“Liberals,” “Conservatives,” and human nature.

Occasionally I get to thinking. Cogitating, if you will.

And a thing about which I’ve thought quite a lot in recent years is what Americans mean when we use the words “Liberal” and “Conservative.”

For the record (and just in case you hadn’t noticed) I am the former (though I tend to use the word “Progressive”).

If I try to strip those two words of our daily politics, as well as of all the insults we embed within them, I would say that Liberals tend to be more driven by notions of mutual responsibility than do Conservatives, and Conservatives tend to be more driven by notions of individual responsibility than do Liberals. (Emphasis on the tend).

Thus there has long existed a notion of Conservatives as steely-eyed pragmatists, and Liberals as dewy-eyed idealists — you know: bleeding hearts. Hippies. Peace-and-love-and-possibly-overly-optimistic-notions-regarding-the-essential-nature-of-humanity.

But I would argue that, in fact, the opposite is true. At least with regard to the essential nature of humanity.

With the understanding that I’m speaking in broad generalizations, I think I’m safe in saying that Conservatives tend to have stricter expectations of human behavior, whereas Liberals tend to be a bit more loosey-goosey.

As such, Conservatives demand that America spend less on the results of human weaknesses and foibles (drug abuse, unwanted pregnancies, joblessness), whereas Liberals generally demand that we spend more. Conservatives would (I think) say that they’re expecting people to live up to a certain standard, and don’t want to make it easier for that standard to be missed. Liberals would say that standards are often arbitrary and subject to factors outside individual decision-making, and we want to make it easier for people to pick themselves up again when the standard is out of reach.

Which to my mind paints the Conservatives as idealists, and us as the pragmatists.

Look, I am absolutely a fan of individual responsibility. Each and every person, at the end of the day, must face him or herself in the mirror and own what s/he has done or failed to do.

But the simple truth is that we will all fail.

All of us. You, and you, and you, and me. All of us. We will all of us do things we regret, make decisions that don’t pan out, and, not for nothing, but continue attempting to live in our easily-broken human form. And we will also, all of us, be failed by others — whether by a boss who decides to close a business, or a parent who couldn’t get it together, or a series of doctors who just didn’t notice that tumor (me! That one’s me!).

At base, in our policies and our politics, liberals admit this. We neither hide it nor deny it, but rather attempt to create bulwarks against it. Humans, and human systems, inevitably fail. Rather than punish people for not achieving an immutable standard — with the rather pie-in-the-sky assumption, despite every moment of human history proving otherwise, that people can, in fact, permanently achieve that standard — Liberals would like to acknowledge our limitations, thankyouverymuch, and plan for them in advance.

There’s also a larger disconnect between us that I think boils down to Liberals generally being willing to acknowledge that we may not yet know all we need to know in order to solve any particular human problem, whereas Conservatives are more likely to accept accepted wisdom without trying to peel away at the layers.

Which (again) suggests to me that Liberals are the pragmatists — not only am I going to fail, but my whole generation is going to fail. Something we take for granted now — something that is as True as The Sky Is Blue — will be proven wrong in the future. Guaranteed.

Remember when left-handed people had to be trained to be right-handed? Yeah, we actually did that — and not all that long ago, either. And the dictionary still lists “of or on the left side; left” as a possible definition for the word “sinister.”

Americans have already realized that we were wrong about women and people of color and the long-term efficacy of re-routing waterways. We’re on our way to realizing that we were wrong about the LGBTQ community, and please God we will someday see some of the hubris we currently bring to the question of body size.

We’re a mess, is what I’m saying. And Liberals try to prepare for that, while (many) Conservatives (often) angrily demand that we stop pretending to be a mess, when clearly, if we wanted to, we would never be a mess again.

None of which is to say that I think my fellow Liberals (Progressives) always get it right. We sometimes over-compensate, or hold up our own immutable standards (God help the public figure who fails us and then tries to apologize, for instance), or just plain screw up. Sometimes (hold on to your hats) Conservatives get it right.

But dewy-eyed? That’s the right. Not us.


  1. I have always thought the difference was that liberals tend to see change as a constant, and on balance, more likely to produce improvement (towards whatever the goal is) rather than retreat. Conservatives tend to mistrust change as it is likely to produce more chaos than consolidation of success, and hold to “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” ethos. The finest intellectual proponent of this view (by which I mean clearest headed, and clearest in exposition) was, in my view, G K Chesterton.

    Both blanket views are, of course, nonsense.

    Radicals (of all shades of opinion) hold as an article of faith that change invariably produces progress – “Subvert the dominant paradigm” being the rallying call. In some areas of life, this can be demonstrably positive. Science, for example. Faced with failure all around us, it is highly tempting to apply it to society as a whole, but history tends to show that it is highly dangerous to do so. Lenin, Hitler, Mao.

  2. I think I would add one more definition, one that helps enormously:

    Liberals (but not all liberals) tend to believe in the accepted science of biological evolution; and in general turn to science as a guide to their political decision-making process.

    Conservatives sometimes (but not always) discount the science of biological evolution, which many view as in conflict with scripture, but whole-heartedly accept and promote economic survival-of-the fittest, short-scale economic evolution where the most fit earn the most money.

    • Interesting point but a bit USA-centric, respectfully. Only (in general terms) American conservatives ever seriously argue the world was made in 7 days, or by an “intelligent designer”. (In itself an anti-Conservative attempt to “save” Creationism from scientific fact.) in the rest of the world people are a bit more grown up.

