When discussing labels like “conservative” and “liberal,” it needs to be acknowledged that there are different contexts in which they apply. People can be both conservative and liberal at the same time, about different things.
There are three major contexts in which you might apply these labels:
- Fiscal policy: things which affect the economy and taxes
- Social policy: things which affect how citizens relate to and regulate the behavior of one another
- Foreign policy: things which affect how the U.S. relates to other countries
When it comes to fiscal policy, conservatives believe in minimal government involvement in the economy and keeping taxes and regulation low. Keeping the government out of business affairs allows the market to regulate itself. Liberals believe that the market needs regulation, and that when left to itself it tends to be unfair to lower income classes through income inequality. Liberals believe in increasing taxation in order to exact policies and programs to make society better.
In social policy, conservatives believe in what they would call “traditional values,” which generally means they oppose laws allowing gay marriage, support laws restricting abortion, support the death penalty for certain crimes, are against euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, and support the freedom to own and carry firearms. Liberals tend to be on the opposite side of those issues – abortion, euthanasia, and gay marriage should be legal; the death penalty and gun ownership should be restricted.
In foreign policy, conservatives believe in a strong national defense, and in the leadership of the United States around the world by projecting our power where necessary to protect our interests and the interests of our allies. Liberals believe in less defense spending, more cooperation with other countries, and more emphasis on the United States as an equal member of the global community.
You can slip from one label to another, depending on the context, or the laws and policies under discussion.
It’s not unusual, for example, to be a “fiscal conservative and a social liberal.” This would indicate that you support conservative policies when it comes to the economy, but you don’t care so much about people’s personal behavior so long as they’re not harming anyone else. As such, you can’t be pinned down under a single label.
Obviously, there’s no official enforcement of labels. You can generally be considered liberal, but have strong opposing views in one particular area. You might be very fiscally conservative in general, but support more funding for the food stamp program because you were raised by a single mother and never had enough to eat as a kid. Everyone has personal idiosyncrasies that cause them to waffle a bit on various issues.
A more practical example: it’s quite common for Democratic politicians in South Dakota to strongly support gun ownership, giving our hunting traditions. In fact, during election season, most Democrats in this state make a specific point to release pictures of themselves hunting, just to counter the natural political assumption that they’re anti-gun.
In reality, the only “enforcement” of labels comes at the voting booth. People will vote for candidates who reflect their own beliefs. If a particular voter is conservative about gun control, we’d hope he or she evaluates a candidate’s claim that they are also conservative about gun control. Politicians lie all the time, so the only hope the average voter has is to be informed.
The bottom line: labels are not absolute. Someone who absolutely doesn’t step out of the traditional boundaries of how they label themselves is probably trying very hard not to, perhaps in order to prove a point.
However, given that these positions usually tie back to a philosophical basis and worldview (remember our discussion of The Individual vs. the Community), people often fall into general groups about issues. If someone describes themselves as a “conservative,” you can usually make some accurate assumptions about the issues they support and the positions that they take.