Any discussion of “liberalism” and “conservatism” is tricky when it comes to American politics, since by the classical definitions what we have on the left and right in the US is a good bit different than what our Euro brethren do. Back in the ol’ archives there are a few comments from Brits mentioning that Ron Paul is incredibly liberal by their standards versus out since he advocates so much government non-interventionism even in insane cases.
Be that as it may, it’s not impossible, and in fact it’s a good idea, to try and trace the roots of what we call our left and right. The inspiration for this came from Dormilona’s comment musing on the fact that a Biblical skeptic seems to know the Bible a lot better than the faithful, and there’s a damn good reason behind that.
Let’s distill the terms “liberal” and “conservative” down to their most basic meanings. Take a political science 101 course and you’ll find out that conservatism is, at its base, the belief that things are great now and they shouldn’t be muddled with. The phrase “status quo” will come up a lot in high school and early college courses. Start drifting forward into “classical”, “social” and “neo” variants of liberalism and conservatism and you’ll start muddling things up, but for now we’ll just stick with the basic definition of “this is broken, change it” versus “no it isn’t, don’t you dare.”
There’s a good god-damn reason conservatives trend older, whiter, and Christian-er than liberals. Comedian Louis CK pointed it out well that, as a white man, you can hop into a time machine and go to pretty much any time in civilization and it’ll be awesome. You don’t really have to worry about landing in a time when whites were subjugated, enslaved, or killed for sport. If you’re an older white person, particularly a man, chances are you’re comfortable with how the system’s been going so far.
This is why women’s suffrage, gay marriage, social security and black civil rights are all inherently “liberal”. From the “social liberalism” track you can accurately say that liberalism eventually turned into a belief that government’s role is to enforce an even playing field (higher-up Poli-Sci courses will point out the difference between “civil rights” and “civil liberties”), meaning that “liberalism” realized that the way things had been didn’t work because it left the field so uneven. At least not for the blacks, women, gays, and poor people. But for all those grumpy old white dudes, suddenly opening up the field and potential cutting down on their shares of the pie is most certainly a bad thing, hence conservative opposition. Why change a system that had treated them so well? Blind altruism that means the loss of what they’ve worked generations to amass?
But that’s only the start of things. Dormilona’s original observation was on the topic of skepticism. Remember that we’re defining liberals as people who want to change the current state of affairs (which is why I prefer the term “progressive” since it emphasizes the “change” aspect). Liberals are people who trend more skeptical. That’s why we’re the America-blamers and Jesus-haters: we took what was in front of us and said “well hey hang on a second, let’s re-examine things here.” As any good skeptic will tell you, skepticism is built upon research and examination. Otherwise, by what justification are you skeptical?
Haven’t you ever noticed that the ultimate skeptics, conspiracy nuts, tend to be ridiculously well read? Their reading comprehension may leave much to be desired, but you can’t deny that their refusal to believe the accepted story leads to copious research. Compare the average person who believes we did land on the moon to those who don’t. One is going to have books of information on the topic, one isn’t.
Why? Simply put, to believe in the status quo, the accepted story, is to believe that the grunt work has been taken by someone else and there’s no leg work needed on your end. Think of it like math or science: we all know that F=MA, so there’s no reason to understand the “why” or to deconstruct it. It’s only the person who disbelieves in the formula who pulls it apart and in the end will understand it far better than the believer (calculus students: remember Riemann Sums that explained the definite intregral?)
If you think the current tax code works, you don’t need to crack it open and read it. The thing works, leave it alone. If you don’t, then you need to crack that bastard open and see what’s wrong with it. If you think the Constitution needs an amendment, you’d better damn well understand what that entails and exactly what you need fixed. Think the Bible ain’t all infallible? Time to read the thing and verify this notion.
In fact, let me simplify it further. If you see a sign that says “wet paint”, the skeptic is the one that touches it. Now you know for sure. The person who believed the sign at face value didn’t bother. He also has clean fingers, but I digress.
The point in all of this is to emphasize that liberal skepticism, the belief that certain aspects of our system are seriously broken, is the very reason that liberals and skeptics will have a better understanding of issues than those who think everything’s already hunky dory. When did all those studies start popping out about gays in the military? When there was an argument about whether or not policies already in place were working. You don’t read the user manual until something doesn’t work.
Trace this over the years. Liberals, time and time again, said that a current social structure was unfair and needed altered. This led to skepticism and research, fought against by people who just plain liked how things already were and, lacking the support of information to defend themselves (often knowing that the facts contradicted their stance), resorted to platitudes and sound bytes. The people who bought into those simplistic non-arguments eventually grew up and now we have Sarah Palin and Donald Trump as the faces of the conservative Tea Party movement. These were people who formed beliefs on slogans, and happily accepted what they were given with no effort to second guess it.
One might be tempted to refute me by saying that liberals are just as indoctrinated by educational institutions wherein the aforementioned political science professors just spoon feed wide-eyed freshman opinions disguised as facts. Fair enough, but I do respond with the observation that your average textbook offers the ability to second-guess and check what is in it (citations and footnotes) versus, say, a Bible.