How to Understand the Terms Conservative, Moderate, Liberal, and Progressive
On this page we explain the political terms conservative, moderate, liberal, and progressive and how they are used in different contexts.
Each political party, political faction, or coalition on the left or right in U.S. and world history, who forms around any issue or ideology, can be subdivided into conservative, moderate, liberal, and progressive or radical factions. Each party can also be given an overarching conservative, moderate, liberal, and progressive label, and each stance on each issue of each faction or faction member can be described with these qualifiers as well.
Each term’s meaning changes depending on context, issue, and time-period, but they all have broad common definitions that we can illustrate with examples. By better understanding these terms and other political left-right qualifiers, we can better understand the world’s many political factions.
Political Ideology: Crash Course Government and Politics #35. No one video fully sums up our discussion, but as always CrashCourse comes close.
FACT: Not only can we subdivide the parties into conservative, moderate, liberal, and progressive factions to better understand them in retrospect, they were often divided this way in their time (for example the moderate, conservative, and radical Republicans of Reconstruction), with either the parties themselves or their opposition using the aforementioned terminology. In cases where no label was used at the time, historians have often agreed on a label.
TIP: Not only the U.S. parties, but the British, French, and pretty much every political party in history can be subdivided this way. Movements and political parties almost always have mixed views as a whole, so understanding the factions in a party, and comparing that to the party as a whole and the opposition per issue, is often the only way to get a clear reading of history.
What Do Conservative, Moderate, Liberal, and Progressives Mean?
From a historical perspective we can define the terms conservative, moderate, liberal, and progressive as:
- Liberal: Can mean classical liberal (individual rights ideology rooted in the late 1600 – 1700’s) or social liberal (an evolution of classical liberalism that includes aspects of socialism, arising in response to the age of Robber Barons as social justice and progressive values take on new importance with voters). This term is sometimes used as meaning “not a conservative.” In current usage, the U.S. classical liberals are called libertarians, and social liberals are called “liberals.” See an essay on “what is liberalism?“
- Progressive (or Radical): Always means wanting to push forward. For example, one can be radically social-liberal (a progressive populist in a true sense), radically classical-liberal (like a staunch libertarian), radically nativist (radically “right wing,” favoring a native population over non-natives), or radically anything. One can even be radically puritanical, with prohibition and temperance being progressive populist movements of sorts, or radically imperialistic. Progressivism typically implies altruism, but not all good intentions have positive outcomes. Likewise, radical typically implies “going too far,” but not all radical movements have negative outcomes. See an essay on “the types of progressivism“.
- Conservative: Either opposes liberalism or progressivism, its meaning changes with the times. As liberalism, socialism, and progressivism changed, what conservatism meant changed in response. The Conservative Federalists of the late 1700’s wanted order; a conservative nativist populist Democrat of the 60’s, like George Wallace, wanted to return to the old southern classical liberal way and a time when segregation was king. Later, after changes in the parties, modern Republicans often run on a radically conservative platform. They may, for example, favor state enforced religious laws. Meanwhile, progressive movements like Prohibition have conservative aspects to them. See an essay on “comparing liberalism and conservatism“.
- Moderate: Taking a balanced view on any issue, not being fully “liberal,” “progressive,” or “conservative” as compared to the opposition. People often hold mixed moderate views on most issues. Moderate views aren’t always appreciated, for instance, leading up to the Civil War in the 1860’s and up to Civil Rights in the 1960’s moderates ignored mounting issues related to race resulting in drastic measures and political realignments.
TIP: These terms are always comparative. For example, if one faction is far-left and the other slightly less so, the slightly less left-leaning faction is conservative.
TIP: These terms are NOT a measure of authoritativeness, any of the above can be authoritative or not depending on context.
Examples of Factions of Parties and Party Members that Illustrate the Above Terms
Here are a few examples of factions of parties, or prominent party members in those parties, that illustrate conservatives, moderates, liberals, and progressives at different points in history.
Tories Vs. Whigs: In England, starting around the time of the Glorious Revolution and the proper birth of Liberalism the classical liberal Whigs opposed the conservative Tories. The Tories favored aristocracy. The Whigs wanted individual rights and free-trade. See the Birth of Liberalism.
During the American Revolution: In American “patriots” often considered themselves aligned with the radical Whigs of England (the Whigs who opposed Burke), conservative loyalists considered themselves aligned with Tories. See the founders were liberals.
