Conservative and Liberal–Two Cultures


 (adapted from lectures, 2007-08)

One day a friend remarked to me that he had been talking with a neighbor, when my name came up in the conversation. The second man let out an expression like, “Humph, he’s a liberal.” I found this amusing. I wondered what, exactly, did the second man mean? The media use the terms, “liberal” and “conservative,” or “left” and “right,” without ever defining them. I want to look at the meaning and implication of the terms, because the country is divided politically, socially, and religiously into two camps labeled as “liberal” and “conservative.” States are identified as either blue or red. I see a nation divided not so much by money as by different ways of life that are generated and shaped by beliefs. And if you think this polarity is entirely new, see the epilog at the end.

At the time of the Clinton scandal, Norman Podhoretz, a senior fellow of the conservative Hudson Institute, described conservatives as waging

a culture war … on behalf of traditional values against the relativism and libertinism of the elite sectors of society.” 

To understand this “culture war,” I wanted to know what the terms “conservative” and “liberal” have meant, and mean now.

By a 1929 dictionary, “conservative” means adhering to the existing order of things, preserving, opposed to change or progress.  I like most of those characteristics. I sometimes wish we had preserved the world in which I grew up–it was greener, less hurried, more reliable. I now work to preserve the environment, and my money, and my 24-year-old automobile. I don’t like consumption and waste.

By that 1929 dictionary, “liberal” means possessing a generous heart, an enlightened mind, free from bigotry or bondage to authority or creed, opposed to monarchy, independent, generous.  Those characteristics I also like.  If my neighbor thought that I am enlightened and generous, why did he humph with disapproval?  


Now let’s look at the meaning of these terms when they are used as labels today.   “Conservative” implies the philosophical method of authority, rules dictated by somebody else who is presumed to know best. Conservatism provides order and prevents chaos, as in the rules of the road and all other forms of living by law. The method of authority follows the tried and true. We all want our bridges and airplanes to be built by engineers who use proven methods and materials. Social customs provide a safety and guidance—for example, the customary rules of marriage and prohibitions against fornication assure established homes for the resulting children.  Investment is a conservative practice; without investment we would have trails and oxcarts and clay tablets in place of highways and railroads and computers. Conservative is the proven way.

“Liberal” implies examination of the facts rather than blind acceptance of the status quo. Science is inherently liberal! The press, if it is to provide investigations and facts, must be inherently liberal. Liberal religion anticipates a progressive growth and revelation to each individual, while remaining wary of authoritative teachings. “Liberal” implies a willingness to try new things. That’s dangerous. In contrast, pure conservatism is safe but it is stagnation. Highways and airplanes and books and computers and political freedom and religious freedom all came about because somebody dared to try a new idea. Jesus was a liberal in his day, arguing against accepted practices by suggesting the person without sin should throw the first stone.

World views  

The terms “conservative” and “liberal” have become labels for two world views.   The conservative and liberal world views have an important fundamental difference, exemplified by statements from Peter Schweizer (Profiles in Liberal Hypocrisy).  Schweizer reveals a gem of conservative thinking when he says:

“Unlike most liberals, however, conservatives understand andaccept the reality of hypocrisy as part of the human condition. The notion of original sin, or flawed human nature, is embraced by pretty much every conservative philosophy. Indeed, it is enshrined in our very system of government. … as human beings, we are flawed and prone to sin and vice.”

Schweizer’s description of the conservative view confirms an insight, explored further by George Lakoff in Moral Politics. Conservatives tend to see humans as flawed, requiring a firm, dominant, authoritarian, controlling governance in both civic affairs and at home. In contrast, liberals tend to see humans as good until proven bad, and equally deserving of the necessities and basic comforts of life. Conservatives regard the role of government as something needed to control the bad aspects of human nature; liberals regard the role of government as one of nurturing the good aspects. These are two fundamentally different beliefs that cannot be proved universally correct or false, because there are plenty of examples on both sides. Good and bad are often mixed. Despite his other faults, Hitler made the German trains run on time.

