Understanding Conservatives & Liberals
A Guide to Social Attitudes & Politics in the U.S.
When you read about American politics and social attitudes it’s very common to hear about the “battle” between Conservatives and Liberals. This is because of the nature of the American political system which is highly influential over whether people consider themselves to belong to either group.
The U.S. is, in essence, a two-party democracy. Although there are third parties available for people to vote for, the overwhelming majority of voters will choose to vote either Democratic or Republican.
Increasingly, the U.S. is seen as being a nation divided along these two lines, which are often ideologically opposed to one another. It only takes a quick look on popular internet forums and online Newspaper comment sections to feel that, in the era of Donald Trump, partisan politics are becoming more entrenched and the tone of disagreements ever more strident.
But is this true? How divided is America and how can you understand the differences between liberals and conservatives?
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In the U.S. the two main political parties – the Democrats and Republicans, are seen to broadly correspond to two different political and social ideologies – Liberal (Democrats) and Conservative (Republicans).
It’s important to understand that not all Americans will consider themselves to be liberal or conservative. They may have a range of views, some of which correspond to some areas of liberalism and some conservatism. There are also a number of other perspectives that include some, all, or none of the commonly held ideologies of liberals and conservatives (for example, Libertarianism, Ecological Activism, Socialism, Social Conservatism and so on).
For the most part, people broadly tend to categorize themselves based along conservative or liberal lines.
Generally speaking, Republicans tend to live in more rural areas and Democrats in urban centers. In very broad strokes, the two parties can be split demographically between – “a Democratic coalition centered in racially diverse, largely secular, and post-industrial metropolitan centers and a Republican coalition grounded in small-town and rural communities that remain mostly white, Christian and rooted in traditional manufacturing, agriculture and resource extraction.” (CNN)
What do political leanings mean for those who consider themselves liberal or conservative? Politics in the U.S. tend to align with social ideologies across the two party lines.
Tend to believe in the need for a larger government to ensure equality of opportunity for all.
Tend to believe in a smaller government that does not interfere too much in the lives of its citizens.
Liberal and conservative views tend to disagree on a range of key issues and in some cases, directly oppose one another.
These issues include:
Social: Liberals brand themselves as “progressive”. They believe that government should play a role in solving social issues such as crime and poverty, and should support minorities or those who are discriminated against.
Conservatives tend to believe that affirmative action is not needed and that social issues are not the job of government to solve. They believe in ‘personal liberty’ and often refer to ‘personal responsibility’ when it comes to moving past social issues such as poverty and lack of education.
Economy & Spending: Liberals tend to believe that taxes should remain static or be increased (particularly for wealthier citizens) and the money collected should be spent on social problems and other issues such as the environment and equal opportunities.
This includes assistance such as social welfare and medical assistance programs. While they do not necessarily oppose the free market, liberals tend to want tougher regulations on businesses, especially large businesses, who they do not see as having ordinary citizen’s best interests at heart.
Conservatives tend to be in favor of less taxation and argue that higher taxes are bad for the economy as they hinder business growth. They believe fewer taxes are better for investment. They tend to favor small government spending, with the exception of the military. They do not believe big businesses should be too tightly regulated.
Affirmative Action & Abortion: Broadly speaking, liberals tend to describe themselves as ‘pro-choice’ – that is, they believe that women who become pregnant should have the right to autonomy over their body and the choice to have an abortion if the pregnancy is not wanted. Liberals tend to support affirmative action where minority or marginalized groups are given extra support to enter areas such as higher education or the workplace.
Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to view the issue of abortion as one of being about the life of the developing fetus, rather than the woman’s decision about pregnancy. Therefore they tend to be what’s called ‘pro-life’ – and many support making abortion illegal. The conservative viewpoint does not tend to favor affirmative action as they do not believe it is necessary
Crime & Gun Control: Liberals tend to favor gun control, and many would like to see guns banned altogether. They often see crime as a social issue, resulting from social problems (such as poverty and lack of access to education and life opportunities). They tend to favor government interventions to address social inequalities in order to prevent crime and rehabilitate offenders.
Conservatives tend towards being in favor of guns in general, but many also agree that gun control is needed. Generally, conservatives tend to believe that the government should be tough on crime, with stricter policing and laws. Although they might agree that some criminal activity has a social basis, they do not agree that policing or laws should be softer as a result.
When it comes to immigration, public opinion has shifted towards viewing it more favorably – amongst both liberals and conservatives. 84% of Democrats and Democratic leaners say that immigrants do more to strengthen than burden the U.S. The numbers for conservatives are, as you might expect, lower – 42% of Republicans believe that immigrants do more to strengthen than burden the U.S., which is a slight decrease from 46% saying the same in 2004.
As you can see, many of the views that conservatives and liberals hold are opposed to one another. And, although there are many who walk a middle ground, holding some liberal and some conservative values, increasingly people are becoming polarized towards one viewpoint or the other.
Although America has had a two-party system for many years, in the last 25 years polarization between the two different outlooks has become far more deeply entrenched. According to Pew Research, political values that are a mix of liberal and conservative ideologies are less likely amongst Americans today. 32% of Americans now describe themselves as having a mix of liberal and conservative positions, as opposed to 49% in 1994 and 2004.
As this middle ground has shrunk extremes of opinion at different ends of political ideologies has increased. The median Republican is now more conservative than 97% or Democrats, and the median Democrat is more liberal than 95% of Republicans.
One of the reasons for this could well be the divisive politics of Donald Trump, who was elected on a brand of conservatism that puts Nationalism at its heart. The slogans “America First” and “Make America Great Again” have done much to tap into the feeling amongst many conservatives that Americans are being left behind due to progressive politics and international concerns.
As we have seen, American political and social values have always had sharp differences, however, the tone of the debate in recent years has become more toxic. For many people, identifying as either liberal or conservative – “Team Blue” (liberal) or “Team Red” (Conservative) – has become a matter of identity as well as political ideology.
There are certain sections of people who hold passionate viewpoints and increasingly see the “other side” as being wrong – not just in ideology, but on a personal level, too. In these instances, the tone of viewpoints and the rhetoric can feel hostile.
Despite this, it remains to be seen whether America is truly more divided than it has been at other times in its political and social history – or whether aspects such as mass media and the internet have made the debate seem more divisive than it actually is.
It’s easy to see dramatic news headlines, rhetoric from politicians and heated internet debates and conclude that America is deeply partisan and that you have to choose between aligning with liberals or conservatives. But the reality is that, although the middle ground between extreme liberalism or conservatism has shrunk, it still represents a healthy center between these two viewpoints.
Overall, there are many liberals and conservatives that hold strong opinions and want different things and some sections of these two broad groups have become increasingly entrenched in their positions. The wider picture, however, shows an America that has more commonalities and agreements than differences.
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