2022 edit — So this piece was a trainwreck. I was just starting to learn some armchair political science/history and consequently dorked this one up pretty severely. I’m leaving it up as a chronicle of my own education, though. I’ll share more coherent content in the months to come. I wanted to drop a disclaimer here so I don’t do an “oopsie misinformation” here on the interwebs.
My friends, at the heart of today’s blog is one goal: If you’re an adult who has been a life-long Democrat or Republican all of your life, like your parents before you, and with no interruptions caused by a period of personal exploration, then you do not have a belief system of your own.
Let me be clear: You do not believe what you say you believe; rather, you believe that your family’s beliefs are right, whatever those beliefs are.
What I am NOT saying: Your belief is wrong. I’m not even saying your family’s belief is wrong. I am also not saying that you must swap over to the “other” belief (in fact, assuming their are only two belief systems is another deeper problem entirely).
A belief cannot be your own unless you’ve challenged it, wrestled with it, and engaged it in heated debate inside your own mind. A belief cannot be your own unless you’ve explored, understand, and can at least empathize with other beliefs.
I want to encourage you to grow deeper and wider by establishing your own belief that is uniquely your own. More importantly, it will help you engage others in a kinder, more thoughtful manner. If you do, you’ll find you have so much more to offer the world around you!
I’m sharing this because it’s what helped me iron out my beliefs. When I started writing about my own effort to figure it out, I made a mess of it and what I wrote was hilariously inaccurate and incoherent. My second follow-up attempt wasn’t any better. (I’ll tell you where I stand at the end of this article.)
Liberals, Conservatives, and Progressives, Oh My!
I want to begin this discussion by redefining political words that are commonly and tragically misused in our American lexicon.
If you want to make this a fast read, the first paragraph for each term is a simple definition. You may skip over the rest if you’re in a hurry.
These are my own definitions, but they are not made up; they come from a few years of research and wrestling with each of them during my own journey. I also want to caution that this is my best understanding up to today. While I have done my homework, I am nonetheless not a political scientist. Please correct me if I misrepresent something on accident and I will update this piece accordingly.
Without further ado:
Liberal – A liberal, a word derived from the base term “liberty”, is someone who to some extent or another values the freedom of all people to live and do as they see fit.
Both major American political parties — Democrats and Republicans — are liberal. For example, the right to bear arms is a liberal value. Very few Americans are not liberal.
A liberal is not someone who governs purely by arbitrary emotions, hates America, or is anti-religion or anti-tradition. Any individual or group can have those personal traits, but that has nothing to do with liberalism itself as a political philosophy. Anyone who tells you this is lying to you via clever propaganda.
Conservative – A conservative values preservation and tradition — often both of government and economic structures and processes as well as social norms.
Preserving traditional marriage is a conservative value, as is preserving a social class structure.
Here’s where it can get muddy: being a conservative also includes a question of what you’re preserving. For example, in an American context, preserving the right to bear arms is conserving a liberal value. This means you can be a liberal and conservative simultaneously. Republicans are both.
A conservative is not by definition a bigot, racist, or “redneck”, nor do they necessarily demand a theocratic state. Any individual or group can be those things and propaganda will try to convince you that all are.
Progressive – If you google the term, you’ll quickly discover that it’s difficult to find a clear, concise definition, but suffice it to say that a progressive pursues social progress, emphasizing the continual advancement of society.
Progressing society toward greater equality among races and genders is a progressive goal.
Consider that most progressives are (probably) liberal (at least I can’t think of any examples to the contrary), but not all liberals are progressive. That’s not as weird as it sounds — Pursuing greater equality is progressive (advancing society forward) and liberal (advancing the rights of people to live as they please). Remember, however, that a liberal may also be conservative. While a progressive may desire, for example, dismantling capitalist markets, a liberal who values the liberty of free markets may oppose this.
For the most part, a conservative cannot be a progressive. Preserving old traditions and hierarchies is generally in opposition to advancing society ever-forward, since the latter requires anything and everything being on the table for potential change. Mind you, I am sure there are exceptions I’m simply unaware of.
A progressive is not by definition a communist who hates America. Propaganda will try to convince you that all are.
Speaking of communists, let’s talk about popular propaganda like this:
I am not a communist so my expertise on the topic is limited, but I do know communism the political philosophy is on the left because it aims to free people from tyrannical, centralized authority. Communism in practice in the Soviet Union was hardly on the left. Stalin was a viciously violent authoritarian, placing him very far on the right in a very centralized authority structure. The USSR was anything but liberal or progressive, making the above meme very deviously dishonest.
Right or Left?
That right and left are not the same as conservative and liberal does not make our ability to engage these topics any easier. Let’s see if we can clear this up too.
Right – Right-wing politics have their origin in those who sat to the right of the king during the era of the French Revolution. The right values hierarchy and authority.
