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Kate Orman
News From the House of Sticks
Conservative vs Liberal 
18th-Aug-2004 01:10 pm
How meaningful are these terms?

In the interview re Outfoxed, producer Robert Greenwald made the obvious but easily forgotten point that to be a conservative in the US right now is not necessarily to be a supporter of Bush's every policy or an extremist. O'Reilly accused Greenwald of being an "ultra-liberal", whatever the fuck that is. Are these terms past their sell-by date? Have they become meaningless insults? What of the difference between an economic conservative and a social conservative? Do people self-identify as "conservative" or "liberal"*, or are we each aware that our own politics is too complex, and "our side" too diverse, to be summed up in a word? I only use the term "liberal" to describe myself jokingly as a "wishy-washy liberal", largely to distinguish myself from, say, Hothead Paisan.

Let me give you an example - over at Sticker Giant you can buy slogans from various political angles**, they're not fussy. One of the stickers says:

Work hard and be happy

What does it *mean*? Is there anything more here than a vague insult - "Liberals are lazy whiners", the equivalent of the merely rude "Lobotomies for Republicans - it's the law"? Did the slogan's inventor spot the resemblance to "Don't worry, be happy", long mocked for its suggestion of sickly-sweet complacency? In terms of usefulness this is up there with that rock-dumb sticker "I believe in dragons, fairies, good men and other imaginary creatures". Slogans like "It ain't over until your brother counts the votes" or "Keep America working, buy American" at least carry a clear and specific meaning.

Hmm... "Welcome to America, now speak English". This is enormously amusing given the widespread mockery of American English. What does the alarming badge "Purity is not a crime" mean?! Wonderfully, plenty of slogans appear in both right- and left-wing categories ("Bill O'Rights for President").

I leave you with a nice one: "Resistance is not futile".

* Of course, in Australia the Liberal Party (in power) is largely more conservative than the Labor Party (the opposition) - you'll sometimes hear the phrase "small-l liberal" used to avoid confusion.

** They use "progressive" instead of "liberal", possibly as a catch-all for anything vaguely hippyish.
18th-Aug-2004 06:06 am (UTC)
There was a great quote a few weeks back in the NYT. It went something like "I'm a conservative -- we don't trust the government to run America, so why did we think we could trust them to run Iraq?"
18th-Aug-2004 06:08 am (UTC)
(To which the obvious reply is that there has been as much private enterprise involved in the military operations as could possibly be show-horned in. But I don't think that's doing the conservative cause much good these days either.)
18th-Aug-2004 07:08 am (UTC)
The terms have *almost* lost all meaning and are primarily used as part of childish insults. The history of the terms is quite interesting, though. Basically, they've done a flip.

Politics in liberal democracies (of which Australia, Canada and the United States) still has roots in political movements of the early 19th century. Back then, political movements tended to pull one of three ways: towards traditional authoritarianism (Tory/Fascist), towards staunch individualism (Liberal/Libertarian/Anarchist), or towards fervent equality (Socialist/Communist). In British politics, the Conservative (Tory) party tended to favour traditional values. It had a healthy skepticism about the rise of lower class power and the no-one-in-control nature of individualistic capitalism. They also believed that with nobility came responsibility. Socialists and traditional Tories have a lot in common as both believed in a state where people had obligations to one another as well as rights. Socialism was only able to really take root in countries with strong Tory traditions.

The Liberal Party was the party of the rugged individualist. For them, it was all about liberty. They soon became the favourite of the middle class capitalists who were doing well for themselves and just wanted the government to butt out. And, of course, the Labour parties were favoured by socialists who felt themselves crushed under the wheels of unrestricted capitalism and spoke out for raising the level of the lower classes to something more equal to the privileged.

In the United States, the Tories were all tossed out in the War of American Independence. They fled to Canada which gave that country its strong Tory tradition. For this reason, socialism did not have fertile ground on which to grow in the U.S. As a result, the U.S. political spectrum is somewhat stunted, favouring greatly the Liberal/Libertarian portion of the landscape. The question of individual rights versus social obligations was largely answered in favour of individual rights. The movement on their spectrum tended to be half-hearted gestures towards worker equality (liberal) or protecting the rights of the privileged (now the highly-successful capitalists - conservative).

Because of the influence of the United States, and because the Tories themselves were founded on a political order that was already out of date and growing more-so, the U.S. vision of the spectrum fed back to the rest of the democratic world. Conservative (Tory) came to be seen as the party of the capitalist privilege and the rugged individualists who had made it. After brief battles with the noblise oblige (Red Tory in Canada) portion of the parties, politicians such as Brian Mulroney and Margaret Thatcher successfully launched what was essentially a Liberal takeover of Tory institutions.

So, ironically, the Liberal Party of Australia is actually the most accurate in terms of the original use of the term "Liberal". It is the party of unrestricted capitalism.
18th-Aug-2004 09:23 pm (UTC)
Good heavens! That is extraordinarily interesting. *feels her lack of knowledge* Thank you james!
18th-Aug-2004 11:13 am (UTC)
18th-Aug-2004 09:26 pm (UTC)
Thank goodness I live in a pinko country where at least some of my piddling tax money is used to feed the hungry rather than to blow people up or torture kids. :-P :-P :-P :-P
18th-Aug-2004 05:30 pm (UTC) - Resistance is futile...
18th-Aug-2004 09:19 pm (UTC) - Re: Resistance is futile...
My gods, I almost understand that! (I always dig those guys' shirts.)
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