Liberalism/Conservatism

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LIBERALISM/CONSERVATISM

note:Although the following article has not been revised for this edition of the Encyclopedia, the substantive coverage is currently appropriate. The editors have provided a list of recent works at the end of the article to facilitate research and exploration of the topic.

"Is (or was) Blank a liberal?" The precise reply to this question inevitably begins with a throat-clearing preface such as, "It all depends on the period you have in mind—and the place. Are you speaking of someone in nineteenth-century England, the United States during the Franklin Roosevelt New Deal days, contemporary Great Britain, continental Europe, or contemporary U.S.A.?"

For Americans nurtured on the "liberal" tradition of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Democratic party, the significance of the L word was quite clear. The private business establishment, left to its own devices, had brought about the economic collapse of 1929. "Rugged individualism" had demonstrated its inadequacies even for many rugged individualists themselves. Almost two-thirds of a century after that collapse, the Great American Depression still retains the power to evoke terrifying memories of mass unemployment, bank failures, small business bankruptcies, soup kitchens, and popular ditties like "Brother can you spare a dime?" These were all nostalgic but chilling reminiscences of the desolation to which "nonliberal," or "conservative," social, economic, and political policies had led. There seems to persist an enormous reluctance to release this era and its memories to the historians as just another noteworthy episode in American history like the War of 1812 or the Panic of 1873.

For other Americans, some of whom matured perhaps too rapidly during the late 1960s and whose memories were filled with visions of the war in Vietnam, the battles for Civil Rights, and the turmoil in urban ghettos, things were much less clear. Stalwarts of liberalism like Hubert Humphrey (senator, vice president, and unsuccessful Democratic candidate for President) seemed to become part of the very establishment toward which hostility was directed. Government, instead of representing a liberating force, increasingly was seen as the source of existing difficulties. Liberalism, for many, was no longer the solution; it had become part of the problem.

Liberalism has often been identified with the struggle to free individuals from the confining embraces of other persons, institutions, or even habitual ways of behaving. It is seen by its advocates as a liberating orientation. Thoughts that, in various times and places, have been called liberal, all seem to have as their common denominator this fundamental notion of freedom for individual human beings.

It was during the period between the Reformation and the French Revolution that a new social class emerged. Political control by a landowning aristocracy was challenged by this new class whose power lay only in the control of movable capital. It consisted of such people as bankers, traders, and manufacturers. Science began to replace religion as the source of ultimate authority; contract replaced status as the legal foundation of society. The ideas of individual initiative and individual control became the basis for a new philosophy: liberalism (Laski 1962, p. 11).

Liberalism began as the champion of freedom and the foe of privilege derived from inherited class position. But freedom was not fought for on behalf of everyone in society. The constituency of liberalism consisted of those who had property to defend. Its supporters sought to limit the range of political authority and tried to develop a system of fundamental rights not subject to invasion by the state (Laski 1962, p. 13). Most of the population (e.g., factory and agricultural workers) were not initially included in the concerns of liberalism. But redefinitions of governmental concerns and authority inevitably had consequences for all members of society. Thoughtful economists and others soon realized this.

Thus, from the perspective of the closing years of twentieth-century America, it is easy to forget that classical economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo, far from being simply reflex ideologists for the business establishment, were deeply concerned about liberty for individuals and saw their classical economic doctrines as the best way to insure it. In this sense, many contemporary Americans could legitimately view them as representatives of the liberal, rather than the conservative, genre. The free enterprise game was originally a liberal game.

For many participants in this great game of free enterprise, it became increasingly more obvious that the game was "fixed," that somehow participants did not emerge with either their liberty or their pocketbooks intact. To insure even a modicum of freedom and liberty for individuals, it became necessary to provide them with a helping hand from a source outside the marketplace. This source, a powerful and beneficent outsider, the national government, could help monitor the rules and to some extent the play of the economic game. It could provide, for heavy losers or potential losers, social benefits in the form of such consolations as unemployment insurance, old age pensions, insured bank accounts, and coordinated measures to combat environmental pollution. It could help protect consumers from the harmful effects of adulterated food and drug products; it could protect workers from the hazards of unregulated workplaces. In short, the liberal ethos in twentieth-century America incorporated as one of its tenets reliance on government action to protect the liberty of individuals.

