A Brief History of Liberals and Conservatives: Who We Are, Where We Came From, and Where We're Going

The words “liberal” and “conservative” have a long, complicated history. They haven’t always denoted the sharp political divide that we assign them today. Surprisingly, liberals were once pretty conservative by today’s standards, and conservatives have typically been fairly liberal. So no matter what side of the isle you find yourself on, here is a quick history of our political ideologies.

In the 18th century, a “liberal” person would typically be defined as “someone capable of freedom,” while a “conservative” would have simply described someone cautious toward risk and change. These terms carried little to no political meaning, and these liberals had a pretty limited conception of freedom that really only applied to the aristocracy. However, the belief that human beings could be their own free persons quickly lead to revolution, an overthrow of the old system, and the first political definitions for our two terms.

The end of the century (does July 4, 1776 ring a bell?) brought about a robust change to the political structures and social orders of the day. By the 19th century, “liberals” sought to bring freedom to all – well, all white male landowners, but hey, it’s a start. These “Classical Liberals” wanted to rid themselves of the reign of the aristocracy and establish a rule for the people, by the people. They believed that there were three fundamental ways to do this: protection of natural individual rights, a free market economy, and a democratic government. Thus, conservatives became those who sought to maintain the old aristocratic system and rule by the select few.

The birth of the modern industrial society in the 20th century brought about world war, revolution, and economic depression. It seemed that the Classical Liberal free market system was collapsing and needed saving. Insert Franklin Delano Roosevelt and a new faction of liberalism, “Reform Liberalism.” Whereas government was once seen as the biggest threat to individual freedom, liberals began to see government as the only protection against powerful corporations and the failures of the free market. With the birth of the New Deal, Roosevelt and his reform liberals sought to bring freedom through regulation and redistribution of income within the free market system. It was during this time that conservatives adopted the Classical Liberal belief of a free market system that is unregulated by the government.

At first glance, it seems like Conservatives have drawn the short straw throughout history. However, by the end of the 1970’s, the policies of Reform Liberalism were quickly failing. The election of Ronald Reagan brought new life to conservatives who sought to bring back the free market policies of Classical Liberalism. But, the conservative movements of the 1980’s were not a simple resurgence of Classical Liberalism. While they sought a return to an unrestricted free market system, the development of a consumerist culture sought to break free from the protestant influences of Classical Liberalism. In fact, since the 1980’s, economic policies in the United States have become increasingly more conservative while social policies have trended more liberal. A good example of this is the decline of tax rates over the past few decades. In 1969, under the Republican administration of Richard Nixon, the highest tax rate on regular income was 77 percent compared to just 39.6 percent in 2015 under President Obama.

The resurgence of these conservative principles has been labeled as Neo-Classical Liberalism. Neo-Classical Liberals tend to champion a society of self-expression as opposed to the strict protestant work ethic of Classical Liberals. While Reform Liberals sought to assuage the inequality produced by the free market through government intervention, Neo-Classical Liberals acknowledge this inequality, but accept it as an inevitable result of the free market. Government intervention in the economy, and therefore the restriction of one person for the benefit of the other, is detrimental to their expressive way of life.

With a brief history of our nation’s most important political ideologies behind us, the question is where are we going from here? The danger of Neo-Classical Liberalism is the severely nihilistic state of the world it envisions. Truth, whether moral, religious, or even scientific, becomes completely subjective in a culture fixated on individual expression. Recent elections have seen a rebirth of traditional conservative social policies and the rise of populist candidates like Donald Trump and Roy Moore in backlash against these relativistic dogmas. However, it is yet to be seen if this trend will continue.

Apart from some moral awakening or revival, it seems inevitable that social issues across the spectrum of American politics will continue to converge. Therefore, American political parties will become defined by their economic policies. The future of American politics appears to be defined by distributive justice (who gets what) rather than what is right or wrong. However, nothing is inevitable.


This article was co-written by Daniel Bruce and Madie Tidwell