Doper poll: what makes us take the sides we do?

(The topic is intrinsically debatable, so it is here.)

As many of you are very aware, some months back I made some assertions about the nature of conservative philosophy. I’m not going to reiterate what they were here, but I bring them up as introduction to the question I am sincerely pondering and I seek your answers to.

What makes a liberal a liberal and a conservative a conservative?

I’m not asking for a recitation of the positions held by each, we can all do that with a fair degree of accuracy.

No, what I’ve been thinking about is the fact that if a person believes, for instance, that welfare is a good thing in some form or another, there is a high degree of probability that they will also have a fairly strong interest and concern about environmental protection. It’s also a good bet that such a person is a pretty strong supporter of a woman’s right to choose, inheiritance taxes, some kind of affirmative action, equal rights for homosexuals, less emphasis on military spending, etc.

By the same token, a person who is for lots of military spending is probably down on welfare and abortion and inheritance tax and up on drilling for oil in Alaska, logging in the Pacific Northwest, and big fat tax cuts.

My point is this: what is the underlying thread that ties disparate ideas together? Of course there are people who are a conservative on issue A and liberal on issue B, but this board is a fair example of the predictability of most people’s positions based on just a few. But why is this? What makes wanting to save the whales like wanting to preserve abortion like not wanting vouchers and not wanting more military spending? What is it about wanting to abolish the inheritance tax that is like wanting to spend more on the military that is like being agsainst abortion that is like being against welfare that is like being unconcerned about environmental destruction in pursuit of resources?

Please don’t pick apart my examples…I trust that my fellow dopers are plenty smart enough to get my point without necessarily agreeing with my examples.

This all relates to my infamous thoughts about conservative in that I put forth my ideas about what does make a conservative. Many, probably most of you jumped all over me about my opinions on the subject, so I’m asking for yours. What is the underlying philosophy that ties the disparate issues together for each of the two sides? Why is someone who is a “tree-hugger” more than likely also an abortion supporter and a gun-control advocate? How are these attitudes related? Ditto conservative attitudes.

Having stated what I’m looking for several times, I now stand back and look forward to your answers. I hope you will each offer your opinions about both sides of the aisle.


I know you didn’t ask for a recitation of positions, but here’s a few that might make a point:

I’m pro-life, pro-affirmative action, against the death penalty, pro-school voucher, for gay rights and if you forced me to pick a side right this second, I’d probably be against the estate tax.

Not sure what political position this places me in. If I were to summarize the thread that runs through my philosophy it is:

  1. We are all obliged to protect and nurture each other, particularly the weakest, the most injured or most innocent among us. That obligation may be, but is not necessarily, a legal one. It is always an ethical obligation.

  2. Personal rights–the right to live, the right to own property, the right to choose one’s own destiny through one’s will and effort–are largely inviolable to the extent they don’t infringe upon someone else’s “higher” rights (e.g., your right to live trumps might “right” to drive drunk). This is a tougher one to be consistent on (and is more subject to exceptions, perhaps).

Good question, Stoid. And I’d agree with Bob Cos that, very often, things don’t line up so nicely.

For instance, I’m a liberal on most issues, but I’m very much a conservative with respect to protecting children from what I perceive as unhealthy media influences of various sorts, and my stance on abortion pisses off both sides.

I was ‘green’ on environmental issues back when I was still a Republican. At that point, I was a conservative on most economic issues, a liberal on social issues - IOW, tending towards libertarian - but figured that the natural world needed protecting, and only an entity on the scale of the Federal government could do that job effectively. I doubt I thought about it that specifically 25 years ago, but if I had, I think I would have concluded all along that environmental protection was more essential than property rights. So there’s always been some distance between me and true-blue libertarians.

Still, 20 years or so ago, Pat Buchanan and Tom Braden had a radio show in DC where they’d debate the issues. I usually sided with Buchanan. How I got from there to here is probably a longer story than anyone here wants to be bored with. :slight_smile:

I would be very surprised if liberals were not, on average, more emotional than conservatives.

More emotional as in less rational, or as in caring more for other people?

I would think it breaks down on a geographic level. Liberals in big citys and republicans in more rural areas.

