Many believe the political divide in the United States is quickly widening and, unfortunately, the data currently backs up that conclusion. Articles and publications from major research firms like Pew Research show a steady collapse of the middle of the political spectrum as America becomes more polarized. Here are some recent publications describing this division:
- Political Polarization in the American Public
- Key takeaways on Americans’ growing partisan divide over political values
- The Partisan Divide on Political Values Grows Even Wider
- In a polarized era, fewer Americans hold a mix of conservative and liberal views
Any true American who cares about harmonious society might honestly ask themselves the questions, “Is this division really necessary, or good for America? What causes this division? What can we do to reverse this trend?”
I invite you to read this article and to consider how much of the division in the United States is based in fundamental incompatibilities between the left and the right, versus how much of the division is founded upon cultural attitudes derived from news outlets, social media, and other divisive political commentary.
What is liberal?
“Liberal” is a term that conservatives throw around loosely to describe anyone who disagrees with or opposes “conservative” ideals. I believe this term is used incorrectly and falls short of truly describing what it means to be liberal.
The word liberal comes from a 14th-century word meaning “generous, selfless, magnanimous, admirable, willing, zealous, munificent, or gracious.” From the 12th century, it also has a slightly negative connotation: “extravagant, unrestrained.” Also, “of freedom, pertaining to or befitting a free person” and “free, unrestricted, unimpeded; unbridled, unchecked, licentious.” A liberal is someone who sees social injustice and asks themselves, “What can I do to solve this problem as quickly as possible, whatever means necessary?” When a liberal sees suffering, poverty, sickness and disease, malnutrition, or any other combination of wicked problems, they are motivated to develop solutions. This is why liberals dominate the field of social innovation or social entrepreneurship, the industry of solving world problems. These liberals love what they do and their whole heart is in the work because it is deeply connected to their compassion and desire to serve and lift others.
Conservatives would be surprised to learn that the word liberal comes from a word suggesting “freedom, pertaining to or befitting a free person,” and “tending in favor of freedom and democracy.” This essentially means that liberals want to free a person from the chains of poverty, abuse, injustice, or other debilitating conditions and that they are willing to give of themselves freely to make this happen. Liberals are willing to give the shirts off their backs to help those in need. They make change happen. Jesus Christ was the perfect example of a classical liberal.
However, the most extreme liberals are actually willing to cause injustice to solve what they consider to be a greater social injustice, and this is what has conservatives scared. These radicals give liberals a bad name and cause conservatives to retaliate violently against this new and direct assault on justice. As any virtue taken to the extreme becomes a vice, someone like Robin Hood could be considered the epitome of a liberal extremist, someone who is moved by compassion but uses the property of another to provide the needed relief.
Here is the danger in “unbridled” or “unchecked” liberalism: emotionalism without direction is a threat to freedom. Ideas that seem like good, sound solutions may actually make problems much worse.
What is conservative?
The term conservative comes from a 14th-century word meaning “tending to preserve or protect, preservative, having the power to keep whole or safe,” and “to keep, preserve, keep intact, guard,” as well as “keep watch, maintain.” Additionally, conservative meant “disposed to retain and maintain what is established, opposed to innovation and change.”
When confronted with a proposed solution to a problem, a conservative is someone who asks themselves the questions, “What is this going to do to our rights and our resources? Can we afford this in the long run? Would this ‘solution’ actually create more periphery problems as we try to solve this single problem? Is this the right way to solve the problem, or is there a better way of doing this? Do we trust the people who are initiating this proposed solution, or do they have ulterior motives?” The questions could go on and on.
Conservatives experience paralysis by analysis. They are often so afraid of “breaking” things further that they would rather deal with a broken system than rally together to make a change and risk making things worse. Conservatives have a serious trust issue. This is why conservatives will disunite over the smallest difference while liberals unite over the slightest similarity.
I know conservatives who recognize problems with the current system but are so afraid of change that they resist any efforts to pass amendments to restore checks and balances. They preach that the original Constitution was inspired by God but resist all efforts to restore it to its original strength.
