Comparative American Politics: Understanding Conservativism and Liberalism in the 21st Century
The comparison and contrast of the political ideology of major groups in the United States is both an interesting and, in some ways, a complicated task. The philosophies, in which they are rooted, whether it is Classical Liberalism or Classical Conservativism, are reactionary in the same way the original theories were hundreds of years before when Liberalism responded to the European tradition of religious conformity and ascribed status and Conservativism reacted to Liberalism.
One of the best ways to understand political ideology is by comparing and contrasting political organizations. The following organizations fall well within the parameters of Conservativism or Liberalism. In fact, seldom do they split along the conservative–liberal lines when it comes to assumptions, values, or public policies.
First, I challenge you to think about your own political ideology and where you believe you are on the continuum and participate in the poll. Then read through the hub and see how you identify with the various organizations. You may find that you have a little bit of both: conservative and liberal views depending on the issue.
Share your political ideology
What ideology is most closely representative of your political beliefs?
What is Contemporary Reform Liberalism?
The most important values within Contemporary Reform Liberalism, as in its predecessor, Classical Liberalism, are equality among people and the belief that humans are rational. There is a faith in progress and equality; but it needs to be supported by government, particularly through equal opportunity. Though they are still proponents of individuality, the sense of community has gained importance especially in a socioeconomic sphere primarily due to the rise of large corporations and suburban and urban distribution.
There is a greater sense within Contemporary Reform Liberalism that government is no longer the greatest threat to its citizens, particularly because of the establishment of democracies and representation in government. More importantly, Reform Liberals view government as having the potential to serve its citizens through multi-lateral foreign policy; support the regulation of business for environmental protection and the protection of workers, as businesses should not make a profit at the expense of the safety or health of others; and they seek the government to provide social welfare and support of civil rights.
The Americans for Democratic Action
One of the oldest independent liberal lobbying organizations, The Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), founded in 1947 by both scholars and activists, encourage their 65,000 members to lobby through direct advocacy, coalition partnerships, and through the media “…for democratic and progressive values and ideals in American policy.” Original founders included Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kenneth Galbraith, Walter Reuther, Arthur Schlesinger, and Reinhold Niebuhr. The ADA focuses on issues that promote social and economic equality and was credited for advocating for increases in minimum wage (ADA History).
ADA has taken on numerous issues in its history including:
- civil rights in the 1940s and 1950s
- education reform and anti-poverty programs in the 1960s
- environmental protection in the 1960s and 70s
- fair trade and workers' rights in the 1990s
- anti-war campaigns of the conflicts in Iraq and Vietnam
- opposing Wall Street deregulation
Members lobby against the death penalty and in favor of universal health care initiatives. When it comes to women’s rights issues, the organization supports legislation that “guarantees equal pay for equal work” (Economic Opportunity for Women) and opposes partial-birth abortions which fail to take into consideration the health and welfare of the mother (ADA Legislative Alert:Major Attack on Women’s Reproductive Rights.).
Strongly opposed to proposed marriage amendments, it believes that the legislation relegates homosexuals to second-class citizen status, represents “fear and hatred,” and goes against the spirit of the Constitution, which is intended “to protect and expand the rights and protections of individuals.”
Right along Liberal lines, the ADA believes the federal programs are necessary to serve “the working poor, the disabled, and the elderly; favors cuts in defense spending; supports progressive taxes and job creation through public works and public service; government funding for life-long education programs; and increased regulation of corporations with regard to the outsourcing of jobs and adherence to child labor and human rights protections” (Income and Inequality:Millions Left Behind).
Social issues are not the only issues addressed by the ADA. The ADA has a number of foreign policy concerns including the most recent tensions in Syria and Iran, which the organization believes "provide(s) an excellent opportunity to terminate the cycle of perpetual warfare." (ADA: Syria and Iran).
Sierra Club Protestors
The Sierra Club
Committed to the exploration, enjoyment, and, most importantly, the conservation of the world’s wilderness, The Sierra Club is also considered a liberal organization and, since 1892, has a significant history of influencing political policies. It is best known for their development of public educational and scientific meetings, small and large group wilderness outings, its influence in the establishment of national parks, and the prevention of the construction of dams during the mid-20th century.
Driven by their motto, “Explore, enjoy, and protect the planet,” The Sierra Club links its ideology to modern-day policy regarding energy conservation, energy efficiency research, air pollution, toxic waste, wetland protection, and oil drilling. The maintenance of clean water, the end of commercial logging, the increase in global warming, its opposition to suburban sprawl and the reliance on highway transportation are clearly the top priorities of The Sierra Club. The Sierra Club is a national leader in grassroots environmental litigation. (Environmental Law Program).
