Inevitably, in the course of your battles with the right, you will confront the fundamental difference between the progressive and the reactionary sides of the political spectrum. It is highly useful to understand those differences, so you can effectively advance your own progressive world-view and undermine the right-wing world-view of your opponent.
The more I think about it, the more I believe that the difference can be summarized in one word. Democracy. Liberals believe in it. Conservatives don’t. Many conservatives say as much. The question is why this fundamental difference, and what does it say about the real underlying difference between left and right.
I believe at bottom what we are dealing with is a fundamental conservative belief in social hierarchy. In fact, it appears to me that this fundamental belief goes beyond the philosophical into the realm of anthropology. In fact, without getting into a great deal of detail here – I talk about it at length at my website – it gets down a basic requirement of civilization built on human labor without the assistance of machines. Simply put, a privileged elite in such civilizations emerges simply because there is inadequate surplus production to support a more equial distribution among society as a whole. The conservative world-view is very simply a throw-back to a world of nobles and serfs.
In such a world, the government is made up of and exists to serve the interests of the elite. And indeed, that was the purpose and function of government for 6000 years until the end of the eighteenth century. Interestingly, with the rise of industrialization came the rise of modern notions of democracy, human rights and eventually the interests of labor. It brought about a revolution in the very concept of the nature and purpose of government. Whereas in the ancient and medieval world the government served the elite, today the government exists to serve the interests of all of the people.
Obviously, a government that serves the interests of the people ought to be controlled by them. And indeed, the roots of liberal, social democratic and even socialist philosophy are found in this very revolution in thinking. One of the more famous philosophers of this new vision of government and democracy was Thomas Jefferson.
Indeed, I have seen no better formulation of the modern theory of democracy than that contained within the Declaration of Independence. "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and institute new Government, laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and Happiness."
In other words, the people of a nation can set their government up any way they want to, and can empower it to do anything they want it do. The only limitation on the form or power of the government is that set by the "consent of the governed" – which would include minorities within a society. In other words, the only real limitation on the power and function of government.is the political process itself. Ideologies that perceive grossly limited "legitimate functions of government" have simply failed to understand the fundamental premise of democracy. The people can empower their government any way they want to. Who else besides the people who live in a country ought to decide what its government can and can’t do. That is a question libertarians have a hard time answering.
This perhaps explains a lack of strong ideology, particularly among liberals. Liberals are inevitably pragmatic. We look to our government – that we at least theoretically control – to solve problems we can’t solve as individuals. We do not perceive any particular "evil" or "tyranny" inherent in this – though such tyranny is certainly posssible. Where the conservative sees "big government tyranny" in such things as Social Security and the Environmental Protection Agency, we see beneficial and benevolent uses of the power of the state. We see exactly the kinds of things government ought to do more of. It is the old fashioned uses of government – prison, torture, executions, domestic surveillance, and of course war – we’d like to see less of.
But those traditional functions of government are precisely the functions conservatives have no problem with. What was the medieval equivalent of the Social Security Administration? When did the Plantagenet monarchs of medieval England create anything that remotely resembled the National Labor Relations Board. In those days, a labor organizer was more likely to find himself dancing at the end of a rope. Because government in those days, employing the uses of government approved by conservatives, did little or nothing to advance the interests of regular people.
This new philosophy of government has become so well established in people’s minds, no one would seriously suggest that we return to days of government as the arm of the elite. Now of course, many on the left claim – and they are frequently correct – that this is exactly what government continues to do. But there is a difference. In the old days, everyone understood that as the primary purpose of the government. Today, such oligarchies must dissemble about their true nature. They must at least pretend to be democratic. The fact is, that the modern view of the purpose of government makes popular control of the government the ultimate outcome, unless elites intervene to stop it.
This is where modern conservative ideology comes in. Notice that the conservative believes in hierarchy. He believes in social classes, and in the perogatives of wealth and privilege. He believes this in a world where the dominant political philosophy favors equality and democracy. Furthermore, that philosophy has created an interesting opportunity for the conservative, namely "social mobility". Persons of low birth can, theoretically, rise up through the heirarchy to become members of the elite. So he is not quite prepared to return to the days of legal class distinctions. He is content to accept de facto social classes, which of course is what our capitalists are.
Actually, the conservative does a neat conceptual trick. He privatizes privilege and class tyranny. Speaking the language of "liberty", and accepting the reality of democracy, he simply seeks shrink the realm of the legitimate power of democratic government to the point where it barely exists. According to the conservative, the only thing a democratic government can legitimately do is enforce his property and contract rights. Sure, the people may establish representative democracies, but those governments can’t do anything that actually benefits more than a small segment of society.
Thus, we hear the conservative decry public tyranny – read that "big government". What he calls "tyranny" is in fact efforts of popularly elected government to reign in the private tyranny found on his shop floor. In fact, the conservative isn’t concerned about "tyranny" at all. He simply wants to shrink the sphere of public tyranny, and move it to "the private sector".
By now, you should begin to understand those really entertaining contradictions of conservative ideology. The hate "big government", but they clearly are talking about government restrictions on their power to pollute and exploit. The recognize no limitation on the power of government to protect their interests. The use the language of "liberty" but their methods inevitably reek of coercion. The support the "military solution" every time. Instead of throwing money at social problems, they throw prison at them. And of course, the "free market" itself is a ruthless jungle – Hobbes’ "war of all against all" – where the economically powerful, thanks to government created and enforced rights, can use "market forces" to compel you to work cheap. There is little "liberty" to the conservative conception of liberty, except the liberty of the rich to throw their economic weight around.
So the difference between left and right comes down to a difference between hierarchy and equality and between oligarchy and democracy. The liberal left sees democratic government as a useful tool to be used for policies "as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness". The right sees democratic government as a threat to the power and privilege of wealthy elites, who increasingly exercise their tyranny in the private sector. Once you understand these distinctions, the contradictions of the right are fairly easy to attack, and legitimacy of social democratic reforms and initiatives are relatively easy to defend.
In fact, these are the themes that should dominate your efforts in the realm of political debate.