The most radical or extreme case of conservatism may be Ebenezer Scrooge who, when confronted with the proposition that people would rather die than go to the Union workhouses, heartlessly said, “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” A 100% conservative is insensitive, unconcerned for others, harsh, cruel, and exclusively concerned about retaining resources. I sure hope this does not describe any of us.
One reason conservatives are slow to promote change is that they don’t necessarily consider all change truly progressive, good, or beneficial. They do want to promote good change but struggle to identify truly innovative solutions that they believe would produce the desired impact.
Comparing the Two
I believe classical liberals are always the first to serve and sacrifice for others, including those they don’t know. If you are a conservative who considers yourself quick to serve, then I submit you are much more liberal than you have previously thought. If you are a liberal who considers yourself someone who acts with wisdom and foresight and avoids making problems worse by really considering the long-term effects of proposed changes, then I submit you are much more conservative than you have previously thought.
The way I see it, people aren’t so binary when it comes to the core psychology of these philosophies. People aren’t simply either conservative or liberal, nor should they be. We should each develop a healthy balance of both.
While I generally agree with conservative values and policies, I believe that God really cares about whether we have loved and served one another and whether we have actually put action behind our words and our intentions to do good. I believe conservatives have many of the right ideas but are often too complacent and don’t put their hands where their mouths are.
A liberal, who is motivated by compassion, is more likely to say, “Will you just listen and try to consider what it must be like for [people who are suffering]? When will you stop and feel some compassion for [people who are suffering]? If you really cared, you really would listen more.” A conservative might act like the dispassionate husband who with a stubborn, matter-of-fact attitude said, “It IS about the nail!” (reference)
I am convinced that the liberals’ Achilles heel is that they almost place too much trust in the nature of man. A classical liberal is so full of love that it almost seems beyond their capacity to believe that someone could exercise power in such awful and wicked ways. Conservatives, always mindful of past experience, believe that “it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion” and they instinctively resist trends towards giving anybody more power, particularly the government. Conservatives are extremely risk-averse.
Liberals are “free from prejudice in favor of traditional opinions and established institutions,” which makes conservatives defensive and nervous. Conservatives are of the opinion that “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” While liberals want to progress towards “bigger and better” solutions, conservatives believe attempts to “improve” the system are attempts to reinvent the wheel and have only moved us away from the best system for solving problems.
Consider the fact that Jesus Christ was crucified by ultra-conservative Pharisees for his opposition to the status quo. Jesus advocated what the Jewish leaders considered a radical change to their Mosaic law.
Here is a practical example of this contrast between liberalism and conservatism. If a couple is struggling in their marriage, a conservative marriage counselor might suggest practical solutions like 1) get a budget, 2) live within your means, and 3) make plans and set goals together to be more purposeful in the marital relationship. On the other hand, a liberal marriage counselor might passionately exclaim, “Start loving and serving each other more!” Both recommendations are perfectly valid, but they highlight the different ways conservatives and liberals think.
Classical liberalism and conservatism complement one another. They are not incompatible opposites. Rather, they are unique strengths that emphasize different honorable priorities. Conservatives and liberals who work together will ultimately become better people through it.
When we talk about what is liberal or conservative, we should first consider what that means about our nature before we have specific policies come to mind. For example, if you believe with me that we need to heal the Constitution by restoring vertical and horizontal checks and balances and the balance of powers, then you are, in one sense, a liberal because you see a problem and you want to work towards making a change. If you see problems in the current system but are afraid or slow to make any changes, then you are taking a conservative position, at least in that circumstance. Here is a quote to illustrate this point:
Strictly speaking, conservatism is not a political system, but rather a way of looking at the civil order. The conservative of Peru … will differ greatly from those of Australia, for though they may share a preference for things established, the institutions and customs which they desire to preserve are not identical. [Russell Kirk (1918-1994)]
So a person living in Jordan who is passionately working to establish a constitutional republic patterned after the original American system would be considered a liberal since conservatives would be working to preserve the royal kingdom. A liberal in Jordan and a conservative in the USA could essentially be promoting the exact same policies. This demonstrates that “liberal” and “conservative” are relative terms that mean different things when considering different locations and periods of time.
