Today in the United States, most of us think that these terms are simply the labels that indicate whether or not you are a Democrat or a Republican. Most of us think that issues like gay rights, taxation, prayer in schools, abortion, support of the military, and fiscal policy, to name a few, are issues for which the Democratic position is liberal and the Republican position is conservative.
We tend to use these two terms as labels to cubbyhole ourselves and each other according to where we stand on the issues. There is some value, and some truth behind all of this, but there is a basic problem too.
Liberal and conservative are not sets of beliefs, but rather, ways of thinking. A liberal views the world from a perspective different from the way a conservative views the world, and as a result, usually arrives at a different set of conclusions. But sometimes, the two approaches can arrive at the same conclusion, or can flip flop their conclusions over time. So what is it that makes us liberal or conservative if it is not a specific set of positions on the issues of the day?
A good starting place is the dictionary. I found these definitions of the terms in the dictionary built into my Mac:
conservative |kənˈsərvətiv; -vəˌtiv|
holding to traditional attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation, typically in relation to politics or religion.
• (of dress or taste) sober and conventional : a conservative suit.
• (of an estimate) purposely low for the sake of caution : the film was not cheap—$30,000 is a conservative estimate.
• (of surgery or medical treatment) intended to control rather than eliminate a condition, with existing tissue preserved as far as possible.
a person who is averse to change and holds to traditional values and attitudes, typically in relation to politics.
1 open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values : they have more liberal views toward marriage and divorce than some people.
• favorable to or respectful of individual rights and freedoms : liberal citizenship laws.
• (in a political context) favoring maximum individual liberty in political and social reform : a liberal democratic state.
• Theology regarding many traditional beliefs as dispensable, invalidated by modern thought, or liable to change.
2 [ attrib. ] (of education) concerned mainly with broadening a person's general knowledge and experience, rather than with technical or professional training.
3 (esp. of an interpretation of a law) broadly construed or understood; not strictly literal or exact : they could have given the 1968 Act a more liberal interpretation.
4 given, used, or occurring in generous amounts : liberal amounts of wine had been consumed.
• (of a person) giving generously : Sam was too liberal with the wine.
a person of liberal views.
As you can see, these terms are about ways of thinking, rather than about the conclusions you come to. It is my contention that liberalism is rare in this country. Yes, the Democrats won the last two elections, but that doesn't mean that the country is getting more liberal. It means that more people have aligned their thinking, to some degree, with Democratic philosophy. But Democratic philosophy has been around, in more or less its current form, since World War II. It was truly liberal back in the Roosevelt years, and when the civil rights movement was forming. But all that was a generation or two ago. Since the Vietnam war, the Democratic Party has been pretty set in its ways. Most of it's members are not open minded about issues. They are entrenched in positions, largely opposing the positions held by Republicans. In that sense, one could argue that both parties are reactionary regarding each other, with little fresh thinking to be found anywhere.
Democrats tend to be just as locked into pre-defined beliefs and assumptions as Republicans, and to the degree to which this is the case, are not liberal. They are just a different flavor of conservatives who want not to preserve the Reagan golden age, but rather the Roosevelt or Clinton or Kennedy/Johnson golden age. If you think a Democrat is liberal, open minded, and willing to consider that the way he has always seen the issues might not be just fine the way it is right now, ask him to consider the issue of abortion. This is a truly difficult issue for which there are no clear cut, black and white solutions, and for which liberal thinking would be very helpful. But both sides in this debate became polarized in the early 70's, and no liberal thinking seems to have occurred on the subject since the battle lines were drawn with the Roe v. Wade decision. The most liberal thinking I have seen on this topic is a speech delivered to a Sojouners conference a couple of years ago by Barack Obama.
I would go so far as to say that some of the self-described conservatives I know are actually pretty liberal, and that some self-described liberals are actually pretty conservative. On balance though, a good liberal is hard to find.
So in summary, liberalism and conservatism are not political party dogma, but rather orientation to the world we live in. Neither is inherently better than the other, but serve us best if held in balance. We should not throw out the baby with the bathwater but we should be willing to consider an improved baby washing system if it comes along. Our political parties are not inherently liberal or conservative, but tend to orient along these lines. And liberalism is relatively rare. People just tend to stay with what is familiar and comfortable, even when that is an illusion of liberality.
Hopefully you get my point. It will be important background perspective for a number of issues that I will address in the future.
The term "progressive" is not a proper synonym for "liberal." Progressive means in favor of progress. Progressiveness means being in favor of moving forward. It says nothing about the direction of movement, or whether that movement is liberal or conservative. One could argue that George W. Bush was progressive. He made great strides in furthering his philosophies of preemptive military action, the unitary executive, and the corporatization of government. But none of that is inherently liberal. Democrats should stop hiding behind this term and get real about becoming actual liberals instead.