If you want to have a really confusing conversation, discuss American conservatism and liberalism with a European. Even if both parties are speaking the same language, the discussion will be puzzling.
You see, across much of Europe -- where the word "liberal" is still appreciated in its classical sense -- by saying you believe in individual freedom, limited government, free markets and the rule of law, you'll likely be branded a liberal. Here, those characteristics make you a pretty solid conservative.
Confusing? No doubt.
The way Americans talk about their political identity is unique. Not only does the United States have fewer viable political parties than most other countries, but the way we define ourselves politically is also markedly different than the bulk of Western civilization.
So, how did this distinctive situation develop?
To understand how Americans define liberalism and conservatism today, we have to look at the way Democrats discussed their support of growing government influence during the 20th century, as well as how their political rivals framed an opposition.
From Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal to Lyndon Johnson's Great Society to Barack Obama's health care escapades, Democrats have championed incessant "progressive" governmental growth -- the hallmark of modern American liberalism that confounds anyone familiar with readings on classical liberalism and its emphasis on minimal government.
As the size of the federal government swelled throughout the last century, those who resisted its hefty sway and increasingly intrusive nature were dubbed "conservatives."
When he published the first edition of the National Review in 1955, William F. Buckley, Jr., succinctly characterized the fault line separating American conservatives from liberals. From his conservative perspective "it is the job of centralized government (in peacetime) to protect its citizens' lives, liberty and property." Everything else, Buckley argued, is a threat to individual freedom. On the other end of the spectrum, said Buckley, those whose ideas are to be fought are "the social engineers, who seek to adjust mankind to conform with scientific utopias." These "social engineers" have found big government programs championed by Democrats to be perfect tools to "adjust mankind."
While mid-20th century Democrats might have meant well with the economic and social policies they set in place -- policies tethered to the ideals that spurred John F. Kennedy to proclaim "I'm proud to say I'm a 'Liberal'" -- the trends they set in motion have been completely hijacked over the years, contorted by election-minded left-wing politicians to the point of being unrecognizable to liberals anywhere else in the world.
What we're looking at in modern American liberalism is a complete altering of a word's meaning. "Liberal" is a term whose true definition is anchored in the celebration of individual freedom and the mistrust of big government -- things our forefathers fought for and against, respectively -- but has now turned into a mishmash of pretty-sounding concepts and federal nannyism.
But if that is what American liberalism has become, what are modern conservatives conserving? Well, in a twist of linguistic irony, American conservatives are now preserving the original principles that launched one of the world's greatest, most impactful liberal movements: the American Revolution.
Today, the public faces of American liberalism -- think Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Barack Obama -- endorse measures that would surely look alien to classical liberals, and only faintly recognizable to mid-20th century American liberals. In the course of 238 years, the image of American liberalism has morphed from revolutionary liberty to a New Deal safety net to a schoolmarm scolding "knucklehead" children to sign up for mandatory health insurance.
In life, things often fail to make sense -- sometimes down is up, and left is right. That is certainly the case in American politics, where conservatives are the truest liberals.
A civic engagement advocate and history teacher, David Allen Martin writes from Chattanooga.
c. David Allen Martin.