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The Mythical Creature Called The Social Liberal/Fiscal Conservative

Updated on April 13, 2015
wingedcentaur profile image

The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


The Mythical Social Liberal/Fiscal Conservative


When you listen carefully to political debate and discussion, frequently what one finds is that two conversationalists are actually talking about two different things - without realizing it. The problem is that words are fluid, they drift over time. Words, over time, lose their meaning or see their effective meaning drift into something else. Today a word may start at 'A' and wind up at 'J' tomorrow.

What happens, then, is that one person is making an argument based on the meaning of a word from 'A' and the other person is heatedly making counterarguments with the seemingly same word(s) from the perspective of 'J.' Every so often, like a watch that needs to be wound up everyday, so too do we need to take some time to recalibrate the meaning of the words we use.

The expression social liberal/fiscal conservative is an example. I believe it is this erroneous term that was one undetected element in progressive disappointment, frustration, and confusion about President Bill Clinton. Don't forget progressives or the "base" of the Democratic Party were disappointed with him; they just voted for him anyway because they "had nowhere else to go."

Democrats are supposed to be social liberals, aren't they? Then why did Clinton sign such a punitive "welfare reform" bill? Why did he sign rather "anti-social" - when you think about it - telecommunications consolidation and financial deregulation legislation?

Perhaps Clinton could have been more accurately described as a legal liberal/social moderate-centrist/fiscal conservative. Time to define some terms.

Legal Liberal: someone who believes that all groups of people, races, genders, sexual orientations, religions, and the like deserve equal rights and access; should enjoy all the privileges, obligations, and responsibilities of American citizens. We're talking about the whole panoply of gay rights (including the whole LGBT community), affirmative action, women's rights including a woman's "right to choose," and so forth.

Now, you might think it is unfair and ridiculous of me to try to remove these categories from the realm of the social. After all, "minorities," like blacks, hispanics, native americans, and so on, do not just interact with themselves. They interact with broader America - though oftentimes in unfortunate ways for them. Nevertheless, in an obvious way minorities make up a part of the larger "social" fabric of the United States.

That is true. However the term social liberal/fiscal conservative represents an opinion about public policy. It represents your opinion about the proper relationship of one to the other, your view about the proper relationship of state expenditure to the various "social" needs of the population.

Keeping this in mind, we can say that the convenient thing about legal liberalism (as positive as I think it is) is that these policy positions do not call for public treasury spending to address the problems. This being the case, the policy categories have no relationship to your opinion about what state fiscal and economic policy should be.

Bill Clinton was definitely a fiscal conservative, focused as he was on balancing budget and reducing the deficit. While this means he could not have been a social liberal by definition, as I argue, perhaps he was a legal liberal.

Gay Rights?

But Clinton did sign "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" concerning gay soldiers in the military, didn't he? It looks like he was moderately center-right on that one.

Reproductive Rights (a woman's right to choose)?

His stated goal, as I recall, was to make abortion "safe, legal, and rare." While no one wants more abortions, but still, this is not exactly an unwavering commitment to a woman's right to control her own body..

I am not an expert on the Clinton administration. I don't know what he did or did not do on affirmative action. But whatever his accomplishments in this area, I would guess they are of a highly technical, legalistic nature, familiar only to those political junkies with specialized knowledge. We do know that during his election campaigns he had to be careful not to overdo it, as it were, with the traditional Democratic concern for socially and legally disadvantaged groups.

He was interested in capturing as many "swing" voters as possible. And swing voters, we are given to understand, do not like talk of race, class, or even gender. They respond best to arguments about how "a rising tide lifts all boats" - how a dynamic, expanding economy improves the lot of all. They are not interested in a politics of "us versus them," and so forth.

The nineties were the decade that introduced the world to the New Democrats.

All in all we have to say that Clinton was a legal centrist, fiscal conservative, and therefore, by definition a social conservative. But analyzing Clinton's political philosophy is complicated by the fact that during his eight years as president, he chose a strategy of "triangulation." By this we are given to understand that he co-opted the "best" proposals of the "opposition," the Republicans. He did this under the guidance of his long-time associate, the political strategist, Dick Morris.