The conservative ethos, on the other hand, during the same period has been characterized by a hands-off posture with respect to many aspects of government policy. This constitutes a fascinating reversal of traditional conservatism. The shades of Edmund Burke and other historical conservative spirits might well cringe at the characterization of their philosophy as "less government."

For some observers, this liberal-conservative contrast seems to be based on different psychological sets, or frames, of mind. Thus, we have been told that liberals are more hospitable to change, more willing to reexamine institutions and established practices in the light of new problems and needs. From this perspective, conservatives are those who appeal to the experience of the past but do not learn from it. Liberals are presented as being less reverent of the status quo, more venturesome in the realm of ideas, and much more optimistic about the possibilities available through exploration and discovery (Girvetz 1966).

Willingness to change becomes meaningful only when viewed against the nature of the status quo. When "liberal" governments adopt measures to provide for persons who are aged, ill, unemployed, or handicapped (as they have in some Scandinavian countries), to be "liberal" may mean to retain the status quo. To eliminate the measures —to engage in change—may be precisely what Western conservatives might demand.

For many observers of the dramatic events occurring at the end of the 1980s and in the early 1990s in Eastern Europe, members of communist parties who struggled to maintain their power in government were labeled "conservatives." Those fighting for free enterprise and other capitalist-like changes were called "liberal reformers." Communists for many years had been viewed by Western conservatives as the ultimate enemy; liberals were characteristically referred to by many of these conservatives as thinly disguised "Reds." In a dramatic and even comic reversal, dedicated Stalinists were now described as "conservatives."

At one time or another a wide variety of ideas have been called conservative. There have been efforts, however, to reduce the essence of these ideas to a limited number of more or less well defined notions. Clinton Rossiter and Russell Kirk, two ardent defenders of the conservative faith, once prepared a summary that received widespread approval. Although not all conservatives would necessarily agree with everything appearing in their summary, "it would be exceedingly difficult to find a conservative who did not agree with a good deal of what Professors Kirk and Rossiter impute to their tradition" (Witonski 1971, pp. 34–35).

The imputation begins with an assumption about the more or less immutable character of human nature. Behind the curtain of civilized behavior there exists, in human beings, wickedness, unreason, and an urge to engage in violence. In addition, a great deal of emphasis is placed upon the conviction that people are not naturally equal in most qualities of mind, body, and spirit. Liberty is more important than social equality. This leads to the conclusion that society must always have its classes. It is futile to level or eliminate them. Accordingly, societies will always require ruling aristocracies; efforts to have majority rule will lead to errors and potential tyranny.

Human beings, this conservative ethos insists, are not born with rights. These are earned as a result of duties performed. Service, effort, obedience, cultivation of virtue and self-restraint are the price of rights. Of primary importance to liberty, order, and progress, is the institution of private property. Inherited institutions, values, symbols, and rituals are indispensable and even sacred. Human reason is subject to error and severely limited; the surest guide to wisdom and virtue is historical experience.

Beyond this, fundamental to conservatism is the belief that all political problems are fundamentally religious in nature. Narrow rationality cannot, in itself, satisfy human needs. Both society and conscience are ruled by divine intent. Conservatives, it is asserted, have an affection for the traditional life; others (presumably liberals) favor narrow uniformity, egalitarianism, and pursuit of utilitarian goals. The only true equality is moral equality; civilized society requires orders and classes. Property and freedom are inseparable. If property is separated from private possession, liberty disappears.

This basic conservative creed goes on to say that human beings have anarchic impulses and are governed more by emotion than by reason. It therefore becomes necessary to place controls on human appetite. The correct method of accomplishing this is through tradition and sound "prejudice."

Finally, the proper instrument for social change is Providence. Some change is necessary from time to time to conserve society. It is like the perpetual renewal of the human body. But this change must always be accomplished slowly and with an awareness of the direction in which Providence is moving social forces (Witonski 1971, pp. 32–34).

