Liberal? Moderate? Conservative? In the media, these terms are everywhere, but what do they mean? Much of America’s political discourse involves ideological labels. These labels are full of content and explain the stakes of contemporary politicsIdeology: a central divide in politics. They are signifiers of ideology, a concept defined by Webster’s dictionary as “the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program.”
Ideology centers on beliefs and assumptions about society, politics and culture. Specifically, it is, as defined above, a program for improving human political, culture and society. It is hardly surprising that ideology lies at the heart of contemporary controversies in American politics. Our political parties in recent decades have developed clear and distinct ideological profiles. Nationally and in Minnesota, liberals are heavily Democratic and conservatives are heavily Republican.
We can understand differences between liberals and conservatives as deriving from two contrasting beliefs. First, liberals tend to view America’s problems as centering upon undeserved inequalities among its citizens. Differences in incomes and opportunities between the rich and poor, men and women, gays and straights, and whites and racial minorities are central political problems deserving reform. Conservatives, in contrast, adopt individual liberty as a primary value. Ever-growing government threatens individual freedoms to operate businesses, follow religious convictions, speak freely and own firearms. For them, protection of such liberties ranks as a top priority.
Second, liberals believe government, often the national government, should take action to address the inequalities they see as plaguing American society. Liberals applaud the considerable increase in the size of national and state governments government over the last one hundred years as programs appeared providing income support, health care, environmental protection and business regulation. Conservatives, in contrast, believe government is now too large and has failed to solve many of the problems it has spent billions of dollars addressing. Some governmental actions, they argue, have made the economy more inefficient and thus lowered the nation’s standard of living.
Liberals and conservatives also disagree about which levels of government are most likely to solve the key American problems. Liberals hold that many of the issues on their agenda concern national problems requiring national solutions. Conservatives believe that smaller, lower levels of government — states, counties and cities — can act more responsibly and efficiently in addressing problems. This is a disagreement about federalism, the arrangement of powers between a county’s national, state and local governments. American federalism is often celebrated by conservatives and decried as an obstacle to necessary reforms by liberals.
On international issues, liberals believe American should take the lead in addressing a series of international social, environmental and economic problems. Global economic inequality, international arms proliferation, and world environmental challenges, they argue, demand U.S. leadership in a collaborative matter in international institutions such as the United Nations. Conservatives tend to view America’s international role in terms of the country’s national interests and military might. They cast a skeptical eye on schemes of international improvement, just as they are suspicious of expansive reform programs by national government in domestic affairs.
Not all liberals and conservatives agree on every issue. One can identify factions within these broad orientations. One group of conservatives, for example, is the “libertarians” who particularly emphasize individual freedom and small government. Some libertarians diverge from social conservatives on issues such as abortion, individual drug use and gay marriage. Libertarians tend to view these issues as individual rights that should be free from governmental restrictions. Social conservatives, however, view limitations on abortion, gay marriage and drug use as essential for the moral health of American society. Liberals also have their internal disagreements. Some of the most progressive liberals seek a drastic reduction in national military spending and intelligence gathering, but other liberals view these as essential to national security. Liberals also at times disagree about specific sorts of environmental protection, economic and social policies.
And the moderates? Where are they? They scatter between the two poles of America’s ideological spectrum. There are, however, some identifiable types of moderates in contemporary politics. One sort is the economic conservative/social liberal. Similar to the libertarians mentioned above, these moderates are political independents, not identifying with either major party. They are skeptical of governmental intervention in the economy yet share many liberals’ support of social changes such as abortion rights, gay marriage and drug legalization. Why are they not Republicans? A strong aversion to social conservatives has moved many of them out of the GOP and into the moderate independent category. Younger and higher income Americans, tend to populate the economic conservative/social liberal category.
Another moderate type is the economic liberal/social conservative citizen. These people tend to be lower in education and income, finding attractive the liberals’ economic policies combating inequality. Many, however, are religious and hold to more traditional views opposing abortion, gay marriage and drug legalization. Though ideologically moderate, many of these voters choose Democratic candidates in the polling booth for economic reasons. That is one reason why Democrats have a higher proportion of moderates in their ranks than do Republicans, as we note in the next section. Many African-Americans are in this ideological group.
It is clear that ideological differences between our two major parties lie at the center of American politics. The 2014 elections put those differences on bold display. In just about every race of note featured a conservative Republican against a liberal Democrat. In 2014, the conservatives enjoyed great success. Liberal fared better in 2012 and particularly in 2008. Our two major parties, now each clearly defined by an ideology dominant among its officeholders and activists, chart the present and future course of nation.
Steven Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.