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.