The Fall semester is about to begin and I'll be teaching my course in Political Communication; it's a non-partisan exploration of the tactics and techniques politicians (especially presidents) and their campaigns have used to get their message across, then and now. I mentioned this to a couple of my Republican friends on social media, and one immediately tweeted, "And I suppose you'll teach it from the liberal perspective." I assured him that the course thoroughly addresses political figures from all parties, but he did not seem convinced, even when I offered to show him the syllabus and let him see for himself.
But his comment got me thinking about what the "liberal perspective," or for that matter, the "conservative perspective" means in today's political discourse. If I mention some positive contributions that liberal politicians have made to this country, am I just another shill for liberalism? I think not, especially since my course also discusses the positive contributions that conservative politicians have made. Believe it or don't, I really try to be historically accurate and fair to the facts. But that's not easy in our current polarized communication environment: unfortunately, some people are quick to throw the words "liberal" and "conservative" around as insults, especially on Facebook and Twitter: "Libtard," "Cuckservative," "DemocRAT," "Re-THUG-lican," and other taunts reminiscent of the schoolyard are seen all-too-often in memes and social media posts. (For the record, I really dislike these particular taunts, and I wish people wouldn't use them.) But when it comes to defining these two polarizing words, I keep thinking of that line from the movie The Princess Bride, the one where Inigo Montoya says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Politicians on the right love to state that they are "the one true conservative," and they love to paint their opponent as "liberal," which is evidently the worst thing a Republican can be. But there were many times in history when Republicans held positions that are today commonly associated with liberals. In fact, some political commentators have noted that Republican Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon would be
drummed out of today's Republican party for their moderate stances on certain issues.
Mr. Eisenhower famously warned against the "military-industrial
complex"-- a position held by moderates and liberals today, in
contrast to how most Republicans want to see even more money given to
the Pentagon. President Eisenhower also believed that government could solve problems, as exemplified by his advocacy for the building of the interstate highway system; today's Republicans frequently assert that government IS the problem and they refuse to support projects to improve our crumbling roads and bridges. As for Mr. Nixon, with all his faults, he did expand Social Security, so that
more people would be eligible, another position that would be considered
liberal today; and he created the Environmental Protection Agency, something that today's Republicans would like to dismantle or curtail. Yet in their day, both President Nixon and President
Eisenhower were considered quite conservative.
So, what then is a "conservative" in 2016? Historically, the dictionary has defined it as someone who "holds to traditional attitudes and values," or someone who is "cautious about
change or innovation, typically in relation to politics or religion." The problem, of course, is that traditions and attitudes can change, whether we want them to or not. Today, women and African-Americans have secured the right to vote; but they didn't have it in previous generations, and sad to say, members of both parties at one time or other have tried to restrict voting rights. Today, there are many men and women who have been divorced; in previous generations, this was considered a deal-breaker for someone wanting to run for president, but today, there are candidates who have not only been divorced once but several times. Politicians are accused of "flip-flopping" when they change their views, but the truth is, most of us do change periodically; adapting to new circumstances is a necessary part of being successful. So, is a conservative someone who wishes life could magically revert to what it was like in the 1950s? That seems like an oversimplification, although some conservatives do seem to long for the "good old days." (I'm not sure what liberals long for-- perhaps a political revolution, like what Bernie Sanders proposed?)
As with every ideology, there are nuances and shades of gray-- not every conservative thinks exactly alike, in other words. Consider the issue of birth control: for many years, conservative Christians (mainly Catholics, but some Protestants too) were successful in their fight against access to contraception, even for married couples. Until the 1965 (!) Griswold v. Connecticut Supreme Court decision, purchasing or dispensing contraceptive devices was a criminal offense in certain states. But these days, most Christians I know, as well as a majority who identify as conservatives, are fine about the use of birth control. This includes more than 80% of American Catholics-- even though their church opposes the use of contraceptives, surveys repeatedly show that Catholics tend to ignore that teaching. Unfortunately, some online memes try to assert that Margaret Sanger, who championed greater access to birth control, was actually a racist, a member of the KKK, and someone who wanted to limit the number of black births. As with all too many internet memes, these claims are false, but many conservatives treat them as factual, even as they also support family planning. (Politifact addressed what Sanger actually believed here: http://www.politifact.com/new-hampshire/statements/2015/oct/05/ben-carson/did-margaret-sanger-believe-african-americans-shou/ )
As for "liberals" (also sometimes called "progressives"), dictionaries say such a person is "open to new behavior or opinions," someone who is "willing to discard traditional values." But I am not sure it's that simple. Most liberals I know don't just wake up one day and "discard" anything. They gradually move away from views they once held, because they acquire new information that encourages them to change. I'm a good example of that: I used to oppose gay marriage; and to be fair, so did most heterosexuals from all sides of the political spectrum. I came to believe civil unions were a good compromise, but as time passed, I learned more from my gay friends and colleagues about how various discriminatory policies affected their lives; and I came to believe that marriage equality was something worth supporting. Public opinion surveys show that my position on the issue is now the majority view. It's interesting to note that as recently as 2004, only 29% of Americans supported gay marriage, whereas by 2015, 60% of Americans expressed support.
If we look at our history, most Republicans in the 20th century were not aligned with views we would call "liberal"-- for example, Republicans were known for their total support of big business, and of championing policies helpful to corporations. Their conservative factions tended to be socially conservative-- believing America was supposed to be a Christian nation, or demanding that the words "under God" be inserted into the previously secular Pledge of Allegiance. But in fairness, many Democrats back then did not always champion "liberal" views either, and they too had conservative factions. It was conservative southern Democrats (so-called "Dixiecrats") who vehemently opposed integration and stood firm on segregationist policies; these Democrats may have been liberal on a few other issues, but in the early-to-mid 1900s, their attitude on race was one that we can today find in many Republicans. (And yes, I have seen the memes online that claim it was Republicans who were the true supporters of civil rights... but that's not entirely accurate; many northern Democrats were too, and even some from the south... including a Texan named President Lyndon Johnson. It was also not true that every Republican agreed with Abraham Lincoln's efforts to end slavery, nor that every Republican treated the newly-freed blacks fairly. There were heroes and villains in both parties.)
My point is that life is rarely simple, and when it comes to politics, it's rarely binary, except on the internet, where efforts persist to demonstrate that "my side" is good and "your side" is evil. I'd be interested to hear from both liberals and conservatives about what beliefs you hold and how you would like to see those beliefs enacted in our politics. For too long, we've used words to demonize each other, but I'd like to see if in fact there are some areas of interest we share, and I wonder if we can come up with new and more accurate definitions of "liberal" and "conservative," definitions more suitable for a new generation of voters.