Conservatism & Liberalism: What is their relationship? What do they mean?

I have a basic question that connects to many related questions.
Anyone who has an answer(s), please share.

Does being illiberal or even anti-liberal inevitably mean being conservative?

Or to reverse it:
Does being conservative mean being illiberal or anti-liberal?

Basically, the question is:
Are liberal and conservative completely opposite categories, inherently oppositional even?
Are they mutually exclusive?

* * *

I know of conservatives who are relatively liberal-minded and liberals who are relatively conservative-minded.
Are such people contradictions? Are they misguided?

When a liberal uses illiberal methods, are they still being liberal and can what they achieve through such illiberal methods actually be liberal in essence or in purpose?

Former progressives who became the first neoconservatives, at what point did they stop being liberals? Or were they ever really liberals?

When Reagan was the president of a union (Screen Actors Guild), was he a liberal or was he merely a conservative responding to the liberal social scene of Hollywood during a relatively liberal era? When he attacked commies in the union, was he acting as a liberal or as a conservative? Is Obama a liberal even though he is seemingly more conservative than Reagan on some issues? Should we call Reagan a liberal now because the spectrum has shifted so far right? How can Reagan’s Emersonian optimism be considered conservative? Since today only liberals have majority support for compromise, what does that make Reagan who was often one of the strongest proponents of seeking compromise?

What about Goldwater who started movement conservatism and who introduced Reagan to the GOP? In later years, Goldwater attacked right-wingers and considered himself a liberal. How could Goldwater have called himself liberal when he is the one who helped push the spectrum so far right?

Many right-wingers have taken claim of ‘classical liberalism’, some even going so far as saying that their right-wing version of ‘classical liberalism’ is the original ‘liberalism’ and so the only real ‘liberalism’. Are they at least partly correct? Are right-wing classical liberals (or at least some of them) more liberal than the Democratic neoliberals and those who support them? If some right-wingers have embraced liberalism to varying degrees and many Democrats have forsaken liberalism to varying degrees, where does that leave liberalism itself?

Who gets to decide who is or who isn’t a liberal, who is or who isn’t a conservative?

Are such labels merely relative? Do they or don’t they have any fundamental meaning?

What does it centrally mean to be liberal? What essence of liberalism can’t be sacrificed in order to maintain a basic and meaningful identity as a liberal? Is speaking of a true ‘liberal’ just to fall into the trap of No True Scotsman fallacy? If ‘liberal’ is just a relative label with no fundamental meaning, what is the point of using it besides simply satisfying the desire for a group identity?

* * *

Let me return to my original question and put it another way.

Does a conservative in a liberal society automatically have to be against that society? Or is there a way for a conservative to maintain his conservatism in a liberal context without merely being a reactionary? What does being a conservative mean in the modern world where everything traditional has become forgotten, obscured, obsolete, deligitimated or simply unpopular? If conservatism has become an entirely reactionary phenomena, what does that make liberalism in response: anti-reactionary, non-reactionary or what?

On a related note, what is the relationship between conservatism and traditionalism? Corey Robin discusses this in his book, The Reactionary Mind. Looking back over these past centuries, some of the people who most effectively attacked traditionalists were conservatives. If modern conservatives aren’t traditionalists, whether or not they are overtly antagonistic to it, then what are they?

I’ve often wondered about the role of liberalism. It seems to me that liberalism isn’t inherently or inevitably opposite of conservatism, at least in American politics. Conservatism has become conflated with the right-wing in a way that hasn’t happened on the opposite side of the spectrum. There is still a clear sense of distance and disconnection between liberalism and the left-wing for the Cold War turned the left-wing into a scapegoat that liberals felt compelled to disown or else be attacked as commies and fellow-travelers. Liberals have instead for the most part embraced the role of the middle, the moderate. I’ve even sensed that liberals have taken up the role of the traditionalists in defending the status quo which is what traditionalists did in the past. I’ve speculated that conservatives or at least reactionary conservatives attack liberals for the same reason they attacked traditionalists in earlier times. Left-wingers are the revolutionaries and conservatives have become the counter-revolutionaries, meanwhile liberals have sought to moderate between the two.

Has this caused liberals to lose their sense of a coherent identity? By disconnecting from the left-wing, did liberals cut themselves off from their own roots? By teaming up with neoliberal Democrats, have liberals permanently sullied their reputation?