Morris appeared on camera in The BBC documentary film by Adam Curtis called The Century of the Self, to explain his political philosophy. Morris said that politicians ought to be as responsive to voters as business is to consumers. You, as the politician, should look upon voters not as people whom you can dictate to and move to your position. Rather, you should look upon voters as people you can learn from and you (as the politician) should move yourself to meet the desires of the voters.

That, it would seem, is precisely what Clinton did. A reporter called James Woods appeared on camera in The Century of the Self, to say that Clinton used a pollster, Mark Penn, to poll suburban swing voters on various aspects of domestic policy. Would you be more in favor of the administration if they pursued this as opposed to that policy? It seems that they were even polled on aspects of foreign policy - to bomb or not to bomb Bosnia, etc.

What is social policy, then? What should we understand 'social' to mean - again, as it relates to state fiscal policy? Social is about those areas of national life that cut across genders, sexual orientation, ethnic groups, "races," age groups, religions, etc.

Poor people come in all ages, national origins, ethnic groups, races, both genders, and all sexual orientations. Poverty is a universal.

People trapped in low wage, low benefit, and even lower hope jobs are a universal, again, in that this includes people of all age groups, races, religions, etc.

Trade policy that pits less educated American workers against less educated workers of other developing countries is a social issue - in that these "less educated" American workers come in all religions, races, both genders, all sexual orientations.

On healthcare, the tens of millions of Americans that are underinsured or uninsured are a 'social' issue because these people belong to all ethnic groups, "races," age groups, religions, sexual orientations, and both genders.

Our medieval system of corporate patent protection, which makes prescription drugs thousands of times more expensive than they need to be - this is a social issue in that the consequences hit people in all the categories I mentioned.

The economist, Dean Baker's free online book, The Conservative Nanny State, is marvelously illuminative on these points.

These issues are social, in this context, because they demand a response from state fiscal policy. These matters have to do with what a state's "budget priorities" need to be. Either you are in favor of spending from the public treasury to address these problems or not so much.

If the latter is the case, you are a social conservative. You may or may not be a legal liberal. If the former is the case, then you are a true social - as I understand the term - liberal.

Its important to emphasize, here, that when Democrats, these days, do address true social issues, it is always in the context of assuring us how these measure will actually reduce the deficit, and how it will contribute to balancing the budget - or at least will not interferre with this sacred undertaking, anyway. They usually don't propose policies to alleviate true social suffering that are not "paid for." Here, we can label such moves vaguely "center-left" in character.

Its Democrats not Republicans who always use the phrase "pay-as-you-go government."

The "base" of the Democratic Party always want the politicians to be more liberal in the true social sense. But the party is in consensus with the Republican Party on social and fiscal matters. And true social liberalism is not what swing voters and their campaign contributors (let us not forget them) want to hear from democratic politicians.

What the Democratic politicians do is substitute legal liberalism for social liberalism, madly flee the dreaded "L-word," liberal, and then say to the base of the Democratic Party, "Where else you gonna go?" and call themselves "progressives."

Take the Democratic governor of New York, David Patterson. I don't know about you, but all I've ever heard about him doing, since taking office, is cutting social programs. We're in the midst of economic collapse, it's a fiscal emergency, the holy budget must be balanced, we have to make payment to this investment bank on this date. Then he'll march in a gay pride parade, work to soften the Rockefeller drug laws, and work to make gay marriage legal in the state, and all the rest of it.

These are fine things to be sure. But we should understand that the Democrats and Republicans are in a consensus on fiscal therefore true social policy; as well as foreign policy and defense/security policy with stylistic differences, technical distinctions, and tactical variations and disagreements. It is this consensus on these four areas of policy (social, fiscal, foreign policy, and defense/security policy) that cause people like Noam Chomsky, say, to describe the Democrats and Republicans as "two factions of the business party."

Let me say a word about cultural conservatism. Cultural conservatism, as I understand it, has to do with a narrow view of the American heritage and the American identity. Cultural conservatives reject "mutlticulturalism." They would like prayer in schools. They don't like the idea of separation of church and state; they think its wrong and contrary to the tradition given to us by the "Founding Fathers." They are in favor of such things like making English the official national language. They would like creationism at least equally represented alongside evolution in schools. They would like flag burning to be a crime. They see America as a Christian nation. And so on and so forth.

