Sometimes, it seems that the United States is permanently divided over left and right politics, and there is nothing we can do to solve our differences. As it turns out, most of the time we want a lot of the same things, even though it seems like the people who disagree with us want the opposite. The major difference between liberal and conservative viewpoints, however, can be divided along a spectrum of liberty versus security. At the ends of this spectrum, also known as the right (liberty) and the left (security), you will find fascism on the right and communism on the left. All other ideologies fall somewhere on the spectrum between these two poles.
Traditionally, the Republican Party has been viewed as the right-wing conservative party and the Democratic Party as the left-wing liberal one. However, the Republican Party espouses both conservative and liberal views. The same can be said about the Democratic Party.
What Is a Liberal?
Traditionally, liberal voters are younger, are college educated and live in cities, though actual demographics vary, and you should be wary of stereotypes, especially in a time when animosity over left and right politics has a tendency to be divisive.
The term liberal is generally used to refer to Democrats because many ideals held by the democratic party favor security over individual liberty. The most common example of this is the desire for heavier taxes in order to pay for government safety-net services like public education, infrastructure like roads, programs like food stamps and arts initiatives like the National Endowment for the Arts.
Anything that regulates private industry or increases the power of the federal government can be defined as liberal. In other words, laws that regulate car emissions or even how much arsenic is permissible in your apple juice are, by this definition, liberal laws. Conservative lawmaking relies on trust between manufacturers and consumers, but liberal lawmaking asserts that capitalists may not always have the interest of individual citizens at heart and will thus need to be regulated to promote the greater good.
What Is a Conservative?
Although conservatives tend to be older voters, no single demographic dominates the Republican Party. Republicans tend to be wealthier and older on average. Many live in the country and the suburbs, while greater concentrations of democrats have been shown in cities and university towns.
The Difference Between Liberal and Conservative Views
The most prominent difference between liberal and conservative viewpoints is ideological rather than simply left and right politics, as many believe. While the term "conservative" is usually defined colloquially by a desire to stop things from changing, in the American political landscape, Conservatives can actually be characterized by a desire for liberty. In this context, liberty can mean an emphasis on free-market economics, lower taxes and the ability to choose your means in life without being obligated to support your neighbor.
Although the term liberal has come to coincide with progressive social ideas like marriage equality, the major emphasis of liberalism in the political landscape is a desire for security. On the spectrum of liberty versus security, liberal thinkers are more willing to give up liberty – by paying higher taxes, for example – in order to ensure a secure future, such as the availability of social safety nets like food stamps or affordable health care.
What Are Liberal Ideas?
For many Democratic voters, the primary issues right now are social ones. Some believe that there has been an increase in the display of racism and sexism in recent years, and the government is not doing enough to combat the issues. Many liberal voters want laws to help prevent discrimination, especially in the workplace for people of color, LGBTQ individuals and women.
Many liberal voters also want an increase in social safety-net programs. One primary example of this is the call for single-payer health care, which would cut down but not do away with the massive private insurance industry.
Immigration has become a prime concern during the Trump presidency. In general, Liberal voters would like to expand freedom for people from other countries to seek asylum in the U.S., whereas many Conservatives would like to curb immigration and focus on bettering the lives of U.S. citizens before offering help to people from around the world.
For some Liberal voters, environmental issues have come to the forefront of their worries. Seeing reports about the catastrophic future our planet faces because of climate change, many Liberal voters are calling for the federal government to enact stronger laws to protect the environment. Small local laws that have already taken effect include bans on single-use plastic products. Wider-reaching laws may target corporations instead of individual consumers.
What Are Conservative Ideas?
Many Republican voters believe that big government is a fiscal waste and that it deprives its citizens of both freedom and money. The ideal government structure for many Republicans would be greatly pared down at every level. It would not only have fewer administrators, but it would also have fewer programs. Many but not all Republicans see humanitarian and cultural programs as wasteful. In a conservative overhaul of the federal government, tax revenue would be greatly reduced, and programs such as Medicaid, voluntary pre-kindergarten and the National Endowment for the Humanities would all be reduced or cut. The conservative view is not that these programs are bad or unnecessary. Conservatives just believe that the government should not be responsible for aiding its citizens in these ways. Many Conservatives believe that individual citizens do a better job of helping each other with less than national programs do with more.