* * *

I ask about all of this as someone who used to identify as a liberal, but has stopped doing so, at least for the time being. As a label, is ‘liberal’ even worth trying to save from all the conflation and confusion? Has it lost all useful meaning? I’ve noticed a number of books written this past decade that attempt to ressurect the original or core meaning of liberalism. Is it a lost cause? Or, even if not entirely lost cause, is it worth the effort? Some have taken a different tack by calling themselves ‘progressives’ instead. Is that any better, any more useful, any more clear in meaning?

Liberals have been attacked both by conservatives and right-wingers on one side and by left-wingers on the other side. Does liberalism merely mean center-left? Isn’t there so much more to liberalism than merely not being on the right? Left-wingers don’t just attack liberals. Many of them have also attacked social democrats and municipal socialists. To me, liberalism can include all forms of liberal-minded versions of left-wing ideology or policy. I suspect that certain more radical left-wingers don’t dislike liberalism per se, rather they dislike the liberal-mindedness whether in service of mainstream politics or left-wing politics. Many left-wingers can be quite conservative-minded, research even finding that communists in communist countries measured very high on Right-Wing Authoritarianism. Also, keep in mind how easily socialist rhetoric was used in service of fascism, even convincing some left-wingers to support it.

I suspect the fundamental issue isn’t so much ideology and more to do with attitude. Someone holding Lockean ideas in the 18th century was liberally challenging the status quo, but someone today holding Lockean ideas is illiberally defending the status quo. Maybe an ideology can’t in and of itself be considered liberal or not, rather how it is held and for what purpose. Even though relatively speaking all modern politics is liberal compared to a millennia ago, it would be far from useful to call a modern right-winger a liberal.

I gave up on labeling myself liberal because of the confusion. However, the confusion was intentionally created by those hoping people like me would abandon it. I’m essentially letting them win, not only letting conservatives win but also letting the conservative-minded left-wingers to win. The conservative-minded, whether on the right or left, have for the time being won the battle of defining the terms. I could try to fight back in defense of ‘liberalism’, but I’m not sure I want to. Am I wrong for giving up too easily?

* * *

Here is a one defender arguing for why the fight is still worth fighting (Why I call myself a liberal by Wiesman):

“As usual the conventional wisdom here is wrong.  Liberal didn’t become a bad word because conservatives started attacking it.  They’ve always attacked us.  Liberal became a bad word because, unlike in that wonderful West Wing clip, liberals started running away from it.

“Liberals started calling themselves “progressives” instead.  A truly short-sighted decision.  Did they think this would make it stop?  Probably not, and they probably didn’t care at the time.  Bullies don’t back down when you run away and change your name.  Bullies back down when you stand up and say, “Yeah, I’m a liberal.  Problem?”

“And of course this whole “progressive” label is now being attacked by right-wing bullies like Glenn Beck.  It’s needlessly muddled the debate about things like progressive tax rates.  ”Oh, it’s a progressive tax rate.  And progressive means liberal.  So, I’m against that, I guess,” says the conservative making $50,000 per year.

“Progressive tax rates aren’t liberal.  They’re what Adam Smith advocated for in Wealth of Nations.  They make sense.  (Okay, so maybe they are liberal then, but that’s beside the point.)

“Anyway, I started thinking about this again, partially because of that Lawrence O’Donnell post I made and partly because of what my conservative friend in Ohio said to me at the end of his message:

“I have always been a registered republican. I will never agree with liberals but I will be voting democrat from here on out.”

“This is a guy who works as a policeman, a protector of the people, paid for by the people, and who believes that people have a right to band together and collectively bargain for their livelihood.  And yet he also believes that he will never agree with liberals.  At least one of these statements does not belong!

“This is our fault.  We have lost control of what the word liberal means because we haven’t defended it, and when you don’t stand up for yourself, you can’t blame people for thinking your ideas are not worth standing up for.”

* * *

By writing this post, I don’t mean to argue for liberalism or to dismiss any genuine criticisms. I’m truly just questioning. I was wondering about the relationship between political liberalism and psychological liberal-mindedness (partly in response to my previous thoughts about my parents who are self-identified conservatives and yet are relatively liberal-minded in many ways, less so than myself though).

