within the Democratic Party today, including centrists, progressives and more moderate or conservative individuals.

Democrats today are largely known for their stances on allowing freedom of choice for various groups and situations, most notably with regard to abortion. Though they advocate for these sorts of freedom for all, they are also closely associated with neoliberalism, which emphasizes the importance of free-market capitalism. As mentioned previously, liberalism during the Industrial Revolution furthered this idea that those who need help will be able to achieve their dreams by working harder and being resilient to any change within the free market, making neoliberalism similar to conservatism in some ways.

Liberalism and conservatism have been adopted by many different parties over the course of history, but neither ideology has legitimately changed in its core values. The words have taken on new connotations and meanings today, and people frequently associate themselves with these labels without understanding their nuanced history. To adhere strictly to conservatism or liberalism or to a political party without fully understanding the values and beliefs on which it is built is not a logical choice. When making a decision for the upcoming elections, it is important to consider the past failures and mistakes of all ideologies and political parties. Rather than voting based on party affiliation alone, consider the individual for whom you are voting, as their ideologies may differ from their party’s normal stance. Political parties and ideologies are ever-changing, and it can be unwise to base such an important decision on something so amorphous.

By Sofia Gomez, Podcasting Director, and Mia Shelton, Contributing Writer



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