Semantics, or, Why I’m a Liberal (Part I)

One of the first exchanges I had after starting this blog was with a person who had taken umbrage not with me, but with the actions of my kind – that is, the interactions he/she had had with liberals in the past. (This was a very positive discussion, and I learned a lot from it.) This got me thinking about how we understand conservatism and liberalism, and some of the problems associated with it.

To some people, being a conservative or a liberal is like being part of a team. You can tell which team someone is on by their mascots, their colors, and their uniforms. Teams work together toward common goals – if you’re a liberal you vote Democrat, you hold common positions on gun control, tax reforms, and the administration of social entitlements. Through a person’s actions and inclinations you can tell what team they’re on.

This seems to me like a dangerous way to understand partisanship. It encourages team members to follow the party line on policies that do not benefit the nation, or even ones that don’t benefit members of that party. Partisanship that’s administered like a team encourages absolute loyalty on sometimes nonsensical positions (think Grover Norquist’s compromise-strangling tax oaths) and requires lockstep orthodoxy in theoretical and academic support for policy (as with selective studies that downplay the effects of climate change).

Luckily, it isn’t the only way to understand party politics. A more useful way to understand parties is as coalitions of voters with primary political drivers of their own who can tolerate and work together with other people whose primary issues differ. Generally these coalitions work because, although one person may want to focus on curbing access to abortions and another may want to reinstate prayer in public schools, these disparate political actions are complementary, or at least inspired by similar first principles.

Political scientists have done a nice job codifying and defining these first principles, and I’m not going to try to go into comprehensive detail here. Besides, the problem with political discourse in the United States isn’t that we lack an exact lexicon for political groups and thoughts, but that we ultimately fail to use it. Nevertheless, I want to point to some of these first principles in order to explain where I think they fall short.

Conservatives (Fiscal) – Fiscal conservatives in reality have very little in common with social conservatives. In fact, most fiscal conservatives hold to a first principle that has little to do with social relationships at all. Namely, most fiscal conservatives agree that the primary function of government is to create favorable conditions for economic growth of any/all kinds. Commonly, this first principle is supported by the maxim that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” the idea that, if economic sectors are growing on a macro level, then there will be plenty of opportunity for economic mobility at all levels – janitors can get promotions as the businesses they work at succeed, while at the other end, CEOs will enjoy rising profits and satisfied shareholders.

This is a great idea, in theory, but the reality of modern commerce (with its historic rise in income inequality) means that when the pie gets bigger, the only slice that increases proportionally is that of the people at the top. If we as a society pour ten million dollars into, say, energy companies, and all of that money goes to ten CEOs and vice presidents, have we really gotten our money’s worth? Trickle down economics are largely discredited – excess money tends to circulate among those who already hold it and does not axiomatically benefit those employed by privately-held wealth. The tide, unfortunately, does not lift all boats equally. That’s why the government has to ensure that predatory business practices don’t lift economic sectors at the expense of the poorest members of society, and why the government’s primary function cannot be to increase the size of the economy at any cost.

Conservatives (Social) – Social conservatives tend to agree that the best society is stable, orderly, and constructed along traditional ideas of virtue. This focus on the goodness of society means that social conservatives tend to want to stamp out behaviors that they see as sinful or intrinsically harmful to the human person. They are usually informed by religions, which usually teach that there is one route to true human excellence, and it is some hybrid of contemplation, humility, and virtuous practice. In its strictest form, social conservatism even incorporates ideals of orthodoxy, the principle of right belief – that is, only one kind of thought is true, and there is no benefit in encouraging or tolerating kinds of thought that are untrue. Jonathan Haidt argues that social conservatives have a stronger “moral palate” than other political divisions and respect ideals like “respect for authority” and “piety,” which other political actors won’t defer to.

The crucial problem with the principle of social conservatism is that traditional forms of order and virtue haven’t actually served society all that well. Yeah, we’ve survived, but at the expense of many marginalized members of that society. One flashpoint area of conflict is that of the rights of homosexual people, who have often had the possibility of fulfilling love stripped away from them by the mores of a disapproving culture. Traditional virtues have also at times included imperialist politics, disdain for diversity of thought and belief, dehumanization of women, and the censorship of art and drama. Stability is indeed important for a society, but it cannot come for some at the expense of others.

Now, for Part II!



  1. Interesting article, informative and well written. Regarding ‘Fiscal Conservatives’ in the manner you’ve described them, would you not semantically say it actually makes more sense giving them a classical liberal or even Libertarian label as opposed to Conservative? I know thinkers like Friedman particularly disliked the hijacking of the word ‘Liberal’ as a word used often by the left and felt that ‘Conservative’ wasn’t a fitting replacement given past ideological baggage of its own.

    1. Thanks for commenting! I did dither a little before describing Fiscal Conservatives in the manner I did – some of the newer labels like ‘neoliberal’ and classical liberal do seem to better apply in some areas, but in this particular entry I thought it better to stick to a combination of Peter Wenz’s differentiation of “free-market conservatism” and “libertarianism” (promotion of growth vs absolute non-intervention) and the sort of man-on-the-street definition that you’d get if you asked a person “what does fiscal conservatism mean?”

      Maybe that’s a little disingenuous given the level of misinformation in the US right now – “fiscally conservative” seems to mean something like “for balanced budgets” and “economic liberal” has come to mean something akin to “can’t read balance sheets.”

  2. And that’s why language use in politics/ethics can be so frustrating, positive or negative connotations become attached to certain terms, or they change their meaning entirely within certain groups, making any reasonable discourse particularly difficult a lot of the time. 😦

    1. Definitely true. I do wish that more people had access to the vocabulary of political science (and other kinds of science, for that matter), because it would really let us speak more exactly about terminologies that, when convenient to politicians, rapidly become vague, fuzzy terms. I’m most concerned about the curtailment of civil liberties being couched in terms of freedom and security.

  3. Too true, words, like ‘liberty’, ‘freedom’ and ‘security’ can have such an ambiguous range of meaning but often far more ‘objective’ (to most people anyway) positive or negative connotation, allowing many politicians to abuse such phrases for their own ends.

  4. I love this! Thank you for such a well thought out post, and one which I wholeheartedly agree with at that. I am most impressed.

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