|One (U.S.) view of the political spectrum.|
Imagine that you asked thousands of people to complete the sentence, "the government should exist to provide..." Like the old game show, we can imagine taking the top four answers to this question and laying them out in a grid. The most common answers would probably be variations on, "benefit to society," "corporate liberty," "benefit to the individual," and "individual liberty." At their heart these describe who you think government should provide benefits to and who you think government should protect the rights of. As it turns out, while Democrats and Republicans would like to paint each other as enemies of individual liberty, both parties favor a balance between corporate and individual liberties. On the other hand, the traditional liberal position slides further out toward individual liberty.
Of course, there are many centrists in the world who favor some sort of a balance of all of these positions, and even the labels of "conservative" and "liberal" wander all over the place. Then there's the confusion created in the United States because our voting system pushes everyone into one of two buckets: Democrat and Republican. So while what I've described above pertains to the core platforms of the political parties, many people who don't fall neatly into the Democrat or Republican buckets feel that they need to vote for these parties because there are no other viable choices.
So, let's talk about the broad labels of Conservative and Liberal. Conservative doesn't mean Republican. It means, at its heart, a party which is opposed to change for change's sake. For example, conservatives would resist gay marriage, not because of a religious or other objection to homosexuality (though individual conservatives might have such motivations), but because marriage is an established, and from their view, functioning institution which does not need to be changed. The most important element of conservatism is that it's timeless. Conservatism doesn't have a platform, just a set of always changing (ironic, no?) positions that it defends against what it sees as capricious change. Conservatism would defend gay marriage against change just as readily if it were our established norm. Conservatism embraces the majority and supports its right to shape policy.
Liberalism, on the other hand, is about indulging in and encouraging change as a means to achieve a better life for all citizens. Liberals embrace the whole of society without respect to a majority or minorities and seek to promote change that levels the playing field between the minorities and the majority. Liberal platforms change over time, but will always tend to include elements of social equality through government support, civil liberty initiatives and regulation of corporate interests.
Outside of both of those views, you have the major U.S. political parties. The Democrats are influenced by liberalism most strongly, but there are strongly conservative elements within the Democractic party as well. The Republicans are influenced by conservatism most strongly, but liberalism has always been a part of the Republican view, especially with respect to individual rights.
So, the next time that someone tells you that Democrats and Socialists are the same thing, you can point out that that's a comparison between a political party that, because of our two-party system, attracts everything even vaguely "left"-of-center and a political ideology that occupies only one of the extreme ends of the "left".