 A mixture  

In real life many rational people choose a mixture of liberal and conservative tendencies.  That’s how we have endured with each other for 200 years. For example, I might tend to be more liberal in most social things but unforgiving of criminality. To be socially liberal is to share power; to be inclusive; to welcome diversity; to promote equality. That’s dangerous—you don’t know where it will lead. It can approach anarchy when different people value different things. For example, that person might oppose diversity when there are terrorists moving in the world. A conservative person might support taxation of salaries for social security, seeing it as a means to responsible social action. 

 Why the polarization?   

While we might not all agree on the best mix of conservative and liberal values, that shouldn’t be such a large issue as to generate a divided nation, a “culture war,” red or blue labels for states, and a climate in which congressmen can’t talk to each other. If liberal and conservative concepts both have value, what’s going on that’s so divisive? Why are there books entitled, “Liberalism is a Mental Disorder,” and “Profiles in Liberal Hypocrisy,” and “Where the Right Went Wrong?”

Each side has offended the other.  

The extremes of each side offend and threaten the other side. Pure conservatism, never allowing new thought, never examining the evidence, is utterly oppressive. Excess liberal zeal, too, can become an senseless orthodoxy–as when, for example, public mental institutions were closed under the banner of freedom, resulting in a surge of the homeless population, and in the legal requirement that my profoundly retarded son have access to theaters and banking. If I didn’t understand the reasons behind this nonsense, I would be afraid. Fear generates political power, and both sides use it.



In his book Where the Right Went Wrong, the conservative spokesman Patrick Buchanan explores the fear that drove the religious right into political action.  He explains that, for 2,000 years, God-fearing folks conservatively adhered to ancient Jewish dogma forbidding nakedness, asserting the shamefulness of sex, and imposing male superiority. The social evolution of the ’60s and ’70s changed ethics toward individual choice in dress, sexual behavior, and political participation. Gradually, these freedoms became officially protected, particularly with supreme court decisions regarding abortion, affirmative action, and separation of church from school and state. Conservative people had counted on the reliability of shameful sexuality, Christmas in schools, wages for work rather than welfare. They saw the evolution was a threat to their way of living, and they became politically active as a defense more than as an offense to convert the rest of us.  As another spokesman said,

“…doctrines of moral chaos are being promulgated. Schools have coed dorms, counter-culture values of diversity and sex are promoted in schools, libraries, museums, and corporations.”

In Buchanan’s view, true conservatives saw nothing about sex, abortion, privacy, affirmative action, or church-school separation in the constitution. And remember, for a true conservative, the authoritative written code is more important than the immediate situation around us. When the Clinton sexual scandal broke, the conservatives saw it as a high crime justifying impeachment. The impeachment proceedings failed, and subsequently Clinton’s public rating increased rather than declined. Horrified, the conservatives concluded that a moral rot (their term) pervaded not only Washington, but all of America.

It was the onrush of modernity, the shifting mores, the separation of religion from school and government, the secularization of Christmas and Easter holidays, that threatened the previously inactive, but religiously conservative members of everyday society. These fearful people became a voting block, welcomed by the traditional conservatives. And that threatened the liberals, who heretofore had enjoyed the emergent progress of the society. The result was a deep polarization, so deep as to be two cultures of values, beliefs, and attitudes, each seeking dominance as a defense against a perceived threat.

Neither side is looking for a win-win solution.


The neoconservatives–a third factor

Within outside of the government, there arose a small but influential group with new messianic zeal for forcible institution of American-style democracy in countries that have no cultural infrastructure for public governance. This group, whom Buchanan calls neoconservatives, had two doctrines, both founded on foreign policy: 1) American-style democracy must be installed by force elsewhere as a means of defending America; and 2) support for Israel. As documented by Buchanan, this group eventually came to power within the second Bush administration. Its designs were encapsulated by Ledeen, an ex-official of the Pentagon.

