Liberal and Conservative Information Sheet How We Perceive Liberals and Conservatives

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Liberal and Conservative Information Sheet
How We Perceive Liberals and Conservatives
Surveys show that Americans have both negative and positive views about liberals and conservatives. In a recent survey, Americans gave these types of responses when asked about liberals:

Positive View of Liberals
• Generous

• Open-minded

• Eager to help those who cannot

help themselves

Negative View of Liberals
Free-spending, “bleeding hearts”

• Pro-handouts

• Ready to throw money at often ill-

defined social problems

• In favor of increasing taxes to the

working and middle class

• Willing to accept a greater degree

of government involvement

Americans have the following opinions about conservatives:

Positive View of Conservatives

• Fiscally responsible

• Desire a low degree of government


• Protect valued traditions

Negative View of Conservatives
• Tight-fisted with government money

• Closed-minded or old-fashioned in

their ideas about society

• Against change

Not open to compromise


Americans often find fault with both liberals and conservatives, which may account for why most people identify themselves as moderates—a middle-of-the-road conglomeration of liberal and conservative ideas that differ by region and often by individual. Some moderates are against government welfare but favor abortion rights; others favor welfare programs but oppose affirmative action. Some moderates lean toward the liberal side by wanting some government intervention in social and economic issues, but not to the extent supported by liberals. Other moderates lean toward the conservative side by favoring no government involvement in social and economic issues except for a few specific, often idiosyncratic, programs. Overall, moderates are not as idealistic as liberals and not as cautious as conservatives about the ability of government to solve social and economic problems. A major difference between moderates on the one hand, and liberals and conservatives on the other, is that “moderate” is not an ideology. Moderate is not based upon a belief about the purpose of human beings and, therefore, the function of government. Liberalism and conservatism are ideologies based upon a belief about the purpose of human beings and the function of government.

Radicals and Reactionaries
Radical reformers are generally reacting against what they perceive to be the slow pace of change. Radicals advocate rapid transition as a way to achieve reform. As an example, the groups in Russia that advocate a rapid transition to capitalism are referred to as the radical reform bloc. They believe that the sooner Russia makes the transition, the sooner it will reap the benefits of rapid economic growth. Radicals can advocate many different end goals—socialism, communism, or capitalism and democracy—but their method of achieving these ends is to move fast. Currently, the radicals in Russia are in conflict with the moderates, who want to phase in reform over a number of years, and with the reactionaries, who want to return to a communist government.
Reactionaries are those who respond against change. They generally want a return to what was—or what they perceive to be—the old and more favorable system, such as the Russians who want to return to communism.
Like moderates, radicals and reactionaries change their opinions with the circumstances. They do not have ideologies based upon a belief about the purpose of human beings or the function of government.
Basic Differences Between Liberals And Conservatives
Americans tend to misunderstand the differences between liberals and conservatives. Most people assume that conservatives are laissez-faire (hands-off) about government involvement in the economy or the social welfare of the people. In theory, conservatives traditionally have seemed to favor a free market with no government regulation. In practice, this may not always be the case.
Conservatives favor government intervention that supports or helps conservative voting blocs (e.g., farm subsidies, tariffs), and they oppose government intervention that hurts conservative voting blocs (e.g., minimum wage, stringent EPA regulations). Liberals, likewise, support government intervention that helps liberal voting blocs (e.g., affirmative action), and oppose government intervention that hurts liberal voting blocs (e.g., medical marijuana, abortion).
Conservatives traditionally have appeared to support strong states’ rights over a strong central government. They will oppose using the presidency and Congress to override the will of the states when states support conservative causes (e.g., prayer in schools, anti-affirmative action). However, they support a strong central government and will use the presidency and Congress to override the will of the states when fighting for conservative causes (e.g., enforcement of drug policy, curbing civil rights for suspected terrorists). Liberals will respond in the same manner—supporting states’ rights over a strong central government in drug enforcement cases, and supporting a strong central government in cases of environmental regulation.
In this regard, the basic difference between liberals and conservatives is that liberals are more likely to use federal powers to regulate the economy and control the states, while conservatives are more likely to use federal powers to regulate the social behavior of individuals and groups.
The important message here is that ideologies, because they are based upon a belief about the purpose of human beings, are fairly consistent. However, those who favor one ideology over the other are not always consistent. People who label themselves as liberal or conservative may differ in their beliefs by region of the country, local interests, economic class, religion, or national and international issues. But the ideologies of liberalism and conservatism are consistent. This is explained in the “Definitions of Liberal and Conservative Groups.”
It is also important to keep in mind that liberal does not mean the same thing as Democratic, and conservative does not mean the same thing as Republican. Democrats and Republicans are political parties, and political parties are formal institutions trying to get their candidates elected to office. Their philosophies change regularly and are not based upon beliefs about the purpose of human beings. Democrats and Republicans have used the words liberal and conservative and, in attacking each other, have turned liberal and conservative into negative words. To get past thinking of liberal and conservative as pejorative terms, remember that these are ideologies based upon a belief about the purpose of human beings and the function of government.


Current Liberals

Current Conservatives

Social Issues:

Expect government to provide a level playing field for all Americans through social programs that protect people, provide assistance to the needy, and redistribute wealth and advantage.

Believe that individuals are protected and supported by family, community, and church or faith-based organizations, and that these private entities are responsible for solving social problems. This should not be the responsibility of the federal government.


Support “freedom of choice” because individuals have the right to control their own destiny.

Support “right to life” and what is best for the community over the rights of the individual, based on traditional morality.

Affirmative Action

Favor government-mandated rules designed to increase minority access.

Support unfettered competition based on merit.

School Prayer

Oppose, on basis of First Amendment’s prohibition of government establishment of religion.

Support, as a means to reinforce family and community values.

Crime Prevention

Want to use government institutions and government-funded private agencies to help those in need as a way of preventing crime; emphasize importance of rights of the accused.

Favor more severe measures for criminals to punish those who threaten the community; do not want to sacrifice crime control for the rights of criminals.

Economic Issues:

Believe government should regulate businesses in the public interest, tax according to wealth, protect workers and the environment, and ensure economic growth.

Want government to keep hands off the economy, or laissez-faire. Favor a free- market system, in which everyone competes according to his/her ability.


Want the rich to pay a greater share of the tax burden to help even the playing field for the middle and lower classes.

Want to keep taxes low by giving tax breaks or lowering taxes for the

highest income brackets, giving these people money to spend on goods and services and to invest in production, thus providing jobs for the working and middle classes.

Corporate Taxes

Want corporations to pay more of the tax burden to help redistribute wealth.

Feel that taxing corporations will stall economic growth.

Government Spending

Want to maintain social programs to help redistribute wealth and provide the needy with assistance so they can meet their goals.

Emphasize cutting spending, except for defense; other programs should be paid for by local communities, nonprofits, churches and faith-based groups,

and families.

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