How I define Conservativism and Liberalism

“Boo! Different political party!”

You may have noticed how political debates in the U.S. these days tend to be two sides shouting and hurling insults at each other. Do you want to do something about it? Well, the first step is to be able to understand what you believe and why. If your only reason is that your party supports it, that’s really not going to be enough for you to contribute much value to a policy discussion. You might even end up sounding like the stereotypical sports fan that Jerry Seinfeld makes fun of.

So, before you read on, I encourage you to write down your political philosophy is, be it conservate, liberal, populist, or libertarian, and to define it in such a way that someone can reliably guess where you stand on various issues and why. Seriously, if you’ve put some thought into your beliefs, this shouldn’t be too hard — and if you do find it difficult, now is as good time as any to start thinking more seriously about your policy stances.

Go on! I can wait. I mean, it’s not like I have any control over your scroll bar or anything.

Okay, once you’re done with that, the next step is to try and think about those you disagree with (you know, all those people you get into arguments with on the Internet), and try to explain why they believe what they do. And do so in neutral terms that would not offend them, so saying, “because they’re evil and stupid sheeple,” is not a useful answer. As such, this exercise may be harder for those of you who need to work on your listening skills (i.e., those who only listen for the sake of figuring out what zinger to use next). If you really do this right, it should be difficult for someone reading the descriptions to tell which one is your belief.

Okay, now that you’ve done all that hard work, you can compare your notes with my stab at this same exercise.

As I see it, political ideology in this country can be divided into four broad groups: conservatives, liberals, libertarians, and populists. The Republican Party has traditionally been the conservative party, although it has changed recently to become more populist, leaving traditional conservatives largely without a party. Meanwile, the Democratic Party has been the liberal party but will likely change in reaction to shifts in the Republican Party.

Both conservativism and liberalism can be divided into social and fiscal/economic axes, depending on whether you are talking about social policy or economic policy. Social conservatives generally believe any social change should proceed slowly to prevent upheaval, that American culture and traditions are important to uphold to maintain our country’s identity, and thus that institutions such as the Christian church play an important role in the health of our society. As such, they tend to view premarital sex, drug use, and similar actions as dangerous behavior that can corrupt and destabilize society by taking it away from our core values.

Social liberals believe ending all injustice and inequality is the chief concern of any democratic society and perceive women and various ethnic minority groups as being discriminated against. They also tend to celebrate individualism and seek to defend those who struggle against a society that they find to be judgmental, burdensome, and out-of-touch with modern reality.

Liberals in regards to economic policy generally believe that climate change and economic inequality are the biggest issues our country faces and thus advocate economic policies to address these (and as such, Greens, who prioritize environmental protection above all else, generally fall here). Fiscal conservatives, on the other hand, generally see government inefficiency as the most important issue and advocate tax cuts and deregulation to reduce the drag they believe that government has upon economic growth.

Meanwhile, libertarians are generally socially liberal and fiscally conservative, assessing most policy choices by looking to see whether it enhances individual liberty by reducing the role of government. As third parties are weak and fairly extreme in the U.S. due to institutional factors, many libertarians are registered as either Republicans or Democrats depending upon whether they prioritize economic or social liberty.

Lastly, populism generally champions regular people who are losing out compared to the elite. In the U.S., it has also taken the form of defending the country and its identity from threats posed by foreign countries, foreigners, and illegal immigrants. As such, it draws elements from both social conservativism and fiscal liberalism and can be viewed as being the opposite of libertarianism.

So, I believe this is a good framework to describe where the various parties stand on almost all of the issues, but what do you think? How do your definitions compare? Let me know!

Greatly expanded from my answer to the Quora question: “How unbiased are you? Could you describe the differences between several political parties/stances so that, after reading your answer, I cannot guess which one you support?

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