During the 2004 presidential election campaign, The Sierra Club marked it a “critical year for the environment" and accused former-President George W. Bush of waging an “assault on the environment” evidenced by his support on a number of critical issues: coal-fired power plants, which create sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution; his directive to not enforce the Clean Water Act, which left 20 percent of United States wetlands at risk for dumping, filling, or pollution; a proposal to cut energy efficiency research by 27 percent; and his refusal to sign the Kyoto treaty, which aimed to reduce international greenhouse gas emissions.
Understandably, the organization has managed to tie in its environmental ideology with that of other Liberal organizations, and Liberalism in general, by favoring multi-lateral negotiations in foreign policy; supporting human rights and family planning issues; and favoring slow global population growth, which is directly connected to improvement in the health of women and families.
Although The Sierra Club is not against “Big Business” or the globalization of the marketplace, it strongly advocates “responsible trade” and expresses concern of “multinational corporations prospering at the expense of our environment,” since these corporations are often not subject to the stricter guidelines of the United States environmental law and policies.
What is Classical Conservativism?
American Conservatives today, however, differ from Contemporary Reform Liberals as they are in a sense a combination of a number of theories: Social Darwinism, classical liberal attitudes regarding economic policy, and the “Religious Right.” Conservatives view people as inherently unequal, evidenced by the gap between the rich and the poor; are proponents of a laissez faire economic policy that promotes a free marketplace of economic exchange they believe will lead to better products; and continue to espouse the notion that government is still the greatest threat to its citizens and, therefore, should be limited. Often driven by religious doctrine, their view of humanity is that people are inherently flawed, and thereby rationality is limited. Accordingly, they are pessimistic about real progress on Earth and believe progress can only be made gradually.
ACU Chairman on President Obama's Executive Order Announcement on Immigration
The American Conservative Union
The American Conservative Union (ACU), established in 1964, aligns itself most closely with the principles of Contemporary Conservatism as its major goals are to support capitalism, provide a strong national defense, keep traditional moral values, and promote the “original intent of the framers of the Constitution.” Early leaders in the ACU included Frank S. Meyer, John Chamberlain, Jameson Campaigne Sr., John Ashbrook, Katharine St. George, William F. Buckley Jr., L. Brent Bozell and Robert E. Bauman.
While the ACU acknowledges the Constitution is the "best political charter yet," the organization holds to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence "in particular the belief that our inherent rights are endowed by the Creator." However, what can become problematic in balancing these ideals is that the Constitution is law, whereas the Declaration is a letter espousing ideals against foreign control. The ACU favors the maintenance of private control of economic power, lower taxes, and limited government spending, in essence, limiting the power of government. It believes that "capitalism is the only economic system of our time that is compatible with political liberty." (ACU. What We Believe).
Other policy concerns for the ACU are: gun-control, abortion, and socialized medicine – all of which it protests. While the ACU does not favor funding social welfare programs, which it considers wasteful spending, it advocated substantial spending on nuclear weapons development and the “War on Terror” (ACU About Us).
Most recently, the chairman of the ACU, Matt Schlapp, condemned President Obama for his position on immigration reform:
“President Obama’s executive order is like a royal decree giving legal status to millions of people who came here and reside here illegally. The president is showing utter contempt for the American voter, the Constitution, the separation of powers and all those who follow the law. It is appalling that a president of the United States, after having suffered a humiliating defeat in the midterm elections and getting a clear vote of no confidence, would give the voters a single-finger salute of contempt.” (Harper).
The Heritage Foundation
Since its founding in 1973, the Heritage Foundation has been conducting public policy research with a mission to “formulate and promote conservative public policies based upon the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.” To that end, the organization prides itself on being a “think tank” that focuses on major political issues - domestic, economic, foreign and defense. (About Heritage).
Critical of Social Security because it is projected the program will spend more in benefits than it receives from taxed income, The Heritage Foundation believes it provides a poor return on investment. In its view, the alternative – in fact the “only effective way” to improve the system—is to allow workers to invest retirement taxes into personal retirement accounts while promising to keep the benefits for current retirees.
