Once upon a time, in what now feels like a galaxy far, far away (to borrow the words of a more famous writer than myself), Larry Elder told a talk show host in an interview that the thing he hated to be called more than anything else was 'Republican' and loudly proclaimed himself a 'Libertarian' instead. Now, in answer to a question advanced by a correspondent (whom I assume to be one of Mr. Elder's fans) he would appear to be changing his mind on that score, just a touch.
"A Democrat or a Republican?"
As one sees upon reading this answer, it is rather one sided. Rather than attempt to address the real differences in political thought between conservatives and liberals it brands all Republicans as conservatives and all Democrats as liberals while wrapping conservatism in a shroud of righteousness and casting liberalism in the most derisive possible light. The fact is that there are conservative and moderate Republicans and, once upon a time, there were even liberal Republicans (to paraphrase Art Garfunkel, Mitt Romney won't you please come home?), though these are mostly mythical in this era. There are conservative, moderate, and liberal Democrats. Witness, if you will, the differences between Senator Zell Miller of Georgia and Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. Then compare both of them to Senator Hillary Clinton. There are a wide range of views in both parties. Republican Senator John McCain and Democrat-turned-independent Senator Joe Lieberman share more common thoughts on foreign policy than do the aforementioned Mr. Kucinich and Ms. Clinton. Mr Kucinich's ideal foreign policy is more in line with that of Republican Congressman Ron Paul.
There are, however, real differences between conservatives and liberals. Rather than answer Mr. Elder's invective with my own, I will attempt to illustrate those differences in a more even handed manner.
Conservatives believe that taxes should be kept to the absolute minimum possible level and that they should be leveled, when necessary, on an absolutely equal level across the board. Their vision of equality before the law argues that greater taxation is punishing the wealthy for their success. Liberals believe that taxes are a necessary part of governing and that taxation should be progressive: those with the least should pay as little as possible and those with the most should pay more. Their vision of social and economic justice argues that the successful have a moral obligation to the society in which they live.
Conservatives believe that society should be truly color-blind in its laws and practices and that true equality before the law means that the law should ignore race and gender. Liberals believe that as long as racial and gender-based inequities exist, true equality before the law requires that the law take those inequities into account.
Conservatives believe that the best thing that government can do to guarantee individual liberty and support individual success is to do the least amount of governing and regulating of society. They believe that any law restrains individual liberty and that the benefits of government activism are always outweighed by the damage done by regulation and taxation. Liberals believe that the government can and should take an active role in changing society for the better and that people should be brought into the process of government by programs that touch their daily life in a meaningful way. They believe that responsible legislation is necessary to guarantee liberty to all members of society as equally as possible.
Conservatives believe that an individual is strengthened both socially and morally by persevering to succeed as best as possible with whatever cards dealt them by life or society and that acting to help them can retard their social and moral growth by giving them an unearned advantage. Liberals believe that such assistance in overcoming life's tribulations can not only improve the lives of the individuals being helped, but can also give those facing different circumstances a better understanding of other facets of the society in which they live.
Conservatives believe that individuals have the right to decide whether or not to help their fellow citizens. They believe that natural human compassion should encourage the successful to help the unfortunate, but that no one should be required to do so and that such requirement restrains individual liberty. Liberals believe in social responsibility, that through government everyone should share in reducing the burdens of the less successful and less fortunate and that doing so strengthens society as a whole.
Conservatives believe in a foreign policy based on military strength and national interest. Whether isolationists or proactive neo-conservatives, they believe in a strong national defense and in putting the interests and sovereignty of their country above international and moral concerns. Liberals, whether pacifists or proactive humanitarians, believe that a nation is part of a larger global community and that it has a responsibility to that community just as individuals have a responsibility to their own national community.
Conservatives believe in a strict, fundamentalist interpretation of the Constitution. They believe the rights of the people and the powers of the government described in the Constitution are the only rights and powers possessed by the people and the government. They believe that the Founding Fathers intended this strict observance. Liberals believe that the people possess natural rights from which the rights made explicit in the Constitution derive and which are implied by those specifically and explicitly stated rights. They believe that the 'necessary and proper' clause of the Constitution allows the government powers not explicitly stated in order to fulfill the obligations and protect the rights enumerated in the document. They believe the Founding Fathers thought many basic individual liberties (such as privacy) so naturally explicit that there was no need to write them down.
Conservatives believe that the market is self-regulating and self-governing and that regulation of commerce and industry is therefore counter-productive. They believe that the health of the economy depends on the health of business. Liberals believe that the health of the economy depends on the individual ability of consumers and workers to play their role and support the larger system in which they exist. They believe that regulation of commerce and industry is sometimes necessary to guarantee that the consumers whose spending drives profits and supports business remain able to fulfill their economic role.
Conservatives believe that the 2nd Amendment guarantees complete and unregulated access to firearms and that an armed populace is necessary to freedom. Liberals believe that the 2nd Amendment refers specifically to community militias which no longer exist in the modern society and that it is not a blanket argument in favor of universal gun ownership.
My own liberal bias is likely more clear than intended in some of the above descriptions, but they are fundamentally correct and as even-handed as possible. The driving force of conservatism is the individual's personal independence and freedom of choice, which is undeniably a valid moral goal. The driving force of liberalism is society's responsibility to the individual and the individual's responsibility to society, which an equally valid moral goal.
Stan Lee, in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man, put the following words in the mouth of Uncle Ben Parker: "With great power comes great responsibility."
I would paraphrase that statement. With freedom comes responsibility. Conservatism focuses on the freedom and liberalism on the responsibility, but Americans can and should have the one while accepting the other.
Both sides might find that idea radical.