"Liberal" and "Conservative" Are Not Dirty Words: Why These Two Ideologies Should Not Be Considered Mutually Exclusive

Theodore Roosevelt in Buckskins, Dakota Territory, ca. 1885. Roosevelt R500. R67, Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Lib
Theodore Roosevelt in Buckskins, Dakota Territory, ca. 1885. Roosevelt R500. R67, Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Lately, the words liberal and conservative have taken on new meanings—meanings created by liberals and conservatives to elevate themselves and denounce their opponents. The new meanings are not entirely fair or true. Liberals have usurped science and environmentalism, as if they have the exclusive rights to the great burden of the care of our planet. Conservatives have appropriated morality, as if everything they do is driven by the will of the good Lord himself. Liberal has become synonymous with anti-capitalist, anti-business, and anti-economic advancement. Conservative has become synonymous with anti-science, anti-facts, and anti-compassion.

I’m calling bullshit.

The true meanings of liberal and conservative, I would argue, are not as different as we might think. In fact, I think most of us, if we really thought about it, would agree that we support aspects of both liberal and conservative ideologies. Let’s break it down:

What does liberal really mean? Favorable to progress or reform. Advocating for the freedom of the individual and governmental guarantees of individual rights and liberties. Favorable to, or in accord with, the concept of maximum individual freedom. Favoring freedom of action with respect to personal belief or expression. Free from prejudice or bigotry. Broad-minded. Charitable.

Now, what does conservative really mean? Disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones and limit change. Cautiously moderate. Traditional in style or manner. Avoiding novelty or showiness. Having the power or tendency to conserve or preserve.

I look at these definitions and I wonder, WHAT IS SO BAD ABOUT BEING LIBERAL OR CONSERVATIVE? Why have these words become such potent insults, hurled at each other with ire as if they are the absolute worst things someone can be?

Here’s the ugly truth: some of our most liberal ideals are in fact examples of conservatism, while some of our most conservative ideals are rooted in liberalism.

You’re thinking, No Way! I’m sorry, but it’s true.

Liberals are the first to protest change when it threatens to affect our environment. Those who consider themselves liberal often oppose deforestation, building of pipelines, and drilling for oil and natural gas. We fight hard for conservation of our natural resources and native people’s sacred lands and traditions, as we should. But is this not an example of being disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones and limit change? Why has conservation of the environment become synonymous with liberalism? It is a form of conservatism, and an important one that we should acknowledge as such.

We hear a lot from conservatives about preserving people’s constitutional right to bear arms under the second amendment. Well guess what? THAT is a liberal idea. It is exactly an example of advocating for the freedom of the individual and making sure the government adheres to guarantees of individual rights and liberties. It was people trying to make progress away from their oppressive government who fought for such freedoms. Freedoms that conservatives advocate fiercely for—including the freedom to bear arms and the freedom of religion—were progressive ideas at the time that they were instituted. This is liberalism at its core—progress, change, and upholding individual freedoms. This, too, is important, and conservatives should be proud to acknowledge that liberalism.

I think of myself as liberal, especially when it comes to social issues such as civil rights, gay marriage, and a woman’s right to choose. And I am proud to denounce bigotry and promote open-mindedness, liberal ideals that seem to me to be both moral and beneficial to human beings. If that makes me a snowflake, then I say being a snowflake is awesome.

But I am also a conservative, in the sense that I strongly believe in preservation of our constitution, our civil liberties, our natural resources, and our environment. I also would prefer us to avoid novelty and showiness when it comes to the person leading our nation, but apparently Trump—a reality TV star with a mean twitter habit—who claims to be a conservative, doesn’t value that part of conservatism, and nor do his supporters.

See? We are all imperfect mixtures of both sets of ideals.

Folks, WE have created this nasty division. We have taken the not-so-divisive ideals of both liberalism and conservatism—ideals that should in fact work for both sides— and turned them into such extreme opposites that, when brought too close together, threaten to spontaneously combust and destroy all mankind.

Can we please stop using liberal and conservative as hateful slurs and remember that not very long ago, democrats and republicans alike shared many of the values found within both liberal and conservative ideals? Think back to Theodore Roosevelt, a leader of the Republican Party who was extremely progressive. He championed the establishing of national parks and monuments to conserve and protect the natural beauty of our land. He recognized the value of regulations, such as on food and drugs, to protect the people of this country.

He knew how to use the best parts of both liberalism and conservatism to shape and protect this great nation.

We need to find our way back to this place—a place where our leaders, regardless of party affiliation, regardless of being labeled liberal or conservative, are guided by what is best for the people and the country.

A place where politics isn’t win at all costs, simply to crush your opponent.

Because in reality, your opponent is a fellow American and a human being, who just might share a lot of the same ideals as you.

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