The major weakness in this proposal is that it makes this an issue of poor retirement account planning and refrains from reporting the major reasons social security was initially established: to alleviate poverty among those who were unable to provide income for themselves who are the disabled, the widowed, and the elderly. Nowhere does The Heritage Foundation, or any other Conservative group, discuss social security benefits that are allotted for the disabled or their families or the death benefits provided through this program to widows and dependent children. Furthermore, it fails to acknowledge that today’s workers are the contributors for today’s social security recipients. If today's workers were able to move their monies into personal retirement accounts, there is no plan from the Conservatives that would provide the funding to bridge the gap. Perhaps, if Social Security reform is necessary, the retirement benefits from Social Security should go to those who need them most and not to those who have enough personal wealth to live decently (Issues 04:Social Security).
In promoting its version of “American values,” The Heritage Foundation and its conservatives allies link such values to religion and its place in civil society always citing the First Amendment as the basis for lobbying for federal or state support of religious organization with It maintains the stance: “Religion should not be barred from the public square, nor should religious organizations be barred from participating in government social service programs.” Few would argue that religion does not play a major role in the lives of many Americans and has substantial social value. But the Heritage Foundation recommends the government should affirm this within state-operated facilities by the upholding of such religious tenets; to confirm judges who will value the importance of religion; and to “level the playing field” by allowing the participation of religious organizations in federal social service programs.
However, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is clear on the issue:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” (Italics added).
Religious organizations already have First Amendment freedoms but should not have the right to financial support from the government because it is unconstitutional for government to establish religion. As if the benefit of a tax-exempt status of religious or non-profit organization were not enough, conservative groups, like the Heritage Foundation, deem such organizations are entitled to more benefits, including federal funding, because of the community support they provide.
In my opinion, when organizations ask for public funding when they do not pay into the system it is an unfair demand of the American taxpayer and dangerous to the principles of democracy, particularly, when the organization is partisan. It can be a slippery-slope to oligarchy.
The Christian Coalition of America
The vision of the Christian Coalition of America (CCA), founded by Pat Robertson, lays claim to certain legislative victories (i.e.: the partial-birth abortion ban) and its right to create a dramatic, political change in the United States government as ordained by the “Lord’s having sent new leadership and a spirit of renewal to one of His choice instruments.” The CCA also touts that it had more access, influence, and impact on administration officials and congressional representatives during the 2004 election than at any other time in its history. The results of the 2004 election, where the majority of its members cast their ballot in favor of those candidates with a conservative agenda is evidence of their highly-organized mobility. Subsequently, those candidates secured the 2004 election.
The CCA has an agenda for each Congress. The organization headlines the issues accordingly as its current primary goals:
- "Defunding and Rolling Back Obamacare";
- "advocate for passage of resolutions of support for Israel that recognize Israel’s right to exist as a state and homeland for the Jewish people";
- "Reducing Government Spending and Debt";
- "Defending our Second Amendment Rights";
- "Stop Public Funding of Abortion - And End Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research"; "Defending Traditional Marriage"; and
- "Ending Religious Discrimination Against Christians in the Military" among others.
(CCA: Our Agenda).
The organization is committed to advocating for public policy that is in line with Christian values including, but not limited to, the following legislation:
- a ban on abortion
- having the Ten Commandments posted in public places
- keeping prayer in schools and the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and
- anti-gay marriage laws.
While members of the CCA are certainly and constitutionally entitled to their opinions, their scope is not limited to asserting their own rights but is focused on forcing their views upon the nation and the world at large by its position that Christian values should predominate public policy.
Radical in their description of the opinions of the Supreme Court of the United States, the CCA petitioned to “Stop Judicial Tyranny” by accusing the justices of the last 50 years of making “runaway” decisions that override public opinion. In an audacious stance, the CCA interpreted the founding Fathers’ original intent, in the creation of the nation’s government, as one that has the federal judiciary as the weakest branch of government and accuses the modern Congress of “shirking its constitutional responsibilities: by refusing to rein in liberal tyrannical federal judges” (Christian Coalition “Let’s Take America Back – Stop Judicial Tyranny in America”),
Admittedly, drawing strength from devout Christian theology instead of historical fact, the CCA completely ignores the fact that the creation of the United States government is one that is not based on Christian ideology but rather secular and on the promotion of individual rights including: including the freedom to worship as one chooses, or, alternatively, not to worship at all. The CCA fails to identify the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights as a secular, not religious, doctrine and the development of a constitutional democracy (rather than a theocracy) complete with a system of checks and balances that applies to all three branches of government, none of which were designed to be inferior or subject to the whims of another branch.
