I read a blog post about "Liberalism" recently that erupted into a short thread of name-calling and insults along the lines of "Which is better? Liberalism or Conservatism?" The definitions offered of each were as broad as they were biased.
I've been thinking about this dichotomy in political thought for a while and was motivated by this exchange to finally put my observations and thoughts in writing. So, here goes.
Also, the political spectrum is much more complex than the idea of a line segment with a center and right & left ends. We like to think of Conservatives and Liberals as coming together in the middle on principles that they both embrace. The blog & related thread mentioned above had each side accusing the other of not respecting cherished American principles. The fact is, both American-Conservatism and American-Liberalism stand for Constitutional Law, Civil Rights, personal liberty, equal opportunity, etc. Those are American values and neither the "left" nor the "right" can claim them as solely their own.
What we need to understand is that the primary differences between Liberal and Conservative ideas of freedom, equality and opportunity can't be fairly represented by that left/right line segment because a distinction has to be made between Personal freedom and Economic freedom.
If we give each of those aspects their own left/right spectrum then we get a clearer representation of where Conservatives and Liberals stand on those two different yet connected measurements. David Nolan, who founded the Libertarian Party in 1971, placed these two scales not parallel to each other but perpendicular to each other creating a political plane as apposed to a political spectrum. There are also a number of political compasses floating around. Nolan's model, however, is basic and apropos to my thesis.
If you try and cram economic and personal liberty on the same scale you don't just get conflicts between the Conservative and Liberal schools of thought, you get inconsistencies and ideological paradoxes within each of those schools.
On a political plane which Nolan put forth in a diagram that's now called "The Nolan Chart" it's easier to see where Conservatives and Liberals are alike and where they differ. On the Personal freedom axis of the Nolan Chart, both American-Liberalism and American-Conservatism are on the side of greater freedom. On the Economic freedom axis, American-Conservatism leans toward more economic freedom and American-Liberalism leans toward less economic freedom. Where a great deal of the confusion in American politics comes from is the misguided notion that one's philosophy regarding economics is directly aligned with their philosophy on personal liberty. This is not always the case. That's why we're seeing Republicans trying to label Democrats as Socialists because, unfortunately, a lot of Americans will confuse Socialism with Communism--a philosophy based on taking away both personal and economic freedom. Modern Socialism and Civil Liberties are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
During the Bush Administration ('01-'09), it was popular amongst liberals to associate Republicans and other conservatives with Nazis and fascism. This had more to do with a blurring of the line between patriotism and nationalism in Republican rhetoric, concerns about undermining civil rights through legislation such as the USA PATRIOT ACT as well as the prosecution of a perpetual "War on Terrorism" than any relationship between American-Conservative values and those of the Nazi party. The GOP's willingness to become a rubber stamp for the Bush Administration, out of party loyalty, certainly didn't help to curtail that image.
While it can be argued that American-Liberalism, vis-à-vis its economic philosophy, when taken to an extreme would lead to socialism (which, in reality, probably wouldn't happen under the U.S. Constitution), its a bit more of a semantic stretch to say that American-Conservatism, taken to its extreme, would lead to Fascism. On the personal freedom axis, Fascism--by its very definition--is hostile toward the very concept of individual liberty. It also rejects capitalism in favor of "Corporatism" which essentially creates government mandated monopolies to exert control over the economy. It's not quite economic socialism but it certainly flies in the face of what any self-respecting American Conservative would call their core values. By the way, while history clearly says otherwise, the Nazis did not consider themselves fascists.
Even Nolan was guilty of oversimplifying American political theory arguing that American-Liberalism advocated only personal freedom and American-Conservatism advocated only economic freedom while claiming that Libertarianism was the only political philosophy that advocated both. In that respect, Libertarianism--at least on a superficial level--has more in common with traditional conservatism than it might care to admit.
Practically speaking, Liberalism and Conservatism in the United States do not occupy opposite ends of the economic axis. If anything, they both find themselves on the side of economic freedom with one (Liberalism) leaning more toward the center than the other in that traditionally the "Left" advocates government regulation and the "Right" prefers to loosen government oversight. But both Liberals and Conservatives can't deny the generally successful model of free-market Capitalism and its social benefits. The United States government presently finds itself reevaluating the role that it plays in the economy with a possible shift toward more regulation in the finance sector as well as exploring options that it can take to try and fix problems with the healthcare system. Even the infusion of public capital into the finance and automotive industries can, at best, be called "Lemon Socialism" and are not intended to be permanent situations. But even if sweeping legislation is put into place to address all of those issues, the result would not be "American Socialism." The U.S. economy will continue to operate under the rules of Capitalism. Innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit aren't going to fizzle and die; we just may find ourselves with a more regulated economy. This may slow economic growth but simultaneously reduce the risk of market collapses and prevent artificial bubbles from getting a foothold, let alone growing out of control, and subsequently bursting. These measures will also soften the blow of future recessions--which are inevitable as they are simply part of the free market economic cycle--and hopefully keep us from experiencing deep recessions like the one we're experiencing now--or mini depression as some are calling it.
All of this will also result in a major cultural shift for many Americans. I think we're going to come out of this a more pragmatic culture. There'll be less "Keeping up with the Joneses" and more consideration for what's practical and needed over what's ostentatious and simply wanted. This will also affect American political culture where concerns about the "Extremes" of political philosophies may wind up being purely academic.
Of course, in the words of Dennis Miller, "That's just my opinion. I could be wrong."
n.b. when dealing with specific facts and figures, I try my best to turn to official sources such as major news outlets, government web sites and published articles in reputable periodicals and journals. When it comes to broader topics like political philosophies or complex issues that draw on numerous sources (like the USA PATRIOT Act), I'll refer the reader to a relevant and vetted Wikipedia article.