Paul Adair is a 21-year Germantown resident, retired scientist, writer, and lecturer.
I often get into frank political discussions with people whose views are to the right of my own. If the conversation lasts long enough, they invariably tell me: "You libruls think that...." followed by some gross exaggeration such as "...you are entitled to all of my money !" or "...capitalism is bad !" or "...the gu'ment should run everything !"
And some of the same folks believe that I speak for all liberals on all issues. If a progressive commentator, such as Al Sharpton, or some Democratic Congressman from Iowa has made a questionable statement, I am expected to defend that comment. I am no more responsible for what every self-proclaimed liberal thinks than a conservative is culpable for each and every crazy thing that Sarah Palin, Cliven Bundy, or Ron Johnson says.
These folks have a very monolithic view of the political left. It seems funny that all liberals would be stereotyped as having the same viewpoints. I have been an unabashed progressive my entire life. In all of those years, I have never seen a "Liberal Rule-Book" telling us what to believe. Not all liberals think alike. We do not all have the same opinions on every issue.
People are more complex than that. Everyone has their own unique life experience, which shapes their beliefs. Even on the most basic core issues, progressives have a range of opinions.
Let's look at the divisive issue of abortion. If any issue defines "liberal" and "conservative" it should be this one. However, among self-proclaimed liberals, a full 23% consider themselves "pro-life". And 26% of conservatives consider themselves "pro-choice". So even on one of the defining issues of the political divide, you can find a range of opinions in both the liberal and conservative camps.
Another defining issue between liberals and conservatives is acceptance of gay marriage. One would think that almost all liberals would be for legal same-sex marriages, and most conservatives would be against them. Even here, only 82% of self-defined liberals are for legalized gay marriage, while a surprising large 31% of conservatives are for it.
Certainly, affiliation with a political party is closely aligned with one's political leanings. Democrats tend to be more liberal than the average citizen, while Republicans tend to be more conservative. However, even on party affiliation, the lines are blurred. Only 43% of Democrats consider themselves liberal, compared to 36% moderate and a whopping 19% conservative. So despite common misconception, the terms "Democrat" and "liberal" are not synonymous.
Similarly, the terms "Republican" and "conservative" are not equivalent. While the GOP is a little more uniform than the Dems, 70% of Republicans think of themselves as conservative, while 23% consider themselves moderate, and a shockingly high 5% of the party are self-described liberals.
Clearly, the terms liberal and conservative are not black and white, but shades of gray. The terms are complex ones, involving multiple political dimensions. For example, someone could be liberal on some social issues but not on others. They may be a fiscal conservative and a foreign policy liberal.
A recent study by Pew Research, "Beyond Red vs Blue: The Political Typology", takes these extra dimensions into account. The study asked a series of 23 questions about social issues, religion, economic issues, and US foreign policy. From these questions, the respondents were separated into one of eight political groupings, ranging from Solid Liberals to Steadfast Conservatives. People were placed into these groups based on their actual political values and attitudes rather than on what they consider themselves to be.
In addition to the basic liberal and conservative groupings, the study includes groups such as Next Generation Left who are socially liberal, but are less liberal with respect to the social safety net. Business Conservatives have an anti-regulation and anti-government bias, but are more liberal about social issues such as immigration than their Steadfast Conservative brethren. You can take a short quiz at this website to see which of the eight political typologies best describe you.
Even within each of the eight narrow political groups in the Pew Study, the beliefs are not monolithic. Plots within a particular group of number of people vs a ten point liberal-to-conservative scale yield bell-shaped curves.
If our political beliefs are so nuanced, why are the ideological contests in Madison and Washington so black and white? On the most contentious issues, Democrats vote as a block on one side and Republicans vote as a block on the other. Some of this is due to political arm twisting from party leadership (vote our way or forget any plum committee assignments). Some of this is due to fear of being primaried by a more politically-pure opponent. Some of this is due to wanting to please large donors. The extremely partisan sides taken by our politicians seldom reflect the views of our citizenry.
There are no hard and fast rules about what a liberal (or conservative) believes. Few of us fit into rigid ideological molds on each and every issue. One's political leaning is a complex and multi-faceted subject. Next time you are arguing politics, don't make assumptions about what your liberal (or conservative) buddy believes. Ask them. They just might surprise you.