What do conservative and liberal mean in the U.S. today? It depends on whether you are talking about capital or small “C” and “L”. Small letters refer to ideas, capitals refer to ideologies. Still unclear? Let’s go back to the French Revolution, which wasn’t just a trivial civil war 220 years ago. It is the tipping point for Western society, where we first got a taste of democracy. We typically tell ourselves that Athens was the origination of democracy in the West, and one can make a reasonable case for that, although modern democracy took a more extensive form. The change that occurred was profound on many levels, and represented the culmination of several revolutions: religious, scientific, industrial, and clearly political. The “liberals” of the time wanted something astounding and dramatic—political, religious and economic control away from the aristocracy and into the hands of the people. They got this for a little while, until the Empires conquered Napoleon, and Europe lived under the rule of aristocracy for another century.
Classically, “conservative” and “liberal” (small letters) meant those who wanted to “conserve” the traditions of the Church and the aristocracy, versus the liberals who wanted popular control of these institutions. Over time, these meanings have changed, since what we consider “traditions” have themselves changed. Today, most of who we call Liberals and Conservatives are both classical liberals, since both groups derive fundamental political, economic and religious assumptions about The Good Society from French Revolution ideals (think about the term “liberal arts education”). These early debates about how a country filled with distinct individuals should “do” this new society shaped our views about private property, rule of law, and the social contract. Both Conservatives and Liberals (capital C and L) typically agree on these fundamentals.
So what does conservative mean today, and what does liberal mean? In terms of parties, our culture associates Republicans with conservatism, and Democrats with liberalism, however, to a large degree the terms have lost much of their original meaning due to a divergence in political and economic logic in our society. Understanding the complexity of our system requires that we create a 4-quadrant graph, with the Y-direction being politics, and the X-direction being economics (see Graph 1, which I have modified from Political Compass, clarifying the labels, and putting myself on the graph). The dichotomy for both politics and economics is liberty vs. social oversight. For example, we associate a high level of political oversight with conservatism, in the sense that the government (i.e., society, since our government is, to some degree, "by the people") has greater control over our social lives—sexuality, reproductive rights, drug laws, morality, etc. This dichotomy is intuitive for our culture.
However, it is economics where our definitions become reversed. Specifically, economic conservatism refers again to greater social oversight—consider the government involvement needed for any kind of socialist state, with large-scale redistribution of wealth, and public control over the means of production. Intuitively, in our culture, we would call this “liberalism”, and it is “classic” liberalism, since it takes control of the means of production out of the hands of a powerful few and into the hands of the society as a whole. However, on this graph, the more social oversight required is technically “conservative.” In this framework, the economic “liberal” would represent most capitalists, granting liberty to individuals to do whatever they want from a production and consumption perspective—i.e., keeping business profits, while we as consumers can buy whatever we want. Culturally, we associate capitalism with Conservatism and socialism with Liberalism, and while technically this is reversed from our graph, it is part of the unique construction of U.S. social life.
So, to review, U.S. Conservatives today, Republicans, according to our graph, are politically conservative, but economically liberal. But here’s the surprise—as you can see from the graph, Democrats, the U.S. Liberals, are mostly in the same quadrant of the graph, just closer to the center. From a philosophical perspective, it is only minority parties that are in other quadrants. Socialists face this same divergence between economic and political ideas, but in the reverse direction—they tend to prefer conservative economics, but liberal politics. Two groups have a “purity” of conservatism vs. liberalism: Communists and Libertarians, both in opposite directions. Historically, Communists (more specifically, Stalinists) desired conservative economics, wanting government oversight over the economy, and political conservatism, wanting tight control over citizen social life (contemporary Communists typically do not share this purity of vision, tending towards the same quadrant as the Socialists). Libertarians desire the opposite—economic and personal liberty, envisioning a Hobbes-style society where each person is responsible completely for herself, and government’s job is primarily to protect us from foreign invaders.
What does this mean? The two surprises to most U.S. readers is that conservatism and liberalism are not U.S. Conservatism and Liberalism, and that in U.S. politics, both party Conservatives and Liberals are roughly after the same goals when it comes to the larger philosophy of politics and economics. Specifically, Democrats are by no means Socialists, although clearly they trend closer than Republicans. U.S. politics itself has become mired in something that looks very much like the ancient monarchy, which had centralized political control, fundamentally ruled by plutocracy—ruled by the wealthy. Further, economically speaking, the same pattern exists—the economy is not in the hands of the masses, but has been concentrated in the hands of the same cluster that is in charge of the political structure. This generates the third surprise—that the upper right quadrant is the quadrant of the middle ages monarchy, with conservative politics, since social behavior was tightly controlled, but at the same time, an economic system that had no oversight of the masses. Technically, peasants could work their way out of debt-bondage to the noble, on whose land they worked, but practically speaking, this almost never happened because the system was rigged against him. All of the money the peasant earned went to the wealthy land-owner, and the blood-line of aristocracy controlled the government. Neither land, business, wealth, nor politics had popular-level oversight, but was in the hands of whomever could consolidate it and keep it, and government policy affirmed that right, facilitating the process of the wealthy becoming wealthier, and the wealthy becoming more politically powerful. The former has analogies to the neoliberalism found in many Republicans today, and the latter looks like the recent Supreme Court decision allowing corporations the ability donate as much as they like to political campaigns.