I would say that the common theme of my political beliefs is that persons or governments should not be allowed to take actions that unreasonably harm others.

I’ve often taken the liberal side of arguments here, and have even occasionally self-identified myself as a liberal, but I’m not a liberal in the current definition of the term. I’m really a classical liberal.
I am a rabid (modern) liberal on social issues because what people do in their own lives doesn’t affect others, and is therefore none of our concern.
OTOH, I am a rabid free-marketeer and capitalist. The three areas where I would disagree with my conversative comrades are workplace safety, product safety, and environmental issues. The first two because they harm others, and it is unreasonable to do so in these contexts to make a few more bucks. The third because it harms others and, because they are hidden costs, only society as a whole (through government) can act on them.

Here is my position, unpopular as it may be. I am studying sociology and psychology at the moment, so maybe I’ll post back when I get my masters :wink:

We all have certain issues that are of paramount importance to our being. What I mean by this is that there are certain things on which most people will not compromise, I believe this is the basis for their choice of political and social position.

However, many things are confusing to us as laymen, and other things we simply don’t have any informational basis to form an oppinion on. When we find a group that will accept our fundamental views of life and truth, such matters are not important anymore. In other words, we settle for the (party)/(social ideals) that we find most compatible with our fundamental views and settle for their views on the issues that are less important to us. This is the basis for the two party system, as much as it is the basis for democratic political structure as a whole.

My essay on the subject is pending a grade, I hope it at least passes on the boards, if not at the University :wink:

— G. Raven

On economics, you may be right. On social issues, I think you are dead wrong. What rational effect does a woman 1,000 miles away having an abortion have on a conservative? How does a teenage girl being a Wiccan rationally affect the life of anyone else? Ditto homosexuality, etc.?

Hell, a good chunk of my social liberalism is born of apathy. You’re gay? I don’t care. And I will fight for my right to not care. :smiley:


I think there is a rather simple answer for at least part of your question, at least in America.

With but two parties, when one desires to best represent him/herself, one must choose one major party or the other (Nader fans, take note).

I’m all about abortion, civil rights, taxing the wealthy in proportion to their increased power and freedom, and tree-hugging. That means I had better be a liberal.

However, I’m also all about a strong military, private gun-ownership, paying off the deficit, and a large space program. Those positions are slightly less important than the abovementioned, so I have to sort of sit back and hope for the best on those. Why? Because if I were to support the party that best supports those issues, I’d be desperately searching for RU-486 on the Internet, watching corporate America return to an all white male cast, and laughing at six-legged frogs and yellow rain. That’s just how it is, or rather, how I perceive it to be.

Some politicians have become aware of the difficult choices Americans must make within the two-party system, and have used it to their advantage. One of the most ingenious strategies employed by Our Greatest President, Bill Clinton, was co-opting many of the planks of the moderate section of the Republican Party, while remaining (relatively) firm on the issues most important to me.

(Nyaah, nyaah! I now have an eight-year warhorse to unfairly elevate to greatness, too! How do you like that, 'Pubs?)

By the way, I’m not a particularly emotional person.

SuaSponte said:

Remember that most (all) anti-abortion folks feel that way because they believe a human life is taken. So I would say that there is indeed a “rational effect” for knowing that a murder is taking place with the state’s consent, whether it’s next-door or 1000 miles away.

I’m not agreeing with this viewpoint, mind you, I’m just noting that it can have a rational basis.

Other than that, I’m not going to comment further on Izzy’s post until he answers the question I already asked (and it’s only been a few minutes since I posted it).

I think it revolves around your concept of “family”. If you think that the whole country, maybe even the whole world, is your family then you adopt a set of beliefs based on that. Most familys take care of their own, even when the person being cared for doesn’t “deserve” it. You expect your father to be concerned about your well being and to enforce rules to ensure it. I submit that this is the modern liberal viewpoint, the government plays the role of parents and we are all children.

The other side thinks that only those who are deemed family by the individual are family, others are outsiders who have none of the family rights. Dealing with outsiders is much different from dealing with family, so this viewpoint leads to behavior that is often considered uncaring or cruel by those who adopt the “world is my family” view. People with the “outsiders” view are likely to view the other side as being somewhat naive and idealistic, with ideals that don’t work well in the “real world”.