Undergirding the entire structure of this conservative doctrine is a more or less explicit version of the chain of being. This metaphor is designed to express the enormous extent, variety, order, and unity of "God's Creation." The chain stretches from the foot of God's throne to the meanest of inanimate objects. Every speck of creation is a link in this chain, and every link except those at the two extremities is simultaneously bigger and smaller than another; there can be no gap (Tillyard 1959). The classic examination of the history of this idea was written by Arthur S. Lovejoy (1960).

Every category of things excels at something. Plants are higher than stones, but stones are stronger and more durable. Animals ("Beasts") are above plants, but plants can assimilate nourishment better. Human beings are above beasts but inferior to them in physical energy and desires.

All this suggests a sort of interdependency among all objects and living creatures. Central to the idea of the chain is the concept that every object, animal or person, is part of an all-encompassing whole. Basic to the metaphor is an implicit, if not always explicit, view of the universe as an organism (strong traces of this continue to be found in some formulations of contemporary systems theory).

Pushed to its logical conclusion, this suggests that all creatures and objects are equally important. Every existing part of the cosmic organism might well be seen as necessary (perhaps in some unknown way) for the survival of the whole. This, in turn implies that, although they do different things, all human beings, for example, are equally necessary. This logic could lead to dangerous subversive doctrines about social equality. Another feature was required to make the chain-of-being notion acceptable to those searching for reasons to justify existing inequalities in human societies. This was found in the primacy doctrine, the idea that, within each category of objects and creatures, there is one above the others, a primate. The eagle is first among birds; the whale or dolphin, among "fishes"; the rose, among flowers; the fire, among elements; the lion or elephant, among beasts; and, naturally, the emperor, among men (Tillyard 1959, pp. 29–30).

More recently, the distinguished conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet has insisted that conservatism is simply one of three major political ideologies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The other two are liberalism and socialism. Interestingly, an ideology for him, in addition to having a "reasonably" coherent body of ideas, has a power base that makes possible a victory for the body of ideas. It extends over a period of time and has "major" advocates or spokespersons as well as a "respectable" degree of institutionalization and charismatic figures. For conservatism, these figures would include people like Edmund Burke, Benjamin Disraeli, and Winston Churchill. Liberals have their own counterparts to these. The philosophical substance of conservatism dates from 1790 with the publication of Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (Nisbet 1986; Burke 1855).

There is a fascinating contradiction to be found in conservative doctrine. Methodologically, Nisbet offers it as a champion of historical method. This he approves of as an alternative to the liberal utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham that is "soulless," "mechanical," and even "inhuman." Bentham's doctrine idolizes pure reason, but human beings require a different mode of thought, one based on feelings, emotions, and long experience, as well as on pure logic.

In attacking liberal utilitarianism, Nisbet is attacking a doctrine essentially abandoned by twentieth-century American liberals. Sociologist L. T. Hobhouse must be credited with having made the most serious effort to reformulate liberal doctrine.

Utilitarianism, as fashioned by Jeremy Bentham and his followers, was the visible core of nineteenth-century liberalism. It has been defined as "nothing but an attempt to apply the principles of Newton to the affairs of politics and morals" (Halevy 1972, p. 6). The principle of utility, the notion that every possible action of human beings is either taken or not depending upon whether it is seen as resulting in either pleasure or pain, was the basis for an "objective science" of behavior modeled on the physical sciences. As such, in common with other alleged sciences, it was perhaps congenitally soulless, somewhat mechanical, and potentially inhuman. Using a "rational" (but not empirically derived) model, it announced that, by pursuing his or her own pleasure and avoiding pain, each person would maximize happiness for everyone. Society was simply a collection of separate individuals operating in their individual self-interests. Government action, or "interference," constituted a disservice to these individuals and should be rejected on "scientific" grounds.

Hobhouse took issue with this view but modestly presented John Stuart Mill as the transition figure between the old and new liberalisms. Mill, reared on Benthamite doctrine, continually brought it into contact with fresh experience and new trains of thought. As a result, Mill is, "the easiest person in the world to convict of inconsistency, incompleteness, and lack of rounded system. Hence also his work will survive the death of many consistent, complete, and perfectly rounded systems" (Hobhouse 1964, p. 58).