Conservative Views Shared by Republicans
Due to the complexity of many issues important to both political parties, it can be difficult if not impossible to label each as either liberal or conservative. Many issues in which Republicans strongly believe have elements of liberal security, and many social issues for which Democrats fight are based on upholding individual liberties.
Some issues that are important to Republicans right now include immigration and jobs. Many Conservatives hoped that the tax breaks recently given to large businesses would benefit the average worker, part of the economic principle called “trickle-down economics,” an idea agreed upon by many conservative Republicans.
In the same vein, many conservative Republicans believe that private ownership is better than government ownership for most if not all enterprises. While many liberals feel that taxation and a variety of government-owned enterprises can offer more to individual citizens than privatization, conservatives generally see government ownership as wasteful and as detracting from the individual liberties of the taxpayer. Some conservatives would even go as far as to abolish widely used public services like education in favor of a privatized model.
Liberal Views Shared by Republicans
Liberal views aren’t the pure domain of the Democratic Party. In the broadest sense of the liberal idea of security, any measure taken by the federal government to assist its citizens can be considered liberal, at least in some part. By this definition, government bailouts of private corporations are a liberal measure taken to stabilize the economy. Bailouts, because of the governmental hand, are not a part of free-market capitalism and can be viewed as liberal, though not progressive.
Also, in this broad sense of liberal – meaning the government stepping in to regulate individual lives – is if the government chooses to speak out about marriage equality or gender issues. Just like Title IX legislation can be seen as liberal legislation, so can any ban against marriage equality or laws that require people to use the bathroom matching the gender they were assigned at birth.
Most Conservatives also believe that consumer safety is a good thing. For example, it may be hard to find someone who wants to buy groceries that haven’t passed FDA inspection or who wants to drive a car that hasn’t been crash tested. Although enacting regulatory laws is liberal in nature, most people, no matter their political leaning, would agree that the vast majority of consumer safety laws have made the U.S. a safer place.
Countries With Conservative Governments
Because each individual law can be labeled as either liberal or conservative, no country is entirely one ideology or another. Even countries at the far end of each political spectrum are not purely liberal or conservative. Countries with a strong conservative presence include the U.S., the United Kingdom and Israel.
The fascist governments that held sway in Europe during World War II were mostly conservative. However, that does not preclude the existence of liberal governmental structures. For example, Italy under Mussolini had a fascist conservative government, and yet the trains ran on time because they were controlled by the government.
In recent years, conservatism has been conflated with right-wing nationalism and populism. As it has in the past, far-right conservatism can often be tied to authoritarianism and militarism. However, it can be argued that the purest form of conservatism lies in libertarianism, the tenets of which include laissez-faire government and unregulated, free-market capitalism.
Countries With Liberal Governments
The Scandinavian countries – Norway, Sweden and Finland – are most commonly associated with liberal governance. This is mostly because of their high taxes that pay for social safety-net programs like universal health care. However, even countries with strong conservative political parties can have equally robust social welfare programs. The United Kingdom is a prime example because it has socialized medicine but also a significant conservative influence in its government.
At the far-left end of the political spectrum is communism. As with the far right, communism is also associated with authoritarianism and militarism. A prime example of authoritarian communism is the People’s Republic of China under the dictatorship of Mao Zedong. Under Mao, almost everything in China was owned and controlled by the government, a complete sacrifice of liberty in return for the idea of security.
How the U.S. Is Affected by Left and Right Politics
In recent years, politics in the United States has become hostile, affecting how people interact on the internet and in real life. Many people have parted ways with friends and family members due to opposing political views. However, more recently, politicians from both sides of the aisle have been making an effort to mend relationships and champion kindness in political debate.
Liberal vs. Conservative: Which Is Better?
As the old adage goes, “Everything in moderation.” The same is true with political ideologies. As history has shown, the far right can be just as dangerous as the far left. It is when we learn to balance our needs with the needs of others that we can have a functioning government and a society that is beneficial to all of its citizens.
Ultimately, many liberal and conservative voters want the same things: more money in their pockets, job security and a secure future. However, each political ideology comes at these questions from a different perspective. Progress can be made when voters and politicians recognize that both sides are more alike than they are different.
Rebecca Renner is a teacher and college professor from Florida. She loves teaching about literature, and she writes about books for Book Riot, Real Simple, Electric Literature and more.