Old New Whigs vs. the New Whigs: In 1791 Edmund Burke wrote a somewhat famous book pleading with radical New Whigs (radical liberals) to embrace the conservative values of the conservative Old Whigs. The New Whigs supported the American and French Revolutions. Burke supported the American war, but feared the radicalism of the French Revolution. See An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs.
During the French Revolution: The radical-liberal-populist Jacobins opposed the conservative-progressive-liberal Girondins. The Girondins were “more” conservative than the Jacobins. See the French Revolution and the History of Left and Right. See Jefferson the radical.
The Federalists Vs. Anti-Federalists: Early Federalist-leaning American newspapers during the French Revolution referred to the Democratic-Republican party as the “Jacobin Party.” Jefferson, the father of Anti-Federalism and the Democratic-Republican Party along with Madison, considered Hamilton’s Federalists a bunch of conservative Tories. Both parties were classical liberals. The Federalists favored a more conservative Old Whig-like version of classic liberalism, the Anti-Federalists, a more Jacobin, or New Whig, populist progressive spirit. See Federalists Vs. Anti-Feds.
Lincoln: Lincoln was a moderate anti-slavery Republican, and the first Republican President. His policies were very progressive for the time, his favoring of authority makes him one of the first (if not the first) notable social liberal leader in the West. Lincoln became President in 1861. Marx’s Manifesto of the Communist Party was published in 1848. Lincoln’s socially liberal policies and the events of the war split the Republican party into many factions of varying degrees of liberalism, conservatism, and progressivism. See Lincoln was a Republican.
Third Party Radical Republicans: During Civil War Reconstruction, after Lincoln, radical Republicans were those who wanted to punish the southern confederates severely. This is a type of progressive radicalism we saw with the Jacobins and is opposed by the conservative Republicans who wanted to heal the wounds and quickly restore the union. Both were opposed by the moderate Republicans who wanted less divisive action. See the story of the parties switching platforms.
Progressive Populists Vs. Nativist Populists: In the progressive era of the late 1800 and early 1900’s we get two types of populists. One type wants progress; another wants a sometimes radical return to classic liberalism. As social liberalism took hold of the West, classical liberal views became conservatively right by comparison. Thus, we got conservative Democrats who favored segregation next to socially progressive Democrats. We also found more traditional authoritative conservatives in the Republican Party of the time next to the parties own social and classical liberal and radical factions. See Populism and Nativism.
Modern Democrats and Republicans: Today we call Democrats liberals and Republicans conservatives, but this is rough comparative language at best and is mostly a misnomer. Democrats are progressive social liberals with a radical economic policy of spending and finance. They are also radical in using the authority of the government to ensure social welfare. Republicans are mostly radical classic liberals and social conservatives. They tend to have a radical economic policy of tax cuts and to favor select businesses. They are radical in using governmental authority to ensure social conservatism. They are only really conservative in that they opposed social-liberalism and want to “return to the old days of classical liberalism.” See the 2016 election on the issues.
Conservative, Moderate, Liberal, and Progressive Factions Within Factions
Now finally, consider, that within each of the above factions there are conservative, moderate, liberal, and progressive factions, and this can change from issue to issue.
A modern Democrat might be conservative on trade, but progressive on other issues. A modern Republican might be socially liberal when it comes to LGBT rights, but very conservative when it comes to Religion.
The parties are split today like they always were. Consider the stark contrast between 2016 Candidates. We can hardly consider the moderate conservatism of Jeb Bush to be equivalent to the populist nativism of Trump, or the progressive populism of Sanders to be equivalent to Clinton’s social-liberal-conservatism. Likewise, we can hardly place the followers of any of these politicians in a single conservative, moderate, liberal, or progressive group, not just on all the issues, but on any single issue.
Finally, the “conservative, moderate, liberal, and progressive” qualifier is only one of many that we can (and historically do) assign to political factions to give us a better understanding of where they stand on what issues and in comparison to what.
Other key qualifiers include “left vs. right“, the related basic party types (social liberal, classic liberal, conservative, socialist), and importantly an “authority index” (a measure of how authoritative a faction is with its views).
TIP: Lincoln was a moderate, conservative, Republican, who implemented progressive policies. In his day he was an anti-slavery Republican. The radical Republicans opposed him, and the conservative Southern Democrats hated him. Lincoln is more like a modern Democrat than a modern Republican. His record is clear, but his character, like most, is complex. Qualifiers help us understand viewpoints, but a single qualifier rarely defines a person or their views.
"Conservatives, Moderates, Liberals, and Progressives" is tagged with: Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton, American Politics, England, France, James Madison, Liberalism, Thomas Jefferson, United States of America