Hobhouse noted that, although the life of society is, ultimately, the life of individuals as they act upon each other, the lives of individuals would be quite different if they were separated from society. He stressed the fact that collective social action does not necessarily involve coercion or restraint. The state is simply one of many forms of human association, a form to which individuals owe much more of their personal security and freedom than most people recognize. "The value of a site in London," he pointed out, "is something due essentially to London, not to the landlord. More accurately, a part of it is due to London, a part to the British empire, a part, perhaps we should say, to Western civilization" (Hobhouse 1964, p. 100). "Democracy," he tells us, "is not founded merely on the right or the private interest of the individual. . . It is founded equally on the function of the individual as a member of the community" (Hobhouse 1964, p. 116).

In sum, Hobhouse helped provide a theoretic basis for a twentieth-century liberalism severed from the constricted framework of its origins and aimed at the liberation of all members of society. It continues to be very much concerned with feelings, emotions, and historical experience. Twentieth-century conservatism assumed the mantle of rigid utilitarianism shorn of its humanistic aspirations.

The contradictions in conservative doctrine become even more apparent when the matter of prejudice is considered. As Nisbet explains it, prejudice has its own intrinsic wisdom anterior to intellect. It can be readily applied in emergencies and does not leave one indecisive at the moment of decision. It sums up in an individual mind tradition's authority and wisdom (Nisbet 1986, p. 29).

This seems to epitomize the "mechanical" thought attributed to utilitarian or enlightenment liberals. Prejudice, in these terms, is, in effect, a mode of preprogrammed decision making. It insists upon shackling the human mind when confronted with new or unforeseen situations. It demands that such situations be dealt with through the use of what may well be outdated modes of thought, with strategies that were perhaps once useful but have lost their relevance. It denies a role for human creativity.

It is but a step from this doctrine to the prejudice castigated by civil rights activists and others. We meet a man whose skin is black or yellow; we meet a woman whose features tell us she is Jewish. We have preprogrammed responses to each of these, based on the "wisdom" of tradition, informing us that they, in various ways, are inferior creatures who must be dealt with accordingly.

The feudal origins of conservative doctrine are seen most clearly in its adamant stand on the issue of inheritance and property. Not only does it fight all efforts to loosen property from family groups by means of taxation, it fights all other efforts to redistribute wealth, ranging from special entitlements to affirmative action programs. It insists upon the indestructability of existing hierarchical structures in society, seeing all efforts to modify them as attacks on cultural and psychological diversity.

Further complicating the distinction between liberalism and conservatism has been what some might refer to as a fringe movement within conservatism, called neoconservatism. One explanation for the emergence of this phenomenon begins by noting that in the mid-1960s American universities, as well as literature and art in general, had become increasingly radicalized. Some cold war liberals, others who were uncomfortable with black power politics, and some critics of the counterculture disengaged themselves from liberalism. Prominent names in this group include Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and sociologists Seymour Martin Lipset, Nathan Glazer, Daniel Bell, and James Coleman. Some of these continue to reject the label but "it is as though by some invisible hand their writings and lectures gave help to the conservative cause when it was needed" (Nisbet 1986, p. 101).

Periodicals most strongly identified with neoconservatism are The Public Interest and Commentary. Neoconservatives have had close ties with the Scaife, Smith Richardson, John M. Olin, and other foundations. They have appeared as resident scholars and trustees of think tanks like the Hoover Institution, The Heritage Foundation, and the American Enterprise Institute (Gottfried and Fleming 1988, p. 73).

Unlike more traditional conservatives, neoconservatives are not irrevocably opposed to some possible versions of a welfare state. They do not depend upon historical methodology; on the contrary, they seem to show a marked preference for quantification.

Thus, the difference between contemporary liberalism and conservatism is apparently not to be found in issues of methodology, personality, or individual items of public policy. Yet there seems to remain an ineradicable core of difference. Ultimately this must be sought in the structure of material interests on the one hand and values on the other.

Historically, conservative doctrine was formulated as an intellectual defense of feudal property rights against the onslaughts of an emerging, business-oriented, industrializing bourgeoisie. Liberalism, with its early defense of individualism, championed the enemies of conservative doctrine and properly (from its perspective) fought against dominance by a central governing authority. Subsequently (as in the case of New Deal liberalism), it discovered that the logic of unhampered individualism led to serious economic difficulties for large numbers of the population. Experiments with varieties of the welfare state since the days of Bismarck probably can all be traced in considerable measure to the fear of more drastic consequences that might follow any effort to persist in an uncontrolled laissez-faire economy.

