The appeal of liberalism to young, idealistic Americans is no surprise considering how liberal politics have shaped social progress in the U.S. over the last 70 years. In the midst of the Great Depression, FDR's New Deal is credited with lifting the nation out of economic devastation and into a new prosperity. Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty during his presidency, and his Great Society programs greatly expanded social welfare with Social Security and Medicare. These were all created by liberal administrations that saw such policies as a moral obligation to the less fortunate. And it's hard to argue against that.
One of the greatest appeals of liberalism is that it proactively seeks to address many of the great problems the world faces, such as poverty, education, and healthcare. While conservatives generally believe that the free market has the power to reduce the cost of education and healthcare while simultaneously improving the quality of each and creating jobs, liberals believe that the market requires extensive regulation to ensure the proper treatment of workers and prevent corruption. Liberals see conservatives as unsympathetic and even callous to the problems of minorities and the poor. This is another aspect of the divide that makes conservatism less appealing to young idealists.
It's frustrating to be confronted with issues like poverty and racism and imagine that we as individuals can do anything about problems of such a scale. It's much easier to advocate policies extolled by the left such as food stamps, social welfare, higher education spending, and universal health care. In theory, by raising taxes on those who can afford it to increase the money supply available to care for those less fortunate, liberals get to feel as though they are contributing to ameliorating these world problems. And that gives them a warm fuzzy feeling inside.
Liberals consider themselves forward thinkers. Conservatives, by definition, are more rooted in tradition and the past. Realizing the destructive effects of racism and sexism, liberals strongly support policies that encourage diversity and equal opportunity in schools and the workforce, such as affirmative action. They often fearfully anticipate the imminent threat of global warming, and strongly advocate investment in clean energy. They tend to believe that the lack of progress in the young black male community is rooted in a defective criminal justice system and institutional racism. To rectify this system, they propose more effective rehabilitation practices for prison inmates, and believe that the decriminalization of marijuana will result in fewer lives ruined by minor drug arrests that disproportionately target the black community.
These are the characteristics of social liberalism, and I feel that it is extremely difficult to argue against many of these policies in theory. Elements of racism and sexism still plague our society. Global warming is undoubtedly occurring, but regardless, due to a finite amount of fossil fuels and natural resources, the adoption of sustainable energy in the future is inevitable. Our criminal justice and education systems certainly have plenty of room for improvement. We don't live in a nation of equal opportunity. Most people would not disagree that these problems exist, even if many have different opinions as to what degree these issues affect us as a society.
The point at which people begin to argue is when it comes to the issue of the necessity of government involvement in solving certain problems. The liberal approach is predictable: let the government create solutions through policies that address the problems of poverty, discrimination, education, health care, and overcrowded prisons. On the other hand, conservatives usually believe in the philosophy that "government is best which governs least, because its people discipline themselves." as stated by Thomas Jefferson.
For a long time, I believed that liberals favored equality over liberty, and conservatives believed the opposite to be true. Clearly both are important, but I felt that equality should be prioritized, as freedom is somewhat meaningless when you are fighting against the crippling effects of a history of oppression. I considered myself "progressive," and decided that we could worry about liberty once everyone had the chance to grow up in a society of completely equal opportunity.
I smugly thought to myself that I was amongst the few who were smart enough to have rationalized liberalism so concisely. I began to thoroughly research socialism, progressivism, FDR's New Deal policies, and LBJ's Great Society programs, in an attempt to learn where they failed and where they succeeded. By knowing what to advocate and what mistakes to avoid repeating, I would develop my own flawless ideology.
Of course, I began to realize that most policies and programs have their upsides and downsides, and everyone differs in their opinion of whether the good outweigh the bad. It's also almost impossible to know how much certain issues were affected by government, versus how much they were influenced by outside forces. For example, many academics and economists with Ph. D's from elite universities have argued that FDR's New Deal may have played a much smaller role in lifting the country out of the Great Depression than previously assumed, and that LBJ's "War on Poverty" may have contributed to the destruction of many black American families due to a newfound reliance on welfare. These ideas do not simply come from Tea Party crackpots; they are the claims of Harvard-educated economists.
The unfortunate yet inevitable reality is, both conservatives and liberals resort to derogatory name-calling and ridiculous generalizations directed at their counterparts, making constructive dialogue a rare occurrence. Sadly, the radical and farcical representatives of conservatism in the media prevent many young idealists from ever bothering to seriously consider many of legitimate arguments that exist in the conservative camp. Many of us liberals turn out to be just as uninformed as the conservatives we so smugly enjoy smearing for their ignorance.
Remember: be skeptical of any argument that attempts to oversimplify macroeconomics, whether it come from the left or the right. Don't let the emotional appeal of liberalism close your mind to opposing ideas.