If we don’t understand what a true, classical, liberal is, conservatives are inclined to think that liberals are the real political enemy and vice versa. However, being liberal doesn’t inherently make a person an enemy of freedom. In the truest sense of the word, liberals actually want to promote freedom, possibly even more than conservatives who want to maintain the status quo and are slow to act to bring about positive change.
I believe the greatest enemy to freedom is the uninformed person on either side of the political spectrum who acts based on emotionalism, unwilling to listen, learn from, love, or consider the things others have to say.
In the 5,000 Year Leap, W. Cleon Skousen taught that the founders believed America would survive as long as conservatives and liberals balanced one another. He uses the three-headed eagle to demonstrate their relationship. The left wing represented liberals and the right wing represented conservatives. In order for the eagle to soar, both wings must be strong. If either wing became either dominant or weak, the nation would suffer and potentially fall.
So what does this analogy look like in real life? Since the founders intended for only the Legislative Branch to create legislation or laws, they designed Congress to incorporate both energy and wisdom.
The founders of the Constitution designed the House of Representatives to be liberal. There are provisions in the Constitution that specifically ensure that the House remains liberal, regardless of what party “controls” (can we start saying “leads”?) the House. Representatives are to be elected directly through the democracy of the people for a term of 2 years. There are more representatives than Senators and they are designed to represent the people and the issues that the people care about at a given time. They are closer to the people and more sensitive to the passion and emotions of the people, by design. Since they only serve for 2 years, they are under a lot of pressure to make things happen quickly, and hence, the liberal nature of the House of Representatives.
The Senate was designed to be conservative. “George Washington is said to have told Jefferson that the framers had created the Senate to ‘cool’ House legislation just as a saucer was used to cool hot tea” according to senate.gov. Senators were originally elected, or hired, by the state legislatures to represent them in Congress. The people who elect the Representatives in the House want change to happen quickly, but that energy is liable to be reckless. So the Senate was designed to bring wisdom and foresight into the equation. They are elected for a term of 6 years and are supposed to be less concerned about making change happen quickly. Rather, they temper the emotionalism of the House. They are to be the primary protectors of state’s rights. The states hired them to represent them in Congress to make sure the people don’t give away states rights to the federal government as they attempt to solve problems. This balance has been obliterated by the 17th Amendment.
To save this nation, conservatives must learn to appreciate the compassion and energy that classical liberals have, for that is their greatest talent, and liberals must learn to value the wisdom and foresight of informed conservatives. Healing America won’t be done exclusively by either side of the spectrum. It will take a coalition of conservatives willing to support and work with and benefit from the energy and motivation of liberals, and liberals who are willing to listen to and honestly consider the perspectives and lessons learned by conservatives. Consider what America would look like today if we had liberal hearts and conservative minds.
Where do you stand?
I hope that each of you reading this post recognize that although you will certainly lean one direction and resonate more with one side than the other, you are likely much more liberal or conservative than you previously thought. As for myself, I consider myself a classical liberal, or a liberal conservative, in the sense that I’m willing and motivated to work to make change happen, but I want my energy and emotion to be guided by conservative judgment, wisdom, and foresight.
I believe the insanely massive problems facing America today can only be solved as we learn from one another and work together to promote measures that solve huge problems in sustainable ways while protecting rights and resources.
(The author has given us permission to share their article on this page. The original post can be found here.)
Jacob is Financial Economics major in his senior year at Brigham Young University–Idaho and a Senior Intern over Development and Digital Operations at the Madison Liberty Institute. He was raised in Mesa, Arizona and currently serves as the Director of Outreach for the Columbus Center for Constitutional Studies and as the Director of the Restoration Generation. He is a researcher and has assisted with various projects, such as the Harvard Divinity School’s Religious Literacy Project. Jacob is the oldest of seven siblings and his family currently lives in Queen Creek, Arizona.