  3. Ash Can

     /  January 19, 2012

    In my view, boiled down to their most basic essences, liberalism gets things done, while conservatism helps ensure that it’s the right things that get done, and in the right manner. Liberalism says, “Let’s do this,” and conservatism says, “Let’s make sure it’s what we want to do, and to figure out how it’ll be paid for.” And, equally ideally, the two approaches lead to optimally effective governance.

    It goes without saying that this bears little to no resemblance of how “liberalism” and “conservatism” work in real life. Especially here in the US, as Stephen Yolland points out above, “conservatism” has morphed into right-wing extremism, every bit as radical as the Weathermen and SDS of the 60s. “Liberalism,” on the other hand, has moved to the center. The Gus Halls and Angela Davises are long gone from the radar screen, and “liberalism” nowadays is, more often than not, put in the position of attempting to rein in the “conservative” radicalism — effectively swapping the most basic philosophies of the two factions.

    Like many have said before, Kung Fu Monkey’s 2004 essay entitled “I Miss Republicans” superbly summarizes the grotesque evolution not just of the GOP but of conservatism in general over the past 50 years or so. But, by way of putting the subject in relief, the essay also gives a very good indication of how “liberalism” functions nowadays. We so-called liberals now are the ones who advocate for boring technocracy, who feel wistful watching old black-and-white video productions of the 50s with their naive and quaint celebration of Science As The American Way, who deplore the loss of middle-class communities physically surrounding so many shuttered factories and who seek to stem the flow of jobs out of the country. People generally grow more conservative as they age, and I’m no exception — I’ve long since accepted that, in practice, capitalism easily trumps strict central economic planning, and that representative government doesn’t function without constant and often very unattractive compromise. I’m a churchgoer and am raising my son to be appreciative of hard work, modest means, and of his fellow humans (which means caring for the environment too, since we don’t own it; we’re borrowing it). And yet, here in my staid, sedate middle age, I’m considered a radical extremist by the leaders of the right wing. To say the least, it makes no sense.

  4. Captain Button

     /  January 19, 2012

    I’ve long taken a different angle on this.

    It seems to me that as you go further to “the right” you asymptotically approach the principle that everything that happens to you, good or bad, is your fault.

    As you go further to “the left” you asymptotically approach the principle that nothing that happens to you, good or bad, is your fault.

  5. But the simple truth is that we will all fail.

    Have you read Ursula LeGuin’s speech about failure? It’s here: http://www.ursulakleguin.com/LeftHandMillsCollege.html

    Because you are human beings you are going to meet failure. You are going to meet disappointment, injustice, betrayal, and irreparable loss. You will find you’re weak where you thought yourself strong. You’ll work for possessions and then find they possess you. You will find yourself — as I know you already have — in dark places, alone, and afraid.

  6. Liberals make decisions based on empirical evidence (“the world is getting warmer”) or emotional resonance (“abortion stops a beating heart”). The latter example is instructive because it is actually an appeal to the liberal mind. Conservatives make decisions on an ideological basis (“life begins at conception”) and disregard empirical evidence (“global warming is a liberal media conspiracy”). The liberal mind can change while the conservative mind is fixed against change.

  7. Ethan Sewall

     /  November 6, 2012

    Hi is the picture at the top public domain?

    • Hi! I’m sorry to say that I don’t remember where I got it, but it’s a pretty good bet I ganked it off the web. I’ve done a quick search of my two open-source sources (MSN Clip Art and Wikimedia Commons) and didn’t find it in either place (in my defense, and it’s a really poor one: This is an exceptionally small blog, with a few hundred hits a day, for which I receive no compensation or ad revenue).

      • Ethan Sewall

         /  November 6, 2012

        oh no worries at all about it being on your blog, which i enjoyed reading very much by the way and will continue to read. i am just hoping to use it for the cover of my book, which i hope to sell a bit, and i don’t want to have trouble down the line.

        for me, both the terms liberal and conservative have been distorted beyond recognition from what they once were and what positive value they had. there’s an interesting op-ed in the times recently called “my old kentucky conservatism” where a guy laments the hijacking of the label conservative. america is ensnared by the false dichotomy set up between the two, as evidenced by the basically 50-50 election results we are seeing right now, and while i am happier with obama winning than romney, i can’t say i am fond of obama and the democrats. basically, with liberalism and conservatism dichotomized, they have become poles for the extreme positions on all the major social issues we are facing as a country. i am starting a new political party called the humanist international political party that will not partake of this dichotomy, or any other dichotomy for that matter, and through which i hope to promote behavioral, cultural and political revolutions in our country.

  8. Very well-put, Emily. I thought about this earlier today. Conservatives are more ideological than Liberals.

  9. The current make-up of the Republican Party isn’t so much conservative (neither small-c philosophical or Big-C policy) as they are truly Radical in pursuit of a Utopian Ideal – small government (deregulation) to the point of NO government at all (tax cuts), an oligarchical class leadership of select persons (wealthy families) over a ragged underclass (ethnics plus poor Whites and college-age youth) with limited rights under the law, etc.

    The old definitions of “liberal” and “conservative” – as based on how people viewed politics from the Progressive Era of Teddy Roosevelt onward – no longer apply.

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