Through The Clouded Prism Of History
An Essay on the Liberal and Conservative Paradigms
August 2009
Updated August 2010
People like to see themselves as independent thinkers. They believe their reasoning skills have been honed through the ages, taking advantage of the lessons of time and history. Though it might appear that the human mind has improved, in reality the brain functions the same way it did hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Our thoughts and beliefs are still dictated by fears and perspectives. Fear is a strong motivating factor in our reasoning and has a strong effect on critical thinking. Yet most people go through life never recognizing how much fear plays a part in their lives. How much it commandeers judgment and impulses. And how often. Fear is a constant. Fear of the other, fear of the unknown. And the walls that go up to defend against it can invariably cut us off from understanding and evolving beyond it.

The thought processes of people today are nothing new. They have always been with us. There are two basic concepts of thought that have been with us throughout human history. When we look today at the battle between the two dominant ideologies - Left versus Right - there is a familiar pattern. Most conservatives would agree that the main tenets of their ideology would be traditional values, maintaining the status quo, and healthy respect for authority. These are conservative virtues. They always have been, long before there was even a label 'conservative.' Most progressives would agree that their job is to push the envelope of human progress in society through the sciences and social reform, hence the label 'progressive.'

When we look back on history we can see these ideologies solidified and played out through the spectrum of time. Copernicus' theory that the Earth was not the center of the universe, and that the Sun did not revolve around it was a radical idea in his time. In 1633, Galileo was convicted of heresy by the church for supporting this theory, and was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life. It was the conservatives of the time who were repressing and condemning a progressive scientific theory that was at odds with the status quo.

Today, many on the right claim the Founding Fathers of America were conservative without knowing very much about them. While there were Founding Fathers who could be considered heroes of the conservative movement (Adams, Hamilton), Jefferson, Franklin, and Paine surely were not among them. The Declaration of Independence was inspired by the Age of Enlightenment, or more precisely, the European Enlightenment. A time that embraced intellectualism and reason, as well as the sciences and arts. An age that began to pull away from the rigid confines of religious doctrine and superstition.

The Founding Fathers were fighting for independence from a Monarchy, a social system of government that was traditional, and the status quo for a very long time. The Monarchy was the authority. And the Founders rebelled against it. It was the conservatives of the time who were the Loyalists (Tories). They were beholden to the King - the status quo. They didn't want to rock the boat. Whether through fear of change or in acquiescence to authority or in pursuit of profit, the conservatives, the bankers, the wealthy were loyal to the King. It took the progressives of that time, fueled by the European Age of Enlightenment, to "begin the world over again."

It is said that Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" had a huge impact on Thomas Jefferson's writing of the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Paine, a man who was against the death penalty, was an abolitionist a hundred years before slavery ended, was for women's rights, animal welfare, embraced science over superstition, mercilessly attacked religion in general and Christianity in particular, supported a minimum wage, public education, progressive taxation, and put forth the earliest designs on a welfare system for young adults and the elderly. In "Rights of Man," he penned the quote "My country is the world, and my religion is to do good."

Does that sound like a conservative? In any age? Thomas Paine was years ahead of his time. Not only did he inspire the Declaration of Independence but he is also credited with coining the term "United States of America." So the question is, would the United States even exist without this man who would today be considered by conservatives to be a far-left liberal?

Contrary to popular conservative belief, the United States was not founded as a Christian nation. If it were, why is there no mention of Jesus in the Declaration of Independence? In fact the only mention of the word God is "Nature's God." When have you ever heard the God of Christianity referred to as Nature's God? Never. But Nature's God does refer to the God of Deism. Deism is basically a belief in a Creator of the Universe, while rejecting clergy, religious dogma, and the supernatural. A kind of anti-religion that espouses science as the study of God as exemplified through nature. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence was a Deist, as was Thomas Paine.

There have been recent attempts by charlatans to portray Jefferson as a Christian by using the Jefferson Bible as an example. But the Jefferson Bible was his edited account of the Gospels focusing on the teachings of Jesus while removing all miraculous elements. Jefferson didn't believe in the divinity of Christ, or in the resurrection, but he did respect Jesus as a moral philosopher.

The Founding Fathers were very specific in the framing of the Declaration of Independence. Every word was chosen carefully. They were trying to send a message with this document and they wanted to leave as little room for misinterpretation as possible. The fact that there is no mention of Christianity in the Declaration (or the Constitution, beyond the formal Gregorian dating system commonly used at the time) was deliberate. It wasn't an oversight. And that is significant.

It seems for many conservatives, their entire understanding of the Founding Fathers revolves around the Second Amendment, and "states' rights." But the Founders were so much more than that. A lack of understanding of liberalism also helps to stir that soup. I would venture that when hearing the term "liberal" most conservatives have a grainy black & white picture in their heads of hippies in the 1960's, flower children and pacifists pushing daisies into rifle barrels. Not an accurate portrayal by any stretch.

