What’s the Difference Between Liberals and Conservatives?

Posted: August 26, 2015 | By: Iowa Caucus Project Staff Tagged: About the Caucuses

By Dennis J. Goldford, Harkin Institute Flansburg Fellow

Professor of Political Science, Drake University


Political candidates, talk-radio hosts and guests, cable-TV commentators, and many others are always saying that so-and-so is a liberal or “radical liberal,” or that so-and-so is a conservative or “hardline conservative.” Despite the frequency with which we read and hear these terms, their precise meanings continue to be difficult to track.

Indeed, NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, August 2, 2015 played a video of Chris Matthews on Hardball unsuccessfully asking Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz to answer the question, “What’s the difference between a Democrat and a socialist?” And at the Republican candidate forum in New Hampshire on Monday, August 3, 2015, Bobby Jindal stated, “Look, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and the other Democrats in DC, they’re for socialism.”

In this post and the next two, I will provide some clarity about the core meanings of American liberalism and conservatism. (There are somewhat different meanings of these terms in European politics, but I won’t explore those here.).

Perhaps what is most important to keep in mind, despite political rhetoric and polemics to the contrary, is that liberalism is not socialism and conservatism is not fascism. Additionally, terms like “the Left” and “left-wing” and “the Right” and “right-wing” are polemical terms that have always applied much more to a European political context than the American. They generate a great deal of heat, but not much light.

Liberalism and conservatism in the American sense of the terms have both a moral and an economic dimension. People often say that liberalism stands for “big government” and conservatism stands for “small government,” but that depends upon whether we are referring to moral or economic matters.

By “big” government we ordinarily mean that government should intervene in people’s lives, while by “small “government we ordinarily mean that government should keep a hands-off attitude and not intervene in people’s lives. The former position is known as interventionism, while the latter position is known as laissez-faire.

To put the distinction in somewhat earthy terms, conservatives believe that government should stay out of the boardroom but belongs in the bedroom, whereas liberals believe that government should stay out of the bedroom but belongs in the boardroom.

That is, conservatives believe that government should stay out of economic matters but should intervene in moral matters. That means that conservatives oppose government regulation of business but support government-endorsed moral standards. For their part liberals believe that government should stay out of moral matters but intervene in economic matters—i.e., government should regulate business but not moral matters.

For example, liberals typically support establishing a minimum wage and poverty programs, but they oppose allowing government-sponsored religious rituals like school-sponsored prayer and oppose most restrictions on abortion rights. Conservatives take the opposite positions.

Therefore, in that sense, we cannot simply say that liberals are in favor of big government and conservatives are in favor of small government. Rather, liberals support big government in economic matters and conservatives support it in moral matters, but liberals favor small government in moral matters and conservatives favor it in economic matters.

The reason for this complexity is that, as I noted above, liberalism and conservatism in the American sense of the terms have both a moral and an economic dimension.

The Reagan coalition brought together moral conservatives (we tend to refer to them as social conservatives), who oppose moral liberalism, and economic conservatives, who oppose economic liberalism. For moral conservatives, morality trumps economics; for economic conservatives, economics trumps morality. These two groups often don’t get along, but they supported Ronald Reagan according to the old maxim, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

We see these tensions in the 2016 Republican presidential candidates appearing in Iowa and elsewhere. While they all try to recreate the Reagan coalition, candidates like Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Ben Carson give more emphasis to the moral issues. Candidates like Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Chris Christie, Rand Paul, George Pataki, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, and Lindsey Graham have thus far given slightly—I emphasize slightly—more emphasis to economic and foreign-policy matters. Scott Walker and Carly Fiorina to this point have straddled the divide. (Remember, these distinctions are rough judgment calls.)

Why do these tensions exist, at least at the level of ideas? I’ll explain that in my next post.