First and foremost, we must bring down the terror regimes, beginning with the Big Three: Iran, Iraq, and Syria. And then we have to come to grips with the Saudis … Once the tyrants in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia have been brought down, we will remain engaged. … We have to ensure the fulfillment of the democratic revolution. …

And, as stated by Norman Podhoretz:

…the regimes that richly deserve to be overthrown … are not confined to the three singled-out members of the axis of evil. At a minimum the axis should extend to Syria and Lebanon and Libya as well as ‘friends’ of America like the Saudi royal family and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, along with the Palestinian Authority.

When 9/11 provided a questionable justification for this militant approach, those in power used fear to promote and to institute rigorous, oppressive measures such as the Patriot Act, under the name of “homeland security,” which sounds like “fatherland.” These designs fit well with the corporate powers who fund conservative politics. War makes money. We no longer have cooks in the army, Haliburton has the contract for meals and support in Iraq. Liberal fears escalates as liberals saw a threat to constitutional freedoms. At the same time, in the reduction of anti-trust enforcement and natural corporate agglomeration reduced the news media from journalism to infotainment, controlled by only a few entities, each seeking money more than truth. Both the governmental hierarchy and the commercial entities saw American dominance—American empire—as the goal. However, as Buchanan observed, terrorism has always been the price of empire, and all prior empires have dissipated themselves by the costs of foreign wars of domination.

The situation

We have two cultures, mutually fearful of each other and each being manipulated by third parties who accent the fear rather than resolving it. I see the manipulation as a threat greater than the fears of either side. Why has the congress not provided a check and balance? Well, liberals who come into power find that power is a conservative thing. Once in power, anyone who seeks to maintain his power inherently becomes conservative in his behavior. Elections cost money and money is a conservative thing.

My own fear is that the attempted installation of an American empire by military force will lead to a fascist control at home that is neither conservative nor liberal. It will be domination by a combination of military ideology and big business. Without a change in the two cultures, the U.S. will stagnate, teetering on real and imagined fears, unable to resolve its internal dissention, its expenditures, and its foreign relations. No matter who is in power, war and secrecy will continue to be advertised as security, because to resolve the real fears—the perceived threats to lifestyle—would be to lose political control. Power will continue to concentrate in corporate agglomeration.

What’s the solution?

The polarization in which both sides are threatened may originate in the deep differences between liberal and conservative philosophies, but it feeds on the human desire to dominate, to win, to enlarge tribal boundaries, to defend by growth and acquisition, to generate an absolute security in a world where everything always has changed, and always will.

It is neither conservative nor liberal philosophies themselves that maintain polarization. It is the fear that one’s own position will be overrun by the perceived opposition. The goal is to control, without questioning whether it is necessary or even possible to control people or markets or events. The method is to be right by making someone else wrong. Righteousness is claimed not by deeds, but by issuing blame for someone else’s misdeeds. We were good because Sadaam was bad or because Al Queda is bad. The method is to proclaim security by generating fear. Attack, then, becomes a position, a stand, way of being. And sure enough, whether in the marketplace or in a community or in another nation, if you attack you will find enemies.

Both liberals and conservatives attack. If you think the Iraq war was a conservative mistake, I’ll point out that the liberal war on poverty didn’t cure poverty, or that the liberal movement of urban renewal converted slums to nice properties while displacing the poor folks who no longer could afford to live there. The liberal movement to close the mental institutions didn’t cure the mental deficiencies of the residents; it generated an urban subculture known as the homeless. Thus, a policy is not beneficial just because it is either liberal or conservative.

Conservative and liberal have become habits of mind, cultures divided by politics, religion, and attitudes regarding everything, including one’s purpose in being alive.