Cultural conservatism is the province of the Republican Party and its allies. Republicans tend to be more legally and culturally conservative. While the Democrats tend to be more legally and culturally, "live and let live," liberal (but don't use that L-word to them, call them progressives [this, by the way is a word that has had its meaning somewhat degraded over time; in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the term 'progressive' was equally applied to Republicans as well as Democrats]).

Libertarianism - as we understand the term in America, it must be stressed - is an ideology associated with the Right. It has to do with what we might call negative liberty, the right of individuals not to be unduly harassed by the government. A libertarian would not go for affirmative action, since from his or her point of view, this would interfere with the rights of others.

But we can expect a libertarian to be in favor of abortion rights, the legalization or decriminalization of narcotics, gay marriage, etc. We can expect a representative in congress, with a libertarian streak to have voted against The Patriot Act and against giving amnesty to the telecommunications companies that worked with the government under the Bush administration to illegally spy on American citizens.

So there are nuances and differences between the two major parties - even if they are two factions of the business party. And even a radical dissenter like Noam Chomsky has a nuanced view. He says that the research has shown that over time, the broad population - outside the top one percent, that is - does better under Democratic rather than Republican regimes.

That's it, I guess, my tiny contribution to verbal housekeeping.


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    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      6 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Thank you for your comment, Chuck. It is much appreciated.

      Thank you, also, for the acknowledgment of my purpose in writing the essay: "...your redefinition is just being more explicit about what people mean when they say 'social liberal/fiscal conservative.'"

      Precisely! Now when can be clear on exactly what it is we're talking about.

      Thanks again. :D

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I think your redefinition is just being more explicit about what people mean when they say "social liberal/fiscal conservative." I guess I would consider myself one of those mythical creatures, but when I say that, I assume people would understand that I'm liberal on social issues that don't require government paychecks and typically conservative on social issues that do require government paychecks (thus fulfilling the fiscal conservative part of the hybrid). Adding in the term "legal" seems like it just muddies the waters.

    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      6 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      You're right, Alexander. I screwed up. That is an unforced error, as they say in baseball. Thank you for pointing it out. No, a libertarian -- as I understand the philosophy -- would not have a problem with gays in the military. Libertarians tend to be 'live and let live' across the board.

      Hell, even Barry Goldwater said that he all he cared about was that a man could shoot 'straight' in the military.

      Take it eaay.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      "A libertarian would not go for affirmative action or gays in the military, since from his point of view, these policies would interferre with the rights of others."

      I'm confused as to how gays in the military interferes with the rights of others?

    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      6 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Hello, Purple State! Thank you so much for commenting upon my unworthy hub, this morning! You know, I appreciate the critical comment every now and then, and you have certainly provided that.

      If I understand you correctly, you reject the idea that there is a contradiction between social or cultural liberalism and fiscal conservatism. The reason for this -- if I read you correctly -- is that, to your way of thinking, social (cultural) liberalism and fiscal conservatism because they both coalesce into a 'live and let live' and 'don't tread on me' position.

      First of all, I defined the word 'social' in a slightly different way than it is commonly used for the purpose of this hub. I suggested that areas of policy that most people refer to as 'social,' should properly be called 'legal.'

      I categorize the things you mention (gay rights, minority rights, and a woman's right to choose) as legal. This is because of their relationship to fiscal policy, which is to say that gay rights,minority rights, and a woman's right to choose, and the like, do NOT require any spending from the public treasury to address. There is no necessity for a broad 'social' commitment in the form of redistribution of public resources.

      I don't think a woman's right to choose should be subject to a vote. This should be a straightforward, protected civil right, for example, not a 'social' decision.

      Poverty reduction and elimination, the loss of good manufacturing jobs overseas, socially necessary jobs paying crap in wages and benefits, wage theft, deregulation in business procedures and practices with respect to worker conditions, and so forth -- are, to my way of thinking, truly social issues. They are class issues which cut across gender, sexual orientation, 'race,' and the like, and they require what I see as a truly social commitment to address.