For example, a right-wing person will usually prefer a single, centralized authority, be it a king, president, or fuhrer. They prefer a highly structured hierarchy. When someone says “they should know their place”, that’s a very right-wing sentiment. The right is historically on the side of the monarch and the socially elite.
Conservatives are often right-wing, espousing values such as “law and order”, but not all conservatives are necessarily right-wing (libertarians are often less so). Conserving some American liberal values is certainly not right-wing.
Left – Left-wing politics are born from those who sat to the left of the monarch. The “leftist” values liberty for all, free from centralized authority. The French Revolution was certainly a revolt of the Left, as was the American Revolution, because they rejected the central authority of a monarch.
Democracy, republicanism, socialism, communism, anarchism, and some forms of capitalism are all somewhere on the left side of the spectrum. Monarchy, authoritarianism, fascism, dictatorship, and feudalism are on the right.
Not all liberals are leftists. For example, classic old-school Republican liberals may espouse that all should be free of tyranny, but they still prefer a very rigid hierarchical government, albeit perhaps a smaller one. The right to bear arms is a liberal value, as is the concept of free markets, while the call for “law and order” is a value held tightly by the right.
Notice how these are all on a spectrum, meaning these definitions are not absolute. For example, communism and some forms of anarchism are about as far left as you can go. Fascism is about as far right as you can go.
It’s not a simple spectrum, though. Oh boy, does the internet lavish itself in misinformation on this one. Graphics like this are a dime a dozen:
…and are absolutely hilariously wrong. Anarchism is far-right? Most variants of anarchism is about absolute freedom, placing it more often than not at the far left end of the spectrum. Fascism, which places the citizen into the service of the state, is always far on the right.
Stop looking for graphics of the spectrum. These ideas cannot be so neatly defined that we can line them up on a neat little arrow, especially because there are left and right versions of many of these political philosophies. Anarchism includes variants such as anarcho-communism and anarcho-capitalism, the latter being far less left than the former. I just mentioned previously that communism is leftist in theory but Stalin was as hard-right a centralized authority as they come. Libertarianism likewise has far-right and far-left variants within it. These cannot be neatly lined up.
You are not Simple
These concepts are all difficult to categorize because people are not so simply defined. That’s a good thing! Our infinite unique variations are what make us creative and beautiful, and I believe this will eventually lead us into a better future, if only slowly.
Don’t be intimidated by this stuff and don’t turn away from it. Our politics affect everyone’s every day lives. Our choices — including the refusal to make a choice — affects others. We have to stand somewhere. We don’t have to select one of the above categories, but we can use them to inform us as we figure out what we do choose to believe.
So What am I?
I am likewise not so neatly defined, but I can tell you that:
I’m a liberal. I believe every single person should be as free with as much liberty as possible. I believe all of us should be free to follow or reject whatever religion we fancy. I believe we should be free to live as we see fit by whatever personal morality we prefer. I believe these freedoms should only be restricted to the point that no harm is done to others. “Your freedom ends where mine begins.”
I’m a progressive. I’m an eternal optimist who believes we can and must do better together. I believe that as we grow individually, we also grow together. We are inescapably social. I want to see us send ships into space while at the same time learning how to enact higher morals that protect the equality of all. (As a Christian, I find this inseparable from my faith in humanity as God’s creation.)
I’m a lefty. I am very much against strict hierarchies where arbitrary “classes” of people are ranked as deserving more than others, and I’m likewise against a centralized authority that all must be unquestionably subservient to. (This is also inseparable from my faith, which inspires me to be resistant to “authorities and principalities”, if you will.)
I’m an independent. I have long refused to align with a political party. I do not want to fall into group-think, nor do I want to be told that another group is my enemy or in any way inferior.
I am passionately opposed to our current president’s actions, because his actions oppose my every value I just described. I reject insults. I reject cruelty. I reject division. I reject “othering” my neighbors. I reject bitterness. I reject the promotion of greed in the image of a man who stands against the backdrop of literal pillars of gold. I do not hate him, but I do oppose everything he’s doing, and I take no joy in doing so. I believe in us, and I believe we are better than this. I believe he, like us, can do better, too, if only his eyes could be opened. (That’s another blog for another day.)
I’m humble and cautious, though, in that I don’t discount conservative wisdom. I never want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In other contexts, such as with religion, I have some rather conservative views: I really dig the wisdom of ancient scriptures and liturgical tradition. I like feeling some sort of connection to the people who came before me. There is always a place for tradition and old wisdom when that tradition does no harm and that wisdom has not been discounted as we’ve learned more about ourselves.
Most importantly, I believe I am flawed and will always have incomplete knowledge. I do not believe in my own right-ness over others. I’m not better than you, not by a long shot.
None of this is a zero-sum, all-or-nothing game for me. Life is nuanced, so must our politics be as well.
When I engage people in politics, regardless of who they are or what they believe, it’s about invitation, not condemnation. Let’s be better people together.