It's a form of revisionist history. Revisionist history is an important tool of the conservative movement. With this tool they can make proclamations that conservatives were abolitionists and that they gave women the right to vote. Neither of these things could be further from the truth. It has been clearly established that conservatives are reluctant to 'upend the applecart of society.' Shaking up the status quo and upsetting the bottom line has never been a part of their agenda. But that's exactly what the abolitionist movement was all about. Yes, Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. But what you rarely hear about was the fact that he was also rather liberal for his time.

While the two major political parties have changed and bounced back and forth in their platforms, the ideology of people for the most part has remained consistent. The meaning of conservative and liberal has not really changed, except in degree. The one major change has been in their homes, their parties. The Republican Party started out as an anti-slavery party, based predominantly in the Northeast. The early Democratic Party was indeed pro-slavery and most popular in the South, where the KKK itself was embraced by the Democrats, which at the time was the home of the rightwing.

When conservatives claim that the abolitionist movement had it's genesis in the church, and they in turn use that as proof that the end of slavery was owed to them because modern conservatives embrace the church while modern liberals generally do not, they fail to recognize two things. One: In the 1700's, just about everyone was religious in some way - Atheism was of course shunned like the plague. The most anyone (especially politicians) could get away with back then was Deism. And two: The first church that actually was involved with abolition was the Quakers - among the most liberal of all churches at that time. Conversely, an often forgotten fact was that during the Civil War, pro-slavery forces in the South used the Bible as a defense for slavery.

Another, more insidious bit of revisionist history is the claim that Nazi Germany was leftwing. Modern conservatives like to refer to "liberal fascism," as if there could be such a thing. They have taken the idea that language is subjective to an entirely new level. It is universally understood that the extreme of the rightwing is fascism, and the extreme of the leftwing is communism. You cannot have fascism without rampant nationalism and authoritarianism. And you cannot have liberalism with either of those equations.

Conservatives see the name of Hitler's National Socialist Party and they assume that to apply literally to socialism. And that is the problem with literalism. But by such standards, wouldn't Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard, or the People's Republic of China be considered to be compatriots by conservatives?

Of course there were socialist aspects of German culture (as there are in any industrialized, capitalist society), many of them instilled years before the Nazis took power. And many of the social policies Hitler implemented were more about amassing political capital than ideology. It should be noted that there has never been any 100%, pure capitalist country in history. That is because capitalism requires there to be winners and losers, and the question becomes, what to do with the losers. The best functioning societies have proven to be a mixture of both capitalism and socialism.

Conservatives will point out that Hitler was an artist, and he was responsible for getting the Volkswagen Beetle into mass production. A car that was later popularized by the counter-culture movement in the 1960's. You see? Artist, hippie car, Hitler must have been a liberal. It all makes sense. If you want it to. As for Hitler being a vegetarian, this isn't really true. While his doctor recommended he become vegetarian for gastric problems, he cheated constantly. There is a wealth of testimony from dinner guests as well as one of his chefs who claimed that among his favorite meals were ham, pheasant and Bavarian sausage.

As for Hitler's enemies, while those on the right acknowledge that the Nazis persecuted and exterminated over six million Jews, they ignore the fact that they also killed off the liberals, communists, gays, blacks, and other minorities. Which extreme from which ideology would be more inclined to do that? Why is it that American white supremacists (an extreme of the far-rightwing) support Hitler and Nazism?

Hitler hated communism, and he routinely attacked Marxists and leftists. He blamed the Reichstag fire on communists and had them arrested. He used the fire to win emergency powers with a needed two-thirds majority vote. That vote was won with the support of conservatives. Since the communists (who would have prevented passage) had all been imprisoned, the only party to oppose the Enabling Act was the Social Democrats - every one of them. Soon after, they were declared enemies of the state.

It is well known that the 'pink triangle' originated with the Nazis as a way of identifying homosexuals and sex offenders who had been placed in concentration camps. Years later, this emblem was adopted by the gay and lesbian community as a badge of honor. What is not well known is that there was also a red triangle badge for political prisoners, consisting of communists, trade unionists, liberals and Social Democrats.

While World War II started on September 1st, 1939, the United States remained neutral for over two years. Many conservatives and businessmen in the U.S. opposed participation in World War II, right up until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941 and Germany declared war on the United States a few days later. For a while, they believed that the authoritarian shift and the hardline against communism that was happening in Germany were positions that should be adopted in the States.

A largely unknown bit of history is that Prescott Bush, the father of one president and grandfather of another, was a director and shareholder of Union Banking Corp and Brown Brothers Harriman, companies that had their assets seized by the government under the Trading With The Enemy Act in 1942. Some on the right choose to disregard this or dismiss it as myth, but the information is readily available in the U.S. National Archives.

