Sunday, June 12, 2011

Political Matrix on a Napkin

Could you give me a solid definition of the words LIBERAL and CONSERVATIVE, if I put you on the spot?

Let's define those political labels here at the outset, shall we. I'll go first with how I see them. Feel free to chime and and agree or disagree.

Today's terms: Liberal, Conservative, and Libertarian.

One caveat: I'm not presenting an academic treatise on these terms today. This is a blog. I'm in my basement multi-tasking and watching "Ice Road Truckers" at midnight. Let's keep it blog simple.

I am a political conservative. I understand and own that label, though people often call me that as an epithet.

I hang out online primarily with people that I see as political liberals, strangely enough. I find that many on that side of the spectrum do not like to be called that, and prefer "moderate" or such. My friend Nell Minnow often chastises me for using "liberal" in a blanket and derogatory sense. Guilty, I'm afraid.

So, let's take a few moments and define those terms.

Better yet, let's do so in a positive sense all around in an effort to add to the civility of political online debate.

Every now and then I ask people during a meal this question: How do you define Liberal and Conservative? What I usually get is some variant of this:

Liberal: Fun-loving, wanting to go forward, wanting to help, etc.

Conservative: Stuffy, stuck in the past, wanting to hang on to traditions

Hmmm. Those are close to dictionary definitions. Let's look at Webster definitions:

Liberal: Marked by generosity. Not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional forms.

Conservative: Marked by moderation or caution. Tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions

Hmmm again. If you are a young person in high school or college and you were to read those definitions you would likely say sign me up to be a liberal! Who wants to be stuffy and cautious? Well, you might when you're 51 and you're responsible for the security and well being of three other human beings in your family.

I've thought a lot about those definitions over the years. I don't agree with them. Not only because I know conservatives that are very generous, for example, but because I've not found them to be helpful in defining political thought and policy.

Politics is not often a decision between stuffy or fun. Not often a decision between going "forward" - as "progressives" are likely to argue - or backwards. Backwards to where? Forwards to tax rates that we had before Bush?

Politics is about the size and role of government, and has been since our founding. Is the government the best expression of our desire to take care of each other, and should therefore be the largest that it needs to be? Or, is government a necessary evil and it should be a limited "safety net" so that we can best individually pursue life and liberty unhindered? Those are liberal and conservative worldviews, at their core.

Moreover, are all people neatly label-able across the whole spectrum of issues? Not necessarily. There are issues that we broadly group as either "economic" issues (taxes, national debt, spending) or "social" issues (abortion, gay marriage, immigration, etc.). Does everyone break down neatly into two camps across the spectrum of issues?

Are you an economic Liberal? You are if see government as a positive collective vehicle for providing for our basic needs for health and security. Government ensures economic justice.

Are you an economic Conservative? You are if you believe in limited government spending so that you have the resources to provide for each other through family and church and private charity. Government is for infrastructure and a safety net.

Are you a social Liberal? Pro-choice. Favor same-sex marriage. Favor borderless immigration of peoples. etc.

Are you a social Conservative? Pro-Life. Traditional definitions of marriage. Border security. etc.

Hang on, though. What if you want less government but are pro-choice? What are you then?

At this point in a discussion, I usually break out a napkin and draw political matrix for my discussion partner. I learned it a long time ago from some political book or other, and it goes like this:

1. Let's draw ourself a Political Matrix to start out with. Two by Two square, labeled as such:

2. Let's label the horizontal squares as "Social issues", and the vertical squares as "Economic Issues"

3. On each axis, let's give ourself one square as "Liberal" and one square as "Conservative"

Now we have our matrix. Let's fill it in simply, as follows:

4. If you find yourself to be liberal on social issues AND liberal on economic issues, you are a political LIBERAL. Find that intersection in the matrix and fill it in like this:

5. If you find yourself to be conservative on social issues AND conservative on economic issues, you are a political CONSERVATIVE. Find that intersection in the matrix and fill it in like this:

That was easy. Now it gets tricky.

6. If you find yourself to be liberal on social issues BUT conservative on economic issues, you are a political LIBERTARIAN. Find that intersection in the matrix and fill it in like this.

7 Lastly, if you find yourself to be a conservative on social issues BUT a liberal on economic issues - YOU DON'T EXIST! I've never met one anyway. And since you don't exist and are not reading this blog I'll finish the matrix like this:

It takes a lot of study and reflection to be able to define the terms liberal and conservative usefully in a political context.

It takes even more effort to define your political opposites in a positive context. It takes a lot, for example, for me as a Conservative to be able to write that "Liberals believe that government is the best vehicle and expression of our collective desire to care for each other". But, it's useful and it helps you ratchet back and to keep it civil if you can see their viewpoint in a positive light.

It doesn't mean you have to agree with their viewpoints. It just helps you to keep from seeing each other as evil. And that's a good thing.

Try it. Take a moment and try to describe positively the major worldview of your ideological polar opposites. Let me know how it goes.

Thoughts on these terms? Leave a comment. Let's discuss, civilly.


  1. I agree most people fall into these groups, though many don't fit perfectly. For instance, I am generally liberal, but things go murky on immigration. I think we should limit immigration, crack down on illegal border crossings, but think there should be a path to legalization for teens & young adults brought here as children w/no choice in the matter.

    My dad would fall into your Libertarian quadrant, but calls himself a liberal or moderate Republican. He thinks Nixon was a near-perfect President, but for that little Watergate mess. Watches FOX, listens to Rush, but recognizes that they are almost parodies of conservatism and discounts much of it. Thinks Sarah Palin is dumber than a box of rocks, but would probably vote for her over Obama. Willing to go to the mat, however, for women's rights (incl abortion), civil rights, and gay rights.

  2. Hi Melinda. Thanks for the feedback on the categories.

    I'd probably get along with your dad. I think I could turn him around on the Palin thing.