Political question[Left? Right? Conservative? Liberal?]

Ok…factual only here! I’m not looking for an argument.

WTF is the difference, or even maybe a definition, as it pertains to our current society, between:

Left? Right? Conservative? Liberal? And all the other little political labels that I can’t think of right now.

I’m really really really ignorant on this one. Like, look up the definition of the word ignorant, and that’s totally me on this particular issue.

Throw me a bone please?


A few general differences (you’ll always find exceptions)

Liberals defend abortion rights more than conservatives do.
Conservatives defend gun ownership rights more than liberals do.
Conservatives tend to be pro-management. Liberals tend to be pro-labor.
Conservatives are generally opposed to taxes for any reason. Liberals are willing to have taxes if they think the reason is good enough.
Conservatives tend to favor privatization more than Liberals.
Liberals tend to favor gay rights more than Conservatives do.

So…liberal about what then? Or conservative about what?

Like…if I was liberal with my application of sunscreen…it’d be on real thick, but if I was conservative with it, it’d be on real thin.

Is there any actual correlation between the words’ meanings and what the political label means?

The sort of high-school social studies version of it is that “change” is the thing the liberals want to glop on liberally and conservatives want to be conservative about. Liberals see their ideal society in the future and conservatives see it as in the present or past. Conservatives tend to evoke a “return to the good old days” rhetoric, whereas liberals prefer a “bold new future” one.

Of course, in the real world it’s vastly more complicated than than and in many ways the issues championed by the two factions has more to do with demographics and some of the coalition-building power politics history. And you’ll certainly see liberals evoking the “good old days” (though usually more like the “good old days” when they were in power) from time to time and obviously since conservatives want to be in power then, they will also evoke an exciting future.

Plus there’s the whole notion of economic liberalism, which advocates free markets and free trade, but is usually (but not always) more heavilly advocated by conservatives. It was “liberal” in the sense of forward-looking back in the 18th century and the term just kinda stuck.

The political meanings have drifted off a bit from their usual English definitions.

Conservatives (the Right) tend to be very traditional in their values, more religious, and generally oppose social change (e.g., gay marriage). They tend to favor small government, although what they really seem to favor is lower taxes, which implies smaller government, especially less social programs or programs which effectively cause “redistribution of wealth.” Naturally, the wealthy tend to be conservative as these values are consistent with wanting to retain one’s wealth, as they are in a 36% tax bracket and have estates subject to hefty taxes on their death. However, it is not necessarily true that most conservatives are wealthy. As a party, the Republicans tend to be conservative.

Liberals (the Left) can also be traditional but provide more support for social change, (e.g., legalization of marijuana), a government that provides support to low-income people (funded, of course, by taxes). Liberal governments are often labeled “tax and spend” by the conservatives, and accused of being generous with other people’s money. As a party, the Democrats tend to be liberal.

There are, of course, Moderates, which fall between the two more extreme characterizations.

Each political party has a broad spectrum of liberal to moderate to conservative, and there is overlap between the two parties. The differences between the two sides became more exaggerated during George W. Bush’s presidency, and Obama’s presidency has continued to drive the sides farther part rather than closer together, as had been hoped.

There is a quote attributed to various politicians that goes something like this: “If you’re young and not a liberal, you have no heart. If you’re old and not a conservative, you have no brain.”

This presupposes US-centric politics and is really a very shallow way of analyzing liberality vs conservatism. It would be more appropriate to say Democrats and Republicans in your post, because tighter gun control is actually the more conservative viewpoint.

The entire political spectrum is much more interesting than purely looking at the US. American Democrats, while generally more liberal than Republicans, are actually fairly conservative from a global standpoint.

I don’t know if this graphic is 100% accurate, it’s not mine–I found it on google images. But I thought it was interesting and potentially relevant for discussion (feel free to dissect it if something is incorrect):


(As an aside, I’m fairly new to straightdope and was wondering if images can be embedded into posts? Is that a premium feature or nonexistent?)

Nonexistent. No embedded images. No attachments. No avatars. Kind of limiting, really, for 2010.

I really hated Bush, but please, he’s much too close to Hitler in this graphic :rolleyes:

That graphic is terrible. Sorry - but it’s way too general, non-specific, and throws totally random words out there as absolutes. (And what’s up with Bush being that close to Hitler?!?).

Here’s a good start to someone like the OP who is completely not knowledgeable about the subject:

I didn’t mean to godwin the thread!

Here’s another graphic from google, again I’m not vouching for its accuracy. Just pointing out that the political spectrum is much wider than the distance between California and New Yawk: http://www.thelibertypapers.org/wp-images/spectrum/pol_matrix_pop.png (Please note the acceptably wide distance between Hitler and any living American politicians.)

(Thanks for the image advice, btw. It’s actually kind of refreshing that I don’t have to worry about getting slammed with those on my crappy work connection!)

Well if you want to talk about international politics, the comparison is simple.

Conservatives are Americans. Liberals are everyone else.

I believe the origins of the terms are that Conservatives want to conserve useful traditions and values and Liberals want to promote liberty. It’s a matter of personal opinion as to whether either group is living up to its name.

The terms right and left derive from the French National Assembly of 1789. The liberal members sat on the left side of the meeting room and the conservative members sat on the right side.

A few comments:

(1) “Liberal” is often used in a very different sense than it is in America (though with a definition generally rooted in change). In Europe as well as in old American writings you may see “Liberal” used to denote what in America is “Economic Conservative.” (This leads to some confusion in cross-Atlantic conversations.)

(2) That graphic shows a single dimension! Frankly, I find even many 2-D graphics to be misleading.

(3) Some people think the left-right axis should be a circle! IMO, Pinochet’s Chile (“ultra right-wing”) and Deng’s China (“ultra left-wing”) were very similar in many ways, a main difference being their foreign policy vis-a-vis U.S.A.

This one is a lot better, if only because it points out how silly the question is.

Notice that, even with 2 axes to work with, Bill Clinton is still right next to George W. Bush. True, in many areas, their political beliefs actually were pretty similar. But in other areas, they were radically different. Clinton was pro-balanced budget; Bush believed the deficit was meaningless (and this despite the fact that a balanced budget is typically considered “conservative”). Clinton wanted to ban assault rifles and unregistered pistols; Bush wanted to repeal existing gun control laws. And so on.

In my opinion, the terms have little meaning outside of a narrow context. The meanings change all the time, and there are often people deliberately trying to redefine them (e.g., the neo-conservative movement set out to completely redefine what “conservative” means, and they largely succeeded). Richard Nixon and FDR had very similar ideas, but Nixon’s fans both then and now are almost all self-described conservatives, while FDR’s are almost all self-described liberals. 1996’s conservatives pointed to “foreign nation building” as the strongest proof of Clinton’s liberalism, while 2004’s conservatives pointed to the exact same thing as proof of Bush’s conservativism. Really, the only good use of these terms is in electioneering and propaganda, especially in America.