      Fiscal conservatism, as I see it, then, is not a 'you live your life, and I'll live mine,' neutral philosophy. Fiscal conservatism (like fiscal liberalism) is a very definite, committed, non-neutral, biased view about what to do with public money.

      Fiscal conservatism is the decision to favor deficit reduction (usually budget deficit, and the distinction is important) and a focus on macroeconomic policy, keeping inflation under control, and so forth. Fiscal conservatism is the decision that public money should be put to certain purposes and not others, as is fiscal liberalism.

      A fiscal conservative believes that getting macroeconomic policy 'right,' will increase prosperity for everyone. Obama, Democrat though he is, believes that 'a rising tide lifts all boats.' I would call our current president a fiscal conservative and therefore a social conservative (as I have defined the term).

      Obama may have some, vague, wobbly legal liberalist commitments -- but not many.

      Anyway, a fiscal liberal (in the current American political context) believes that public money should be more targeted at the microeconomic level, to address the wealth and income gap, poverty, education (which fiscal conservatives, like Obama, tend to want to privatize -- notice taking education out of the state sector), and the like. They believe this wil benefit the economy much better in the long run; and being fiscal liberals, they believe that public money should be put to the social purposes of education, health, job training, job creation, regulation of industry, and the like.

      Anyhoo... basically the key to this hub is the particular way I have defined the word 'social.'

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Take care.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I reject this notion that social or cultural liberalism contradicts fiscal conservatism. I reject it because I am for environmental responsibility, limited welfare systems, gay rights, minority rights, and a woman's right to choose. How that prevents me from wanting lower taxes and less government involvement in issues like healthcare so we can have a balanced budget is beyond me. In fact, I believe this relationship is perfectly natural and do so on the grounds that "live and let live" is tantamount to "don't tread on me", a mantra that serves most fiscal conservatives today. We're here. We're everywhere. And we don't fit into the neat little constructs that you want us to. We've gone way beyond that now.

    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      6 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Thank you for your feedback, Brent Wilks! It's much appreciated.

      Take care, now.

    • profile image

      Brent Wilks 

      6 years ago

      I would be interested to hear your opinion about the various political parties and where they would fall in this spectrum of beliefs. By your definitions, I am legally liberal, socially conservative, and fiscally conservative. It would be nice to have a political party to identify with that shares these beliefs.

    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      6 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Thank you, jamiesweeney! I'm glad you got something out of it.

      Take it easy.

    • jamiesweeney profile image


      6 years ago from Philadelphia, PA

      Wonderful hub!

    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      7 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Good Day hazelbrown! Thank you for being the first to comment upon my unworthy hub.

      Well, for several decades both parties, the Dems and Reps, have been under the influence of what I call "homogenizing" and "conservatizing" forces, namely neoliberalsm and neoconservatism, which has pushed them both over to the Right.

      For the Democrats, the economic portion of the liberalism they used to stand for, say, since Franklin Roosevelt, was decapitated -- because the Republicans and business community (and conservative Democrats)said that the economic features of New Deal liberalism was an infrinement on personal freedom, etc., so on and so forth.

      So the liberalism that Democrats were left with was an anemic legal liberalism -- not "social" liberalism; by abandoning economic liberalism, the Democrats, by definition abandoned SOCIAL LIBERALISM.

      In other words, by abandoning economic liberalism, the Democrats operationally abandoned policy-based social liberalism -- this was an actual mechanical inevitability. The Democrats, then, starting in the 1980s, with their acceptance of neoliberal economics, helped turn the government into one that gave less service to the poor, working class, and disenfranchised.

      The Democrats of today promote Legal Liberalism, as positive as that is, nevertheless has the convenience of not costing the public treasury a dime. This means, of course, that the "public" is not at all involved in trying to alleviate the misery of the poor, working class, and disenfranchised.

      You know, Noam Chomsky says that in a functional democracy, tax day, April 15, would be a time of CELEBRATION. That's because this day would signify that the population were all coming together to fund programs for the benefit of all. Instead, its almost an occasion to wear funeral black!

      Thanks again.

      See you later.

    • hazelbrown profile image


      7 years ago from Central PA

      Thanks for pointing out that both parties are basically factions of the business party. I wish the Dems would finally do something sold that their base wants rather than hemming and hawing and not taking a stand!!


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