In the contemporary world complexity has become compounded. It has probably always been the case that some people refuse to act in accordance with their own more or less self-evident material interests. These days, however, the arts of propaganda and advertising have been raised to a level of effective applied science. It is difficult for many to recognize exactly where their own self-interest lies. Beyond this, numerous techniques have been developed with the practical effect of inducing many to adopt positions in marked contrast to their own existing material interests. Government-sponsored lotteries hold out the hope of dramatic changes in class position. Tales of fabulous profits to be made in real estate or the stock market induce many to identify with the interests toward which they aspire rather than with those they hold and are likely to retain.

This is not the only source of confusion. Although many intellectuals, as well as others, having "made it," subsequently become concerned with the maintenance of an order that has been good to them (Coser 1977), there are many others who, despite coming from very well-to-do backgrounds, maintain values consistent with economic deprivation. There are indeed generous souls as well as villains to be found among adherents of both liberalism and conservatism.

The shape of values is by no means always coterminous with the shape of existing material interests. Labels like liberalism and conservatism are uncertain predictors of specific actions, as are existing material interests. A variety of social forms, or structures, can be used to serve either selfish or communally oriented values. It is these values that are ultimately more reliable auguries.

In recent years there have been efforts to develop more useful theoretical frameworks for conceptualizing value configurations and more empirically based social policy alternatives. For example, Amitai Etzioni has elaborated an "I-We" paradigm as a substitute for both "unfettered" individualism and organismic views of society (Etzioni 1988). S. M. Miller and his colleagues eschew the liberal label in favor of progressive, a term less saddled with conflicting conceptual baggage. They have provided an agenda for social policy issues requiring considerable rethinking by those unwilling to accept either contemporary conservative and neoconservative doctrine or traditional socialist formulations (Ansara and Miller 1986).

It is clear that serious linguistic difficulties serve to exacerbate the problem of distinguishing clearly between liberalism and conservatism. Each term tends to represent a generic symbol for a range of widely diversified issues, values, and interests. Surrogate expressions are used extensively in popular speech to convey either finer shades of meaning or degrees of opprobrium.

For conservatives these expressions may include "right-wing crazies," "extreme right," "right-wing," "supply-siders," "libertarians," "filthy rich," "Republicans," and others. In contemporary America, portions of the conservative spectrum voice strong opinions not only on economic issues but also on such "social" issues as pornography, abortion, and affirmative action, although opinion on these issues is by no means unanimous. Traditional conservatism would, of course, back state-supported cultural standards in speech, art, literature, and entertainment. Nineteenth-century liberalism would oppose these in the name of individual "rights." Is abortion a woman's "right" or is it an "offense" against society? Many conservatives might define it as an offense; others might well define it as a right—a traditional liberal position.

Among liberals, surrogate expressions in use include "Red," "parlor-pink," "left-liberal," "bleeding heart," "tax and spender," "Democrat," and "Progressive." The liberal spectrum tends to support rights of women to have abortions or, more generally, to maintain control over their own bodies. It opposes abrogation of rights of self-expression through pornography legislation, censorship, or other efforts to monitor art, literature, theatre, and other communication vehicles. On the other hand, American liberals favor limitations on the asserted "rights" of corporations or individual business persons to discriminate in employment, housing, and other areas on the basis of skin color, age, religion, or physical disability—property rights that many conservatives insist are inviolable.

As one might expect, survey researchers have made and continue to make strong efforts to detect empirical differences between persons who are called or who call themselves liberal or conservative. Data from a variety of survey research studies indicate that, despite the existence of important philosophical differences between liberals and conservatives, changing social and economic conditions have at times compelled them to alter their positions on certain economic, social, and political issues without altering their underlying philosophies (McCloskey and Zaller 1984, p. 191). In general, these studies seem to confirm stereotypical images of both liberals and conservatives.