To me the difference between Liberalism and Conservatism is mostly pragmatic.

I was very liberal in College (liberal girlfriend.) Once I had to fend for myself in the real world I learned there’s a hell of a difference between theory and practice. Things were being done the way they were done for a reason, and an outsider lacks the insight to judge or change the system. The turning point was in 1993 when the entire office rotated into 3 day seminars on sexual harassment education. These people knew nothing and they were wasting my time to falsely satisfy the corporate conscious. It’ll make a conservative out of anybody.

I also realized this is what my father was talking about. He was a Recon Marine and served two terms in Vietnam, one as a forward observer and one as a sniper while my mother and young me lived at our Grandparents apartment in the Bronx. I recall how hurt and angry he was by the Hanoi Jane thing, and the lack of support and outright contempt our own soldiers were treated with in their own country for doing their duty by those who lacked the responsibility but enjoyed the benefits.

My grandfather was Chief of Narcotics for NYC at the time, and again his position and real world experience was held in contempt by those had theory, but no practice.

I despise the well-intentioned but ignorant intruder who has no respect for pragmatic existence, so I’m a Conservative.

Oddly, I think the face of liberalism is changing. It’s recognizing its weaknesses and becoming more in tune with real world dynamics, and pragmatism.

I usually favor the underlyibg theory of liberal ideas, but think their execution sucks.

The pragmatic liberals of today have a lot in common with the compassionate Conservative, and if Barry Goldwater were still around I’m sure they’d be on the same team.

The real battle is between moderates and extremists (of all ilks)

Fair enough point, Mr. B.. I withdraw that portion of my post.


I think our upbringing is a factor. A lot of people seem to stay with the philosphy in which they were raised; others reject it (usually at some point in their teens or twenties) and do a complete about-face.

One question I’d ask is, if you are in one of these two situations – your stands on the issues are either almost identical to those of your parents, or are exactly opposite to those of your parents – are you really thinking for yourself at all? Or have you just accepted (or rejected), with very little thought or analysis, a “package” of opinions?

I started out in life as a complete liberal. My parents were liberals, and I accepted the package. The package included some ideas I really agreed with, and some I’d never thought about at all, just accepted unquestioningly. I still accept some of the liberal package; to me, the liberal positions will always seem normal and familiar. While conservative positions tend to seem to me to be mean-spirited, narrow-minded, and other bad things.

I’m not really a liberal any longer. I’ve been corrupted by exposure to libertarian ideas. Now, if I listed my positions, to someone who knew nothing of libertarianism, they’d sound like a really weird combination: some liberal stands, some conservative – and some completely nutty.

I agree with Hazel that your family background can be a pretty big influence. As I described myself (in the third person) in the biographical sketch in my thesis:

(I should hasten to add, however, that while my parents and I more-or-less agree on most major political issues, we always agree that much on which we see as the most important.)

I also think one’s political views can be shaped by reaction, to things going on around you. Scylla cited one example that occurred in his job. For me, I think my last 5 years in the corporate world have made me even more outspoken in my liberal beliefs in reaction to what I see in the corporate workd…I jokingly say that if I stay there much longer, I’ll become a complete socialist. You’ll also notice that many immigrants from the Soviet Union are extremely conservative because they have seen what the excesses of a socialistic society can bring. Likewise, I have wondered whether my parents’ own political views were influenced by the Nazis killing many of our relatives. The fact (well, my perception) that the mainland Chinese seem to be overrepresented amongst those physics grad students who have gone to Wall Street may be a manifestation of a similar phenomenon.

It is interesting to see people arguing that idealism sometimes leads one toward the liberal end of the spectrum while some hard-headed practicality pulls when back toward the conservative end. I understand where they are coming from (and, perhaps, if I went to work in government and saw how ineffective and bureaucratic that could be, I would be moving to the Right rather than the Left).

But, in many ways, I find the libertarian viewpoint to be the ultimate in a sort of naive view of the way the world actually works. In fact, from my own personal point-of-view, I see the appeal of a libertarian “maximum individual freedom” principle as perhaps the most simple and elegant axiom from which to build a political philosophy. The problem is that I think it just doesn’t work for shit in the economic realm!