With regard to Conservative organizations, there is a sense that the CCA is not as committed to limited government as they preach. Rather, it seems to want limited government only in certain arenas, most specifically social welfare programs. In fact, its idea of limited government is not defined by fewer government organizations, rather, it is their conviction that government is limiting with regard to personal freedoms of citizens.
The Cato Institute's “Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors"
The Cato Institute
Founded in 1977, a non-profit, public policy research foundation, the Cato Institute is a proponent of “Individual Liberty, Limited Government, Free Markets, and Peace.” World-renowned for its examination of issues across a broad spectrum, the institute positioned itself against Contemporary Liberal and Conservative policies alike. Their books, papers, reports, studies, and presentations in numerous venues including Senate Committee hearings seek out to promote political freedom and economic opportunity not only in the United States but around the world.
It may be difficult to put the Cato Institute into a “boxed ideology (conservative or liberal) because it takes some of the values of each, a Libertarian stance: “the Jeffersonian philosophy that animates Cato’s work has increasingly come to be called ‘libertarianism’ or ‘market liberalism.’ It combines an appreciation for entrepreneurship, the market process, and lower taxes with strict respect for civil liberties and skepticism about the benefits of both the welfare state and foreign military adventurism. Certainly, the Cato Institute favors limited government, a Market-Liberal approach:
“[Recognizing] that socialism and government planning are just too clumsy for the modern world. It is – or used to be – the conventional wisdom that a more complex society needs more government, but the truth is just the opposite. The simpler society, the less damage government planning does. Planning is cumbersome in an agricultural society, costly in an industrial economy, and impossible in the information age. Today collectivism and planning are outmoded and backward, a drag on social progress” (About Cato).
The American Civil Liberties Union
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) calls itself “our nation’s guardian of liberty” and is actually two separate entities with litigation and communication efforts performed by the ACLU Foundation and legislative lobbying activities. The Foundation works diligently “in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties” and the structure of government as provided for in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
The ACLU handles approximately 6,000 court cases annually. Its mission is to preserve the rights established by the First Amendment and the rights to equal protection under the law, due process, and privacy (ACLU About Us). Although the organization is non-partisan, it most closely follows Liberalism as it is focused on individual rights; but it is easy to conclude that it may actually split along that line as it take the position that government cannot be completely trustworthy as it “plays watchman” over the legislative propositions or actions it sees as a threat to civil liberties among all the branches of government: Congress, the Presidency, and the Supreme Court.
Kathleen MacRae, executive director of the ACLU of Delaware at a press conference on 12/3/2014.
PFAW Minnesota Marriage Equality Rally in 2013
People for the American Way
Founded in 1980 by one of the most influential television producers of the 1970s, Norman Lear, People for the American Way (PFAW) was developed in response to the “Religious Right” and “Moral Majority” leaders, most notably Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Lear believed such a stance was capable of diminishing many of America’s fundamental freedoms including: free speech, religious tolerance, academic freedom, and civil rights.
The political ideology of the PFAW is best described as Liberal. The PFAW is committed to fighting for a diverse society and the maintenance of the Constitutional framework, which it believes is being threatened from extreme conservative political organizations. The organization is known for collaborating with “leading national and state progressive organizations such as the NAACP, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Advertising Council, and the U.S. Student Association in their fight for civil liberties.
In 1984, The New York Times described the PFAW as the only counter voice to the televangelists at the Republican National Convention in Dallas (People for the American Way and People for the American Way Foundation:A History). The PFAW’s website, like those of many other political organizations, has a plethora of information regarding congressional and administrative decisions and proposals on nearly every issue imaginable including:
- gay and lesbian rights
- public education
- school prayer
- affirmative action
- abortion and reproductive choice, and
- fair elections
On each issue they clearly propose what is at stake (citing legislative language and scientific studies); illustrate their concerns on each issue, developments in Congress; and make suggestions to the layman on what can be done to protect the civil liberties at risk (i.e. writing letters, sending faxes, making phone calls, etc.).
The organization opposes censorship and the allocation of public funds for private and /or religious education; strongly supports full equality under law, including the right to marry for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender Americans; the right to abortion; and affirmative action policies for groups that have been historically underrepresented due to discriminatory practices. The PFAW is committed to preserving the integrity of the Constitution by opposing Constitutional amendments on controversial issues.