Liberals show a marked preference for social progress and human betterment, especially for the poor and powerless. Some believe personal happiness and success depend heavily upon institutional arrangements. Most liberals are "inveterate reformers"; they continually look for ways to improve the human condition by remodeling social, economic, and political institutions. Underlying this pursuit of change, social reform, and benevolence is faith in the potential perfectability of human beings and their capacity to manage their own affairs in a responsible and reasoned fashion.

Conservatives have a different notion of what constitutes the good society and how it can be achieved. Survey research data show that they have a more pessimistic view of human nature and its perfectability. They feel that people need strong leaders, firm laws and institutions, and strict moral codes to keep their appetites under control. Firm adherence to conventional norms and practices is essential for human well-being. They believe that those who fail in life must bear primary responsibility for its consequences. They are far less likely than liberals to support movements that have as their objectives the eradication of poverty, the better treatment of oppressed minorities, or the alleviation of social distress generally. They maintain that these movements, by disrupting existing institutions, do more harm than good (McCloskey and Zaller 1984, pp. 190–191).

Conventional public opinion polling techniques encounter increasing difficulties in this area. Thus, one study examined a hypothesized inverse relationship between socioeconomic status and conservatism on a wide range of so-called social issues. (Many observers felt that, during the 1970s and 1980s, as well as during the late 1960s, the main support for liberal and left political parties in the United States and other Western industrialized countries came from youthful members of the upper or middle strata.) It found that, in practice, many issues defied a neat separation of interests and values or of economic versus social arenas. Many social issues such as environmental protection, nuclear power, defense spending, and race or gender problems have an economic dimension, to the extent that they influence opportunities for jobs or profits. Conversely, government domestic spending, a classic economic issue, may have a social dimension if it is seen as involving welfare or aid to minorities. No consistent relationship between socioeconomic status and conservatism was found, with one exception. Liberalism on social issues tends to increase with education, but even here the relationship varies considerably from issue to issue. The authors suggest that lack of a consistent relationship reflects both the diversity of social issues and the fuzziness of the social/economic distinction (Himmelstein and McCrae 1988).

Another study examined what appeared to be an anomaly in this area. It postulated that high socioeconomic status remains one of the best predictors of Republican party support and conservative attitudes in the United States, that Republicans are wealthier, more educated, and hold higher status jobs than Democrats and independents. Jewish liberalism, however, confounds this general relationship. American Jews are generally wealthier, better educated, and hold higher status jobs than average Americans but continue to be the most liberal white ethnic group in the United States (Lerner, Nagai, and Rothman 1989, p. 330).

The emergence of a small cadre of Jewish neoconservative intellectuals has raised questions about Jewish liberalism. A sample of Jewish elites was compared with their Gentile counterparts. The study found that Jewish elites continue to be more liberal. Despite a plethora of competing explanations, the study concludes that Jewish liberalism is a product of a family tradition of liberalism that developed in response to European conditions. Specifically, the authors suggest that the Jewish elites inherited a tradition of responding in particular ways to felt marginality. This raises the question as to whether a realignment might occur when this cohort of American Jews loses its prominence and is replaced by a cohort with different patterns of socialization. In a concluding footnote, the authors raise the open question of whether events in the Middle East and the emergence in the Democratic party of an increasingly powerful African-American presence less supportive of Israel can transform the liberalism of American Jews (Lerner, Nagai, and Rothman 1989).

A study of public opinion on nuclear power concludes that assessing public opinion through responses to survey questions with fixed categories presents serious difficulties. It compares these difficulties with those arising from the effort to "impose elite dichotomies such as 'liberal' and 'conservative' on a mass public whose beliefs are not organized by such dimensions" (Gamson and Modligani 1989, p. 36).

Perhaps the more general difficulty is not to be found solely in the insufficiency of measuring instruments but in the increasingly more truncated vistas of the "mass publics." Fundamental philosophical positions and value orientations seem to have become increasingly more obscured by the exigencies of short-range decision making.

In societies where immediate job opportunities, social pressures, and short-range profits have serious implications not only for the quality of life but also for existence itself, it is scarcely surprising to find that many public issues and even individual values are filtered through the prisms of short-run individual economic concerns and ethnic identification. Manipulating perceptions of vