At the most basic, non-politically defined level, conservatives resist change while liberals are open to change. Just from these simple definitions it’s amazing how many observations can be made. For one, this is a sliding scale. Most everyone has some openness to change and some resistance, yet it is possible to be completely resistant to all change and still be considered sane, an old coot, perhaps, but mostly sane. On the other hand, belief that everything should be changed, regardless of what was being changed, what it was being changed into, or any other details, probably requires a sanity check. Perhaps this is why there will always be more conservatives than liberals.
For similar reasons, openness and resistance to change aren’t really opposites, at least in the abstract. Openness for change requires details to become support for change, while resistance does not require any such details. The two only become opposites in specific debates, such as gay rights, with liberals pushing for change and conservatives resisting.
Once we get into politics, there are two groups that naturally resist change, those that currently hold power and those who support traditional values. Those who currently hold power, whether it be by wealth or monarchy, wish to maintain that power; the status quo is good to them and they have no desire to see any change that could disrupt that. The traditional values crowd, on the other hand, tend to have religious reasons for their beliefs, or perhaps just dislike a world that moves too quickly. This crowd tends to assume the world is going downhill (“to Hell in a hand basket!”) and resists that perceived trend.
Sure enough, those two groups make up our current Republican party. The rich and powerful don’t have a whole lot in common with those promoting traditional values other than this resistance to change, but there’s the alliance nonetheless.
Liberals, on the other hand, have no obvious groups that simply promote change. Instead, there are lots of different groups that promote very specific changes. One group wants to give gays the right to marry while another wants tougher regulations to reduce pollution and yet another wants to help the poor. Anyone who fights for change becomes liberal, at least temporarily, until they get their change.
And sure enough, the Democrats tend to be a hodge-podge of various interest groups that often have nothing in common. And while conservatism leads itself to a simple philosophy (what’s simpler than “don’t change”) no such philosophy exists for liberals. Perhaps this is why it is so hard to come up with an “elevator pitch” for liberalism. It really does boil down to details. It also backs up my assertion that liberals tend to become conservatives once they have won whatever they were fighting for.
As I said, it really is amazing how much you can observe from just the two simple definitions of resistance and openness to change. But it doesn’t explain everything. Why are conservatives viewed as better at national security? Why are conservatives pushing for changes in Social Security while liberals are resisting that change? Why do libertarians tend to be conservative? We need to look at our alliances more closely and iterate through the analysis loop at least one more time. I’ll save that for another post.