Culture, more than resources or ideology, determines whether countries become vital or backward, free or oppressive. Culture is subconscious. You are unaware of your own culture until you travel to a different culture. You can intentionally change only those aspects of culture that become conscious, the things that you can speak about. So long as you cannot speak about an elephant in the room, it won’t go away.

To heal the polarization in our own society, a new leadership must articulate the cultures. The leader or leaders must confidently bring the fears of both sides to conscious recognition. The leaders must reduce fear, rather than using fear as a means to power. A new leadership must itself be so unafraid that it is able to converse with both sides.  Such a new leadership would seek power to heal, rather than to win.

Yes, a national leader could heal some of the polarization by articulating the bi-cultural situation. But individuals, you or anybody else, are the leadership that’s needed most. If you think you are liberal, visit conservatives. If you are conservative, go break bread with liberals. People are less fearful when sharing the same bread. I have a whole list of things individuals can do. Here are two examples:

Be less concerned with religion or sex ed in schools, and engage others in questioning with whether we are substituting accountability and tests in place of creative learning.

Be less concerned with whether your world view is threatened, and talk about laws that allow corporations to be politically superior to persons.

In other words, drop your immediate fear and explore shared concerns. Unfortunately, tolerance has become a bad word among the most fearful. Tolerance is the intentional ability to voice, and to share, the other person’s concerns. Act with tolerance. If you want war, talk only to your friends. If you want peace, talk to your enemies.



And, in case you think this polarization is new:


“The two parties which divide the state, the party of Conservatism and that (of Liberalism) have disputed the possession of the world ever since it was made. The quarrel is the subject of civil history. The conservative party established the reverend hierarchies and monarchies of the most ancient world. The battle of patrician and plebeian, of parent state and colony, of old usage and accommodation to new facts, of the rich and the poor, reappears in all countries and times. The war rages not only in battlefields, in national councils, and ecclesiastical synods, but agitates every man’s bosom with opposing advantages every hour. … Such an irreconcilable antagonism … is the opposition of Past and Future, of Memory and Hope, of the Understand and the Reason. It is the primal antagonism … .

“We are reformers in spring and summer; in autumn and winter, we stand by the old; … (we are) reformers in the morning, conservers at night.”   Ralph Waldo Emerson, from a lecture delivered at the Masonic Temple, Boston, December 9, 1841.

2 thoughts on “Conservative and Liberal–Two Cultures

  1. Keith ·

    It is interesting that while an ideal solution seeks to increase the size of the tribe, often the members of the tribe vote against their own interests. The conservative “war on women”, “war on health care”, “war on homosexuals”, and “war on evolution” continues to drive people away from the conservative tribe.

    I predict that once conservatives drop their war on homosexuals and accept evolution, you will see them gain credibility in the middle ground of American debate.

    • Certainly most groups (churches, political parties, corporations) consider themselves as more successful when they have more members. Any culture of more than 100 people becomes a complex system, and the more members, the more the complexity. However, a complex system has rules, and cultural rules tend to be exclusive–distinguishing “us” from “them.” Therefore, an identifiably conservative group (those who voluntarily adhere strongly to a higher or older authority) is by nature somewhat exclusive. As you point out, it can become more inclusive (welcoming), by relaxing some of its adherence to authority. A purely conservative capitalist economy would not have a social security system, yet most business persons have relaxed their objections to the existence of social security. A truly liberal governance would examine the reality of its social programs, determining where those programs had the desired results and where not, but to do that it would have to relax some of its belief that social programs are inherently constructive. I’ll make the personal observation that most persons are partly conservative and partly liberal, and thereby the broad populace stabilizes the complex system that is our society. When ideologues of either form are in control, the society becomes polarized and unstable. Think 1970’s when conservative ideologues controlled the federal government and hippie ideologues dominated (more or less) the streets. Think again 2013, when two ideologies prevent the government from working and the economy (or at least its accounting system) teeters on some predicted but unknown disaster. Thanks for the comment.

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