What Does it Mean to be Liberal?

Earlier this week I tried (and mostly failed) to make sense of conservative political theory. In this post, I’ll try to get to the bottom of what we mean when we describe something as liberal.

The first thing I learned in researching the history of liberalism was how skewed our current perspective is. The current understanding in America of liberal politics is relatively new and at odds with how other countries understand the term. For the sake of clarity, I’ll be using liberal as it is most commonly understood in the United States, a country with a long and glorious history of cannibalizing and regurgitating languages for our own amusement.

Here’s what being liberal appears to mean in culture, practice, and ideals:


  • live in urban areas
  • vocally support open-mindedness
  • comprise more women and minorities
  • generally younger in age
  • less tied to traditional morals and religion


  • support gay marriage and transgender rights
  • advocate for intersectional feminism
  • support restrictions on guns
  • favor more government programs to create more equal economic playing field


  • the government bears the responsibility to legislate more equal, fair, and just life for everyone in the country

Definition of liberalism according to Merriam Webster’s:

belief in the value of social and political change in order to achieve progress

And here’s Paul Shlichta’s definition from American thinker:

  • Conservatism – all men are equal but not necessarily good
  • Liberalism – all men are good but not necessarily equal

Liberals have made the shrewd rhetorical move of claiming compassion and empathy as the motivations for their political beliefs, but this year several high profile pieces have chronicled how liberals can actually be more intolerant, close-minded and condescending than conservatives.

The biggest problem with liberal theory is the huge assumption it makes about the best way to improve the world. Most people probably agree that we should strive to alleviate poverty and ensure everyone has an equal chance for success, but liberals make a huge intellectual leap by placing the impetus for making these changes on the government.

The most simplistic way to explain this assumption is to correlate it with the relative lack of religious allegiance among liberals. The conservative base is largely made up of Christians, who also claim to want to serve the least advantaged, but believe the church is the institution that should deliver this aid.* Liberals have no other institutional allegiances but the government to see these changes through.

I’m driven by liberal motivations, but am unconvinced that the plans they propose to create an equitable, just future for all, are actually the most practical ways to achieve these means.

On the other hand, a conservative framework of government works for me personally because I am privileged in practically every way and do not need much assistance from the state. However, on the other-other hand, it would be naive to think that a governing system based on my own life experience is applicable and helpful for most Americans.

This is the impasse I find myself at, staring at two equally lethal political theories, attempting to stretch myself into a person wide enough to accommodate both. It is at heart, a desperate struggle not to let irrationality or fear or personal comfort dictate how I see the world.

There’s a lot of science indicating political affiliations are mostly determined by personality traits and environment. Science aside, when looking at the demographic makeup of liberal and conservative adherents, this personality bias is obvious. The conservative base is conveniently made up of people who benefit from conservative politics and the liberal base is made up of people who benefit the most from liberal politics.

But. Marie Konnikova of The New Yorker reports that these correlations do not have to equal causations. The race is not fixed. You can make up your own mind. You can still choose.

So in the exhausting question of liberal or conservative I choose none of the above.

I’m not alone in this choice. The Pew Research Center articulates a reality people are probably already aware of. Most of us aren’t liberal or conservative. According to their findings “18% are liberals, 15% are conservatives, 16% are populists, and 9% are libertarians.” What about the other 42%? The largest group of people in the survey defied categorization. The Pew Research Center labeled them “ambivalents.” The definition of ambivalent is “having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone.”

That would be me.

Really though, when I think about what it means to be conservative and liberal and how a government should work, I’m driven by a much bigger question. On the surface it appears unrelated to politics, but I think the answer can guide me through my ambivalence: who is my neighbor?

Want the answer’s to life’s biggest questions delivered straight to your inbox? Subscribe here.

*If you want a broader understanding of the term liberal, Daniel B. Klein has written a helpful history you can find here

* The complete and utter failure of the church to do this is a topic for another time



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s