The PFAW suggests that a Federal Marriage Amendment would undermine the integrity of our founding document by "writing discrimination into it for the first time.” While the language in the amendment stated “Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman,” it is an exaggeration to suggest this would be the “first time” discrimination has been written into the Constitution. One only needs to read several paragraphs into the document to know that, in its early days, the Constitution referred to certain populations of the United States as having the value of only three-fifths of a person. This is certainly not a justification for passage of any such amendment that could be construed as discriminatory nor the kind of legal precedent that should be followed at any time in the future (On Capitol Hill: The Federal Marriage Amendment). It appears that discussion on a Federal Marriage Amendment was killed by the decision of the Supreme Court that found the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.
This Author's Views
Although many years ago I might have considered myself to be a Left-Liberal, I found the more I learned about government policy and ideology, the more inclined I was to believe that extensive federal policies weaken our country. It is critical to view all sides of an argument before implementing legislation that can unnecessarily complicate an issue and polarize the public. In this respect, I am wary of government and do not believe it can be totally trusted primarily because government is made up of people who often have their personal interests or interest group demands at the heart of their decision-making process.
Government should have the safety and welfare of its citizens as its centerpiece with regard to any issue. Safety and welfare cannot be driven by religious morality or tenets; rather they must be addressed through logic, facts, science, and the historical record of what works and what does not work in government. Social welfare programs are often needed by citizens but they do not necessarily have to become permanent solutions. Those who are physically able to participate in the economic contest need to do so not only for their own stability and independence, but to relieve the nation-state of unnecessary burdens; however, there must be a level playing field with equal opportunity to education and employment in order for citizens to participate in that economic contest.
Additionally, if government is focused on the safety and welfare of its citizens, it cannot deny that it has a responsibility to assist those who are weakest and unable to provide for their own needs: the elderly and the disabled who live in poverty. To that end, permanent solutions are necessary and cannot be considered as wasteful spending. To withhold assistance to the most destitute in our nation is to deny their right to life.
Government must always take care to insure civil liberties for all of its citizens during any inner crisis or foreign threat because to do anything less would result in government abuses. Likewise, to limit enumerated freedoms against the backdrop of religious values is a bastardization of a constitutional democracy. The balance of power must be maintained among the three branches of government; and it is critical to life, liberty, and equality that any movement outside of that directive be challenged.
American Civil Liberties Union. “ACLU: About Us.”http://www.aclu.org/about/aboutmain.cfm 10/14/04.
American Conservative Union.“ACU: What We Believe.” http://www.conservative.org/about/principles. 12/3/14.
Americans for Democratic Action. “ADA History.” http://www.adaction.org/pages/about/ada-history.php. 12/3/14.
Americans for Democratic Action. “ADA Legislative Alert:Major Attack on Women’s Reproductive Rights.” 10/17/04.
Americans for Democratic Action, Inc.“Income and Inequality:Millions Left Behind.” Feb. 2004. Cato Institute. “About Cato.” http://www.cato.org/about/about.html10/14/04.
Americans for Democratic Action. "Syria and Iran." http://www.adaction.org/pages/issues/foreign-and-military/syria-and-iran.php. 12/3/14.
Christian Coalition of America.“Let’s Take America Back – Stop Judicial Tyranny in America Petition.” 10/14/04.
Christian Coalition of America. "Our Agenda: Christian Coalition of America's Agenda for the 113th Congress." http://www.cc.org/our_agenda. 12/3/14.
DeLauro, Rosa.“Economic Opportunity for Women.”ADA Today. Vol. 58, No.2May 2003.
Harper, Jennifer. "American Conservative Union: Obama's amnesty plans like 'a single-finger salute of contempt." The Washington Times. Nov. 20, 2014.
The Heritage Foundation. “About Heritage.” http://www.heritage.org/about. 12/3/14.
The Heritage Foundation.“Issues 04:Religion and Civil Society.”http://www.heritage.org/research/features/issues2004/religion.cfm. 10/14/04.
The Heritage Foundation.“Issues 04:Social Security.” 10/14/04.
Isaacs, Amy. “Amendment Would be Destructive to the Constitution.” Americans for Democratic Action. 10/14/04.
People for the American Way.“People for the American Way and People for the American Way Foundation: A History.”http://www.pfaw.org/pfaw/general/default.aspx?oid=2851 10/16/04.
People for the American Way.“On Capitol Hill:The Federal Marriage Amendment.”http://www.pfaw.org/pfaw/general/default.aspx?oid=13749.10/16/04.
Sierra Club. "Environmental Law Program." http://content.sierraclub.org/environmentallaw/. 12/3/14.
By Liza Lugo, J.D.
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Note: This hub was originally entitled "Conservatism versus Liberalism: The Comparison of Political Ideology." The hub is substantially altered and updated to reflect the most current issues.