Most people believe that to be “liberal” or “conservative” implies a certain set of policy positions. For example, if one favors abortion rights, believes the earth is warming at an untenable rate, and thinks that somebody who earns $106,000 should be taxed at 30% rather than 28%, he is a liberal. Someone who holds the opposing viewpoints is a conservative.
But that is not what makes one a liberal or a conservative. Take global warming. Our planetary home is either warming at a rate that will flood Manhattan in my dotage, or it isn’t. My political ideology should not affect whether or not I choose to believe that.*
True liberalism and true conservatism comes more from your view of human nature and what form of government is best suited for how humans act. One way to think this through is to look at the American Revolution and the French Revolution. Both of these revolutions occurred in the 19th century, the Age of Enlightenment, when the smartest minds on the then-cooler planet were consumed with human nature and political philosophy. (As opposed to today, when the smartest minds on the planet are consumed with human nature and its interactions with social networking sites, video games, MP3 players, mobile phones, etc.)
The American Revolution was essentially conservative in nature. The Founders took a dim view of human nature, in particular how humans handle power. Therefore, they designed a government with checks and balances, believing that people with power would try to take advantage of that power. The French Revolution (which gave us the terms right-wing and left-wing) was essentially liberal, believing if you gave the people (rather than a monarch) power, they would wield that power with wisdom and benevolence and the world would be a better place. I’m massively oversimplifying here, but what do you expect – it’s only a blog.
[If you'd like a less simplified explanation, read Edmund Burke.]
I bring all this up because David Mamet, the playwright and screenwriter (Glengarry Glen Ross, The Untouchables, American Buffalo and much more) wrote a fascinating essay in The Village Voice about how the writing of his latest play was the catalyst for a political conversion:
"The play, while being a laugh a minute, is, when it's at home, a disputation between reason and faith, or perhaps between the conservative (or tragic) view and the liberal (or perfectionist) view. The conservative president in the piece holds that people are each out to make a living, and the best way for government to facilitate that is to stay out of the way, as the inevitable abuses and failures of this system (free-market economics) are less than those of government intervention.
I took the liberal view for many decades, but I believe I have changed my mind."
Mamet's conversion isn't driven by Obama's healthcare plan, McCain's campaign-finance views, or whether or not Hillary dodged sniper fire in Bosnia. It's driven by the realization that his political ideology was out of kilter with his observations of human behavior.
The essay is smart, funny, honest, and (surprisingly for Mamet) drops very few F-bombs. I highly recommend clicking here and giving it a close read.
* That's not to say that our political ideology isn't revealed in our policy positions. One's opinion on Africa is an outstanding litmus test. Liberals, who have greater faith in human nature, tend to believe that Africa can be saved through the twin elixirs of foreign aid and debt forgiveness. Conservatives tend to believe if you keep giving African dictators money they will have no incentive to enact fundamental reform that will allow a free-market economy to take root. These are classic examples of political views that align perfectly with one's view of human nature.