I think the decision to have whatever political views is ultimately very complex in a compounded way. We are born into a contest in America, and no matter how free we think we really are, the basic rules are always up for grabs. Many see a direct bonus is even less rules (usually they already have succeeded), and many see a need for more fairness in the rules. Regardless of rules, there are absolutes to consider: If we are born on third base, we try to steal home in desperation to score. If we are batting at the plate, we try to hit a home run, but many strike out. If we are languishing on first, we anxiously hope we are not forced out at second and take risks accordingly. Many never get even get to the plate. Note: I never watch baseball and I don’t know what the hell I’m even trying to say, except that maybe that most success is arbitrary or based on dedication to greed, and to further reward this type of success with political power pretty much defines fool in my book.

I’m rather disappointed in the lack of concrete addressing of my OP… most (with a couple of exceptions, notably Bob Cosof what’s being said has slipped into

  1. What a conservative/liberal believes/supports
  2. Why I became a conservative/liberal (= I agree with them)
  3. How I am neither because it depends on the issue.

Again, let me try to redirect:

What is the *similarity of thought/belief/philosophy * that ties attitudes about such extremely different issues together under one label? It is a given that not every Democrat/Green agrees with every Democrat/Green position, and ditto for Republican/libertarians, however, people generally tend to agree with MOST of one or the other.

In fact, let me go ahead and take it back to my dreaded Republican post: my (evil, I’ve been trashed thoroughly [and inaccurately, but that’s beside the point] for it already, it’s just an example, folks) point was this: A person starts out in life as an adult and has no idea what party they are. So they examine their belief systems and attitudes. They realize that when they think about political systems, laws, and regulations, the question they most often find themselves asking themselves is “How is this going to affect me personally?” When they look around at the different political parties and what they stand for, I maintain (still) that the party that asks that same question is the Republican or the LIbertarian party.

I repeat all this ONLY to demonstrate what I am getting at. If I am wrong, great…what I am asking you tell me is what you feel is the CORRECT answer to this question.

One of the reasons I believe this is because here and IRL I find conservatives most often use first-person pronouns when discussing their political positions, while liberals use third-person. Hardcore rightys I talk to are always amazed at how I could be against tax cuts…as a top 5-percenter (closing in on 1 percenter, cool beans!), I am going to really enjoy the benefits of such a thing. They look at me like I’m nuts when i tell them that what is good for ME is not my first consideration when I think about politics.

So, I’m really not looking for a fight, folks, I’m honestly seeking ALTERNATIVE explanations since most everyone finds mine so unacceptable, while it seems irrefutably obvious to me. (BTW: IRL, when I discuss this with rightys, including my father, he has no problem with my assessment. He isn’t offended by it because he thinks it is correct, it’s just that he doesn’t see anything inherently wrong with it.) And I’d really like to hear it about both sides.

Well? Have I made myself clearer about what I’m seeking here? Anyone care to give it a shot?


I think your “absolutes” are bunk. To take as anecdotal evidence: My siblings and I started on what you would probably consider third base (dad’s a doctor and has done pretty well). My oldest brother and I are shooting for second base - he’s in academia and I hope to follow him. My older brother is trying for home plate - he’s an MBA. My older sister is content to stay at third - she’s also a doc. My younger sister moved all the way back to first - she’s a paralegal with a capital punishment defense organization. My youngest brother turned down home plate (a position as a trader with Goldman Sachs), and decided to bat over (he’s started his own company).
Politically, except for my younger sister (the little pinko :p), our political leanings don’t match up with our economic status or goals.


Don’t get pissy that people aren’t answering your question, Stoid. The reason no one is, is because there isn’t a logical underlying thread, at least as how these ideologies have developed in the US.

The liberal who supports welfare, environmental protection, affirmative action, etc., believes that the government’s role and obligation is to intervene. This is inconsistent with the belief that the government has no role in the personal choices (abortion, homosexuality, etc.) people make.

Conversely, the conservative who believes in limited government is being inconsistent when they believe that the government should intervene in social issues.

The political beliefs of most Americans is a grab bag of positions on disparate issues, and the two major parties are primarily alliances of convenience rather than ideologically driven movements.