Regarding women's right to vote, while it is true that the Nineteenth Amendment was passed by a Republican Congress in 1919 (and ratified in 1920), what is not true is that this achievement was owed to conservatives. It was only after decades of protest by the women's suffrage movement that Congress was forced to finally take action. The suffragettes were the radical feminists of their time. And we all know what conservatives think of feminism. It was Rush Limbaugh who popularized the term "Feminazi" in reference to feminists. But even that doesn't stop conservatives from trying to take credit for this progressive victory. It's called cognitive dissonance.

It is due to the progressive movement that we have a minimum wage, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Unemployment Insurance, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Civil Rights Act. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Social Security into law in 1935 as part of the New Deal, conservatives fought it tooth and nail. Cries of 'socialism' rang out from rightwing circles everywhere in the country, much like they did when Lyndon Johnson signed Medicare into law in 1965, and much like they do today with the Healthcare Reform debate. The same conservative mentalities who now prosper from the progressive reforms of the past, still fight the same fights that put them on the wrong side of history so many years before.

In 1961, Ronald Reagan said "If you don't stop Medicare, and I don't do it, one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was once like in America when men were free." That never happened. But it sure sounds a lot like the same hyperbole we hear from the rightwing today over Healthcare. Can anyone imagine conservatives today wanting to give up their Social Security and Medicare? No. But they owe it to the progressive movement that they have those services at all. You're welcome, conservatives.

To hear the rightwing talk about the Civil Rights Act is to come away with the "knowledge" that Democrats opposed it. This is a combination of willful ignorance and being purposely deceptive. What they are really referring to are the Dixiecrats, Southern racists who were a minority in the Democratic Party by this time. When Democrats began embracing civil rights, the Dixiecrats started to leave the party in an exodus, never to return. With the candidacy of Barry Goldwater in 1964, the Dixiecrats joined the Republican Party, where they have remained to this day. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act (which was the result of a John F. Kennedy proposed bill) into law, he reportedly said "We have lost the South for a generation." While accurate, it has shown to be an understatement.

Ironically, as with the Southern delegates in the Continental Congress of 1776 who demanded all references to slavery be stricken from the Declaration of Independence for it to be endorsed, the Civil Rights Act vote of 1964 broke down more along regional lines than party lines. Southern states (those that made up the Confederacy during the Civil War) overwhelmingly voted against the bill while the North mostly voted for it.

In the House: 145 Northern Democrats voted for the bill, while 9 Northern Democrats voted against (94% to 6%), and 7 Southern Democrats voted for the bill, while 87 voted against (7% to 93%). On the Republican side, 138 Northern Republicans voted for the bill, while 24 voted against (85% to 15%), and 0 Southern Republicans voted for the bill, while 10 voted against (0% to 100%).

In the Senate: 45 Northern Democrats voted for the bill, while 1 voted against (98% to 2%), and 1 Southern Democrat voted for the bill, while 20 voted against (5% to 95%). On the Republican side, 27 Northern Republicans voted for the bill, while 5 voted against (84% to 16%), and 0 Southern Republicans voted for the bill, while 1 voted against (0% to 100%).

Many of today's rightwingers will point out that Barack Obama is only 'half black,' as if to try to deprive this victory in some way. But they don't acknowledge that before the Civil Rights Act, in many places our current president would not have been allowed to drink out of the same water fountain as white people. Yet another reason why this past election is so significant. It's about America's history. A history they have proven time and time again to be on the wrong side of. Even in the 21st Century.

Desegregation was vehemently opposed by the conservative movement in the 1960's. Interracial marriage was fought against much the way they fight against gay marriage today. But one thing is certain, while we may live in a conservative country to the extent that a majority of people identify themselves as conservative, we live in a progressive country in the sense that regardless of how people choose to identify themselves, America is constantly moving forward, no matter how many road blocks conservatives throw up along the way. Gay marriage is an inevitability. It will happen. And when it does conservatives will be on record as being on the wrong side of that issue as well.

The progressive movement is responsible for "American exceptionalism." The automobile, the airplane, the Moon landing, all ideas of science fiction at one time, or of blasphemy in another. But through belief in progress, and rejection of rigidity they were achieved. Science itself, by its very nature is progressive. Had Thomas Edison or Nikola Tesla traveled back in time to the 1600's and exhibited their discoveries in electricity, they would have been accused of witchcraft by the geocentric conservatives of that time. But a scientific mind like Galileo would not have been dictated by fear.

Without the progressive movement we would still believe the Earth was flat, that the Sun revolved around it, and that it was the center of the Universe. We would still be burning witches at the stake, lynching men for the color of their skin, and women would still not be able to vote. Civil rights, Social Security, Medicare, birth control, the sexual revolution, even that "race music" Rock & Roll would have been nipped in the bud years ago. The conservative movement of today benefits from the progressive advancements of the past, even though if it were up to them none of these changes would have occurred.

Everything considered, with all that is known about mankind and the human condition, the delineation is clear. It is fair to state that the difference between a progressive of the past and the present is that they are more liberal today, and the difference between a conservative of the past and the present is that they are also more liberal today. All along the way, throughout history the progressive movement has dragged the conservatives kicking and screaming into a more civilized world.