If one is strongly liberal-minded, why not simply call oneself a ‘liberal’? Why do we let others define the terms we label ourselves with? It seems obvious to me that liberalism should automatically imply liberal-mindedness. In my mind, to the degree someone isn’t liberal-minded is the degree to which they aren’t a liberal, and to the degree someone is liberal-minded is the degree to which they are a liberal. Political liberalism is simply the attempt to manifest liberal-mindedness in the real world of political action.

Part of me wants to defend liberalism in this way, but another part of me feels like there isn’t any point in trying. I remain undecided.

6 thoughts on “Conservatism & Liberalism: What is their relationship? What do they mean?

  1. A very thought-provoking piece.

    In my opinion, as a society changes (for better or for worse), its political language necessarily changes as well. Humans have an inherent drive to self-identify with a group. So, we often simply adopt the existing labels that “the group” that we “feel an affinity for” uses—regardless of accuracy. Over time, the membership of many groups becomes more “diverse” those existing labels no longer define the growing diversity within a group, so modifiers must be used; and a certain amount of “in-grouping” and “out-grouping” takes place within the original group. So splinter-groups form and factionism results.

    The historical definitions of terms such as left-wing, right-wing, liberal, classical liberal, conservative, center-left, right-of-center, Constitutionalist, etc have become somewhat distorted and ambiguous over time. Because America has become so “multiculturalized” (a nation of unassimilated sub-cultures), “the Left” has many “special-interest” groups; as does “the Right.”

    How one labels oneself these days depends upon one’s individual beliefs about: what the valid role of “government” in America should be (as it pertains to the social contract); and how essential “common good” services should be funded and administered.

    • I find myself confused about all of this. I know that I am liberal-minded. It is liberal-mindedness that I care about and that I would seek to defend. However, when I hear many left-wingers and right-wingers speak about liberalism, I know they aren’t speaking about my own sense of ‘liberalism’.

      I used to simply think of myself as a liberal. I didn’t really give it much thought. It was partly the environment I grew up in for the town I consider home is a very liberal college town, although liberal tinged with a more midwestern sensibility which is very different from liberalism on the coasts. That is part of my problem. I strongly identify as a midwesterner, and the midwest has a long tradition of left-leaning activism.

      My liberalism, however, isn’t particularly ideological. It’s more just my personality, a general way of perceiving the world and relating to people. Its my worldview. I’m not overly active in politics. I don’t like party politics and voting depresses me because the choices are so limited. From my perspective, Democrats only seem vaguely liberal. In politics, liberalism is just rhetoric used to manipulate the masses, no different than any other rhtetoric whether religious rhetoric or libertarian rhetoric or whatever.

      I can speak of liberal-mindedness, but I don’t know how many people would understand what I mean by that. I’ve met many liberal-minded people of all kinds of ideologies, some of them conservatives or even right-wingers. Many libertarians in particular are often liberal-minded to varying degrees, although there are a surprising number of libertarians entirely lacking in liberal-mindedness. Many people holding classical liberal views often don’t seem all that strongly liberal-minded relative to my own sensibility and yet they are liberal-minded relative to a fundamentalist or fascist.

      Many people in the mainstream assume the Democratic Party is liberal, but I don’t. The ironic part is that only a third of Democrats identify as liberal, another third identifying as conservative and yet another third identifying as moderate. Even Obama doesn’t identify as liberal and going by his political record he isn’t particularly liberal-minded.

      As for government, being for or against “big government” seems less to do with left or right and more to do with generational changes.

      The GI generation and the Silent generation were all for big government coming out of the WWII and during the Cold War era, but Silents seemed to have become small governent proponents in some ways in their later life. Boomers followed the small government wave as they came of age, but Boomers when they came into full power this past decade ended up growing the government more than anyone else. GenXers seem to be the most anti-government of any generation alive right now, and that is my generation. However, the following GenYers seem to show general support for much of big government, although they have some serious misgivings because of the actions of the Boomer-dominated big government and so have questioned our present government in their activism through the Occupy Movement.

