I was listening to a podcast today about how Mormons are becoming more and more conservative, and it occurred to me that people are completely misled about what the terms “liberal” and “conservative” really mean. People nowadays think of a political spectrum with Liberal on one side, represented by the Democratic Party, and Conservative on the other, represented by the Republican Party. In fact neither party is Liberal and both are Conservative.
To understand what I mean, you have to realize that the opposite of a “liberal” is actually an “authoritarian.” Liberalism is a philosophy that asserts that individuals should have liberty from government interference in their personal lives and business. The opposite of that philosophy is one that believes that the government should use its authority to tell the individual what is best for them. The name of that philosophy is “authoritarianism.”
The second thing to know is that the opposite of “conservative” is actually “progressive.” Conservatism believes that we should conserve tradition and policy in the current state, not changing much, but respecting the path that has led us to the current state. The opposite of this mindset says, no, we need to make social and political progress by agitating for change and be willing to toss aside cherished traditions in the process. This is called “progressivism.” By the way, there is an extreme form of Conservatism called “reactionary” which believes that changes are not progress, and thus we should react to so-called progress by reverting back to older, better ways.
In this sense, it’s clear that both modern parties are conservative, in that they seek to maintain and enhance the status quo for their own benefit, and are threatened by change. Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are truly progressive in that they are pushing for new change. They are “progressing” with different goals. I suppose you might call Donald Trump reactionary due to his apparent xenophobic tendencies, but the same could be said of Bernie Sanders with his offering up of tax hikes that harken back the 1950’s (and which tax hikes on the wealthy I favor by the way). I think my definitions might be nonstandard, even unique, but I think they make a lot of sense. If you think of politics this way, you will see that what we have are six groups:
- liberal progressives: believe individuals should agitate for change to give people more freedom
- authoritarian progressives: believe we should use government power to effect change for a better future
- liberal reactionaries: believe there was more freedom for individuals in the past, and we need to fight the government to return to this earlier bliss
- authoritarian reactionaries: wish the government would bring back older laws to encourage people to go back to better, older ways
- liberal conservatives: believe that we should not change things, that we are good the way we are, and people should be left alone
- authoritarian conservatives: believe that we should use the government to block damage which would be caused by progressive or perhaps reactionary changes
Anyhow, that’s the way I see it. Go ahead, poli sci majors, please step in and correct me. By the way, I see myself as a liberal progressive for the most part, but I have tendencies to each of these on different topics, like I suspect most people do if they are honest about it!