*In the first session of each history class I teach, I take the time to explain the difference between liberals and conservatives.
My typical explanation involves describing many changes to American society that we consider positive progress. The distinction between the two camps is their reaction to these changes; liberals are typically fighting for the changes while conservatives are fighting against them.
This assessment seems distasteful to some because it seems biased to portray conservatives fundamentally as the group trying to prevent this country from evolving. But this is in fact what conservatives have done throughout American history. Whether with political issues (women’s suffrage), economic (disbanding the gold standard), social (racial segregation), or cultural (broadcast censorship), conservatives have consistently attempted to thwart change in American society.
A different assessment with a more positive connotation is that conservatives find the greatness of American society looking backward. They are nostalgic; they are historically minded.
Among other issues, today’s conservatives are taking on homosexual citizenship privileges, stem cell research, and drug possession. And true to form they exalt the American past in which someone being openly homosexual was taboo, or the government did not openly show its support for cutting edge biological research. But that is not to say that homosexuals did not exist, or that the government did not experiment with LSD as a performing enhancing drug for its military.
On the contrary while conservatives are looking at the bygone glories of American society, liberals are looking forward to how the next change in American society will enhance the country’s greatness and attempting to enact that change.
Citizenship privileges for homosexuals, expanded stem cell research, and reduced penalties for drug use and possession are all part of a liberal agenda that is attacked by conservative pundits. But you’ll notice that not all conservatives are against these things. Because when an issue becomes personal, as homosexuality is for Dick Cheney, stem cell research is for the Reagan family, or drug use and possession is for Rush Limbaugh, then the liberal perspective is more palatable.
Eventually sexual orientation will not be a factor in whether a person is able to marry, stem cell research will not be restricted, and drug possession and use will not result in long prison sentences. At that point enough conservatives will have realized they have a personal stake in these issues. And at that point they will have a different cause to take up and a different aspect of American history to lionize.
But wouldn’t it be great if conservatives would stop looking backward and how great the country was so that they could join liberals in figuring out how to make it great in the future?
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War and he maintains a blog called This Seems Familiar. You can reach him at [email protected]