There are words we use all the time that have several different meanings, and sometimes we even use words we cannot define. “Good” and “bad” come to mind. “That movie was good, though I didn’t like it.” That sentence almost doesn’t make sense, but we are able to take away from it that the person saying it did not personally like the movie, but they recognized the movie itself was not flawed. We can assume it is a matter of taste. “I want to be a good person” is much more difficult to discuss.
Of all of these words, none are thrown around American political debates more than “liberal” and “conservative.” I have spent well over a decade actively interested in politics, reading extensively not only news and modern opinion pieces, but also history. I have read so many “What is liberal/conservative?” pieces, I hesitate to bother adding to the clutter.
Yet here I am, sitting down to pretend I can set the record straight.
I can simplify my outlook on it by one simple mechanic: reactionism. Human beings are creatures of habit. Most people try new things on a relatively rare basis. “But Ginx, I am adventurous and eat new foods and visit new places!” That’s great, but I’m sure that when you visit Hong Kong to eat a wife cake, you will still wake up in the morning, shower, brush your teeth, get dressed…
This is not a critique of humanity; it is merely a fact. Routine enables us to perform the tasks necessary for living. These rituals of life become ensconced in culture. There is a form of security in tradition: it’s worked so far. The problem is, our world is not static. If the world changes, we must change with it. Moreover, if we cling to tradition, we give up on progress out of a fear of failure.
A liberal is one who tries new things; a conservative is one who sticks with what they perceive to be the best available option from the past. That’s it. There is nothing more complex about it. It’s not about “big government” versus “small government.” It’s not about spending, or abortion, or immigration, or wars. It’s all about reaction to the current trend.
Because of this, there is a strange set of circumstances when viewed globally over history. Liberals in one place and time bear little resemblance in actual ideology to liberals in another place and time. The methods used to enact change (words and weapons) are the only thing shared by all liberals. These are also the tools used by conservatives, so one cannot identify a group by their methods.
Instead, one must look at what is considered “normal.” This, too, is difficult to define. Normal can be what is most common, or it can be an uncommon ideal, but it tends to be the stereotypes of a society. Conservatives defend normalcy and are the keepers of the back-up plan: a return to what is familiar. Conservative reinforce norms, while liberals seek to redefine them.
Oddly, it is the goal of all liberals to become conservatives. The new, cutting edge ideas enacted by one generation are the established orthodoxy of the next. It is a conservative’s nightmare to become the liberal, for the liberal must actually work to get the world to agree. Conservatism is the incumbent, and liberalism is the challenger.
Because these labels are so fluid, it is futile to go through history and try to determine who was liberal and who was conservative. Is Jesus a bare-foot hippy or a fire and brimstone fear-mongerer? Is Hitler a vegetarian liberal or a father-land defending conservative?
In America, there are few liberal politicians. Dennis Kucinich is one. Bernie Sanders is another. But the fact is, there is no liberal party. Democrats are every bit as conservative as Republicans, they just aren’t as cruel and thoughtless. But both parties viciously defend the two-party system, America’s failed economic policies, our alliance with Israel, predatory businesses and banks, etc. Both parties also oppose drug legalization, public healthcare or anything remotely “socialist.”
America has given up on trying new things. It took us forever to pass anything related to healthcare, and even then it is nothing but a boon for private insurance companies with plenty of loopholes for abuse still open. America is so conservative, it is afraid to take anything but baby steps, even in well charted territory.
And people around the world wonder why we don’t adopt the metric system? We can’t even fix our healthcare when millions of people die due to money-grubbing insurance companies. We’ve become the old man who can’t even set the clock on his VCR, while the rest of the world has DVD players.