      In all that, there is no clear correlation between liberal-mindedness and support for government. Overall, GenXers are probably some of the most liberal-minded Americans, yet GenXers are the most cynical about government and were the generation that showed the most support for the Reagan administration. As a liberal-minded GenXer, I’m on the younger end of the scale and didn’t hit adulthood until the Clinton years. I cut my liberal teeth on listening to Clinton’s general lack of support of what liberalism had meant in the past (he reformed welfare and repealed Glass-Steagall). My sense of liberalism didn’t come from the Democratic party, rather it came from reading authors such as Robert Anton Wilson and listening to Art Bell on Coast to Coast AM.

      My liberalism is perfectly at home in anti-statist paranoia and libertarian righteousness. I grew up with conservative parents and I’ve listened to plenty of right-wing talk radio, but I’m neither a conservative nor a right-winger. I have strong leanings toward both libertarianism and socialism, my liberalism allowing both to co-exist. I’m neither for or against big government per se for I don’t see that as the central issue at hand. Really what I care about is democracy, i.e., grassroots political involvement.

      Democracy to me just means everyone having the freedom to be involved in politics and the power to influence politics, most importantly on the local level. Socialism to me just means working with others which could be as simple as maintaining a neighborhood garden where everyone cooperates in the work and everyone splits what is grown.

      I don’t care about ideologies in any strict sense for I have no loyalty to any particular ideological group or ideological system. I simply want to live in a world where people aren’t oppressed, impoverished or disenfranchised in the way that seems so common right now.

      If I tried to explain this to someone on the right, they would look at me with utter incomprehension. If I tried to explain this to many left-wingers, they wouldn’t recognize this as having anything to do with their conception of liberalism. Both groups seem to equate liberalism with the Democratic party, but I don’t. There is very little that is liberal-minded about the Democratic party. How can something be liberal if it isn’t liberal-minded? That makes no sense to me.

      I think I’m a fairly typical GenX liberal. The problem is GenXers are a small generation, smallest generation (i.e., birth cohort) alive right now. So, my GenX liberalism isn’t representative of the mainstream definition of liberalism, not that I know who the mainstream media represents besides the powerful.

      So, there ya go.

    • There is one way in which I’m conservative-minded.

      I mistrust radical rhetoric and revolutionary tendencies. I mistrust change that happens too quickly for that often means too undemocratically. I particularly mistrust change that happens through violence or other force, and for that reason I strongly hate war-mongering (along with the military-industrial complex and faux patriotism supporting it). I also mistrust any kind of manipulative change, whether manipulating through mob mentality and groupthink or manipulating through state and/or corporatist propaganda, with manipulation by way of fear and scapegoating being the worst.

      I know many peoplle who identify as liberals or else who are prone to agreeing with liberal positions on many issues. What I find interesting is that many liberals are conservative-minded in this same way. This is what distinguishes liberals from many left-wingers (and right-wingers). Liberals (or at least the liberals I know) genuinely idealize compromise and moderation. These ideals may be noble even if seemingly naive in this era of cynicical politicking and polarized winner-takes-all endless campaigning.

      The liberals I know aren’t people with great wealth and power. They are just working class blokes like myself. They are liberal in the sense of being liberal-minded. Some of them even show support for libertarians such as Ron Paul precisely for the reason of their liberal-minded liberalism. In a political world of so few choices, someone like Ron Paul can seem like the most liberal choice available… which might seem a bit perplexing to some of the right-wing supporters of Ron Paul.

      It’s a confusing world these days. Many so-called liberals aren’t liberal-minded. And many so-called conservatives aren’t conservative-minded. Furthermore, many libeal-minded liberals react with conservative-mindedness when faced with the radicalized politics of mainstream politics and the mainstream media…. while many conservative-minded conservatives find their greatest opposition from the right-wing rather than from liberal-minded liberals. Increasing number of average liberals and average conservatives find themselves seeking moderation as the political elites and political activists become increasingly polarized and radicalized.

    • There might be a simpler reason for my uncertainty about labeling myself a liberal. I understand a lot of the criticisms about liberals and some of them have merit.

      I’ve seen too many liberals who act clueless, some willing to forgive Obama for almost anything simply because he isn’t a Republican. I’ll never understand the lesser-of-two-evils mentality that presents itself as being moderate or reasonable or practical. I’m against liberals like that as much as I am against the most radical right-winger, neither seeming conducive to my own liberal-minded values.

      There are good reasons for all the confusion around the word ‘liberal’. By the way, if you want to understand my liberal-minded interpretation of this confusion, I analyzed a lot of data a while back:

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