Today, I want to once more explore some political terms and put them in historical context. This time, we’ll tackle liberal and conservative and touch on progressive.
As discussed in a previous column, “liberal” originally referred to the protection of individual liberties. By the 20th century, though, it had come to be understood more in the sense of its other meaning, “generous” or “open-handed.” A government, like a person, that is liberal seeks to extend the benefits of government to as many people as possible. This is done by being an “activist government” that gets directly involved. That means spending money, and that means raising money to spend, which is done through taxes. Liberal has also come to mean tolerant, accepting of different cultures, and willing to accept new ideas and new ways of doing things.
Joe Biden’s stimulus was extremely liberal. Every Republican in Congress voted against it - even though the vast majority of their own supporters were for it - because they are conservative.
Conservatives, of course, conserve. They wish to conserve in a fiscal sense by calling for a government that spends less, though, in reality, for the past few decades conservative administrations have tended to spend more money than liberal ones. The difference is how and on whom they spend it. There tend to be fewer beneficiaries of that spending, and they tend to be corporations or extremely wealthy people. Conservatives also call for less taxation. When the economy takes a dramatic downturn, conservatives tend to want the government to spend less and to lower taxes on the wealthy. They argue that if the people at the very top are taxed less, they will have more money to invest and grow their businesses, which will create jobs and raise everyone’s status eventually. A liberal government, meanwhile, tends to spend more during an economic downturn - on federal projects that create jobs, and by getting money into the hands of the poor and working class who will spend it for their needs and boost the economy by doing so. Countless studies have demonstrated that the conservative “trickle-down” theory does not work. When wealthy people get more money (via tax cuts), they tend not to go out and spend it but rather to hold on to it, which does no one (but them) any good.
Conservatives also tend to conserve, or protect, traditions and the status quo. If things have always been done a certain way, then that’s how they should continue to be done. This applies to traditional ideas about family, church, sexuality, culture, etc. I am reminded of the words of the great western novelist, Elmer Kelton, who said, “I don’t write about good guys in white hats versus bad guys in black hats but about two guys in gray hats, one trying to institute change and the other resisting it.” In such a story, depending on your point of view, either character could be the protagonist. In their own point of view, each one honestly believes he is the hero. This also sums up the liberal/conservative divide in America, though obviously it is more complex and layered. Nonetheless, it goes back to the balance between the individual and the community that has been a point of discussion since this country was founded.
For over a century now, the Republicans have been the conservative party and the Democrats have been the liberal one. For most of that time, though, there was always a liberal wing of the Republican Party and a conservative wing of the Democratic Party. It was sort of like the Yin-Yang symbol - two oppositional forces created balance, in part due to the fact each one incorporated some elements of the other. Liberal Republicans started disappearing in the Reagan years and by the 21st century were pretty much gone. Instead of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, today we have a handful of “moderates” in each party, who really aren’t that moderate, inasmuch as they vary only slightly, and only occasionally, from their party lines. If that has been true of politicians, it has become equally true of their voters.
Allow me to restate my earlier definition: liberals embrace change, conservatives resist change. They want things to stay as they are or maybe even go back to how they used to be.
Among other things, this is demonstrated in how each group views the Constitution. Liberals are often “loose constructionists” who say the Constitution is a living document that changes to meet the needs of the time. Many conservatives are “strict constructionists” who believe the Constitution says what it says and nothing more and that even what it says has to be examined in the light of what its framers understood in the 18th century. Since I’m a liberal, and this is my column, I’ll go ahead and put this out there - if the Constitution remained unchanged from the 1700s, women would not be able to vote, Native Americans would not be citizens, and there might still be slavery. I would add that, since the Constitution itself as originally written provided for amendments to be added, you can’t argue the framers never wanted it to be changed in any way.
I said earlier that Republicans have been the conservative party for over a century. But it wasn’t always that way. From the party’s formation in 1854 and for decades thereafter, it was the liberal party and Democrats were the conservatives. 1800s Republicans wanted to change the status quo: they wanted to expand civil rights, expand the role of government in protecting them, and end slavery. 1800s Democrats wanted the opposite of all those things. One thing that has mostly remained unchanged from the 1854 Republicans, though, is the idea baked into the party that if everyone is given an equal shot they have a chance -with hard work and a little luck - at success. I think that the big difference between the parties today on that point lies in determining what an equal shot looks like and how you guarantee is, and that’s how political parties should work. We agree on what is right and fair and each propose our plan on how to get there.
The Populist movement took hold in a big way in the 1880s. Farmers and workers joined forced to protest the “robber barons” of the Gilded Age, which led to the creation of a third party in the 1890s (the Progressive Party), which won several governorships and congressional seats. Among other things, they wanted to expand workers’ rights. By 1900, Democrats and Republicans alike started adopting Progressive policies, and, for about 20 years, every politician was progressive to some extent. Some argue that when that situation ended after WWI, around 1920, is when Republicans and Democrats starting switching poles as to who was conservative. A century after that, liberals started calling themselves progressives because liberal had become a dirty word.
But here’s the thing. You can’t stop change; at best you can only slow it down. Things that are considered normal today were considered too liberal a generation or less ago.
I guess the real difference is between “Make America Great Again” and “Make America Greater Than Ever Now.”