Understanding America’s Political Divide

Part 1

 Prepared in the spring of 2010, revised 2017

by Robin McMeeking


This paper explores the fundamental differences between “conservatives” and “progressives/liberals”, two very different philosophies regarding the proper form of and scope of government. The differences between these philosophies is fundamental. There is no significant middle ground. For purposes of this discussion “libertarian” philosophy can be considered as conservative, although libertarians are stricter in their interpretation in some areas – particularly international relations. For the most part I will be discussing philosophical ideas rather than specific policies. The nature of policy differences is best understood in light of the underlying philosophy.

Conservative philosophy is the philosophy of the U.S. Constitution, limited government, individual liberty, checks and balances, etc. It is easy to find out about because the authors of the Constitution wrote extensively about it, most notably in the Federalist Papers which were published prior to the national vote on the adoption of the Constitution. It was based on three separate but compatible concepts. One is the philosophical writings of a period called “The Enlightenment” or “The Age of Reason”, roughly 1600 to 1800. Enlightenment philosophy emphasized the concept of individual equality under the law as opposed to hereditary privilege. Another is the “free market” economic principles of Adam Smith described in The Wealth of Nations published in 1776. These philosophies provided the basis for establishing the scope and limitations of government power. The third concept was the structure of the government. It was developed by the founders, primarily James Madison. It was influenced by the study of various historical and contemporary governments, including Greek and Roman experiments with democratic forms as well as the various colonial governments. Particular interest was placed on the responsiveness of the governments to the needs of the people, the degree of personal freedom, resistance to tyrannical power grabs, and long term durability.

The periods following the Enlightenment are called “The Counter-Enlightenment”, Modern, and since about 1960 “Postmodern”. Progressivism is an amalgamation of ideas derived from various philosophers and economists from the mid 1800s up through the 1940s. In many ways it is still in flux because it was never codified in a document comparable to the Constitution. Some aspects of it are well established though and we will examine them.

The philosophy of the Counter-Enlightenment was a rejection of reason as a source of ultimate knowledge. It promoted retaining strong monarchical governments deriving their legitimacy from the church. In the mid 1800s Karl Marx published works providing a new analysis of economics with a strong emphasis on the ill effects of the Industrial Revolution. He also proposed a way of fixing the problems and achieving a harmonious and productive society. By the late 1800s his works were well known and he had many followers. The religious influence of the early 1800s diminished.

It seemed that humanity might finally be on the threshold of a more harmonious and just society through socialism. The impact was strongest in Europe, but it got a lot of attention in the U.S. too. Popular novelists promoted it, as did the theater and eventually movies. There was a rush to try out these ideas politically. Communism, Fascism, Nazism, and progressivism have been the main players.

While there are significant differences between these various ideologies, there are many shared beliefs. Perhaps most significant is the idea that government control of everything is the only way to ensure “social justice”, “economic justice”, and other euphemisms for equality. John Dewey, a prominent architect of progressivism put it this way, “The ends can now be achieved only by reversal of the means to which early liberalism was committed. [reversal of limited government and individual liberty] Organized social planning [i.e. government planning], put into effect for the creation of an order in which industry and finance are socially directed in behalf of institutions that provide the material basis for the cultural liberation and growth of individuals, is now the sole method of social action by which liberalism can realize its professed aims.” Source

All of these “isms” had prominent vocal proponents within the U.S. up through the Great Depression. World War II changed that dramatically, at least for a while.

If your understanding of liberalism has been derived from Democratic campaign rhetoric, the above may seem rather extreme and outdated to you. So, consider the following two quotes.

Woodrow Wilson is considered to be the second progressive U.S. President. Writing several years before becoming President he said, “For it is very clear that in fundamental theory socialism and democracy are almost if not quite one and the same. They both rest at bottom upon the absolute right of the community to determine its own destiny and that of its members.Source. (America’s Founders agreed with that which is why they designed a republic instead of a democracy. A very important distinction.)

Hillary Clinton’s response during a 2008 presidential debate. Asked if she considered herself a liberal she said, “You know, it is a word that originally meant that you were for freedom, that you were for the freedom to achieve, that you were willing to stand against big power and on behalf of the individual.

Unfortunately, in the last 30, 40 years, it has been turned up on its head and it’s been made to seem as though it is a word that describes big government, totally contrary to what its meaning was in the 19th and early 20th century.

I prefer the word “progressive,” which has a real American meaning, going back to the progressive era at the beginning of the 20th century.” Source

Hillary seems a little confused with her definitions. But there is no reason for you to be confused. The pages that follow explain it all.

The significance of philosophy

Throughout history two primary influences have helped to shape the forms of government and its laws. There have been strong leaders who dominated the political stage of their times; Julius Caesar, Ghengis Kahn, Peter the Great, Queen Elisabeth I, George Washington, Lenin, and many others. These are the kind of folks we generally read about when studying history. However, equally as important, maybe more so, are the philosophical teachers who influenced these leaders. These are the people who have helped us to define our sense of right and wrong; of appropriate and inappropriate personal behavior, and of appropriate relationships between people and government. Some of these teachers were prominent religious founders, meaning that their teachings presumably originated with a deity. Others, what we call philosophers, arrive at their conclusions through analysis and reasoning. Philosophers were important to the Greeks and Romans and have come to dominate the political thinking since the Renaissance. Between these times religious teachings tended to dominate, and still do in some parts of the world.

There is another separate but closely related area of political influence that sprang into relevance late in the 1700s – economics. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was the precursor to a long list of thought pieces on the operation and best practices for maintaining a stable economy. Since that time moral philosophy and economic philosophy have been closely intertwined, particularly in politics. Therefore I will treat them together.

It is important to note that philosophers have not arrived at anything resembling a consensus as to the proper form of government, what its powers and limitations should be, the role of government in economic matters, etc, etc. In this paper I will address the changing philosophical ideas that have led to our current competing ideas about government, namely Progressivism and Conservatism. An in depth analysis of these things could occupy many volumes. I have attempted to provide only enough detail to provide a coherent presentation.

Some significant changes in philosophical thinking occurred rather quickly as a result of major historical events often involving Europe. Other events that didn’t result in a philosophical change of direction have influenced certain policies and political positions. The war in Vietnam is an example. It had a huge impact on American’s thinking about foreign conflicts. Therefore, for the period from the first World War on I will cover the general history of the U.S. in more detail, highlighting such events.

In the U.S. today there are two fundamentally opposed philosophies regarding the legitimate purpose of government. One, Conservatism, holds that the natural tendency of governments (and the governing class) is to lust for power over the governed; to increasingly desire to manage more and more of of the activities within its sphere, leading ultimately to tyranny. Conservatives see this tendency as threat to individual liberty and counterproductive in solving societal problems. The Founding Fathers of the United States were of this opinion, and in writing the Constitution they sought to create a government of very limited powers with a structure of “checks and balances” that would make it difficult for the government to expand significantly. Conservatives, therefore, seek to conserve the “original intent” of the Constitution.

The second philosophy is Progressivism. Progressives hold that governments must be charged with ensuring economic security of the governed with guaranteed living standards, including jobs, housing, health care and “social justice”. They believe that providing these things is necessary for the governed to have true liberty. Therefore, they regard any limitations on government as an obstacle to liberty.

You may have noticed that both philosophies hold their principles as being essential for “liberty”. Liberty is the root word for the term “liberal”. In the 1700s a liberal was one who believed in personal liberty, or freedom from oppressive government. Beginning in the early 1900s the developers of Progressive thought began calling themselves liberals. Nowadays most people use the term liberal as meaning progressive.

The positions described above are those held by the ideologues (committed believers) of the two philosophies. There are many folks who are not committed to either of these philosophies. They either haven’t studied and compared them in order to make a choice, or they may see some merit in aspects of both philosophies. There are also many who regard themselves as one or the other but with only a vague or incorrect understanding of the concepts behind their chosen position. Many who consider themselves “moderates” prefer to decide their vote in any election based on the issues. Unfortunately the “issues” are often marketing concepts designed to persuade voters and have little to do with fundamental policies.

This document provides an overview of the events over our history that have shaped our political perspectives of today. It will provide a solid understanding of Conservatism, Liberalism, Progressivism, Socialism, Communism, Fascism, and National Socialism (Nazism). You will see how these philosophies have affected U.S. history and current political agendas.

Like many people I have read a considerable amount about individual events in history; the Revolution and founding of America, the Civil War, World War II (particularly the secret war), some Native American and European history, but I never looked at these events as part of a continuum in which one thing leads to another. I never gave much thought to the long term influence of an event on subsequent events. Perhaps that perspective develops over time. As one reflects on the history of their own life, certain events and actions, planned and unplanned, stand out because of the influence they had in subsequent years. This aspect of history was reinforced for me as I began trying to understand the development of Progressivism.

In the following pages I will trace through historical events the development of the Progressive philosophy and show the similarities and differences between it and other related philosophies, notably Communism and other forms of socialism. I will not get into details about wars or other major events, but will examine how these events influenced subsequent history.

If you are interested in doing further reading this document may help you to identify particular periods in our history that you would like to understand better. It is written as an internet based document, so I have used links instead of footnotes to indicate source material. I chose to do this because I want it to be easy for you to confirm or refute my statements. In selecting philosophical material I looked for original quoted material that was long enough to make a clear statement of intent. I stayed away from one-liners and second party interpretations. This was a limiting factor because I couldn’t find lengthy quotes from some of the more influential philosophers. There are links to the material I have quoted and a few links to additional material. I encourage you to visit these sources as there is much information there. I have included some material from Wikipedia, but only when I found their presentation significantly more readable and in agreement with other reliable sources. Most of the quoted information was copied in 2010. In 2015 I verified all links and found new sources for broken links. I also encourage you to perform your own searches for additional information. Of course, for serious study you can’t beat books.


It has been well over 200 years since the founding of the United States. Politics was much different then, although frequently just as contentious as it is today. With the exception of the founding philosophy, the other philosophies discussed here began to take shape almost entirely after our Civil War. I will, therefore, concentrate most of my discussion to that period. However, we need to start at the beginning to understand the framework that our founders designed for the governance of the country. We also need to understand how other parts of the world have dealt with governance questions.

I have tried to be objective in terms of the subjects I have selected and in the material used in presenting those subjects. However, I am human and my personal positions have probably influenced me to some extent. Therefore I must state up-front that I am a conservative, and I try to base my political decisions on evidence rather than emotion, on results rather than intentions. Quite recently I felt compelled to try to understand the motivations and political thinking of “liberals”. As my research provided answers, and I found surprises in areas that I thought I understood well, the idea of putting this document together became compelling. I hope you find it worthwhile.



21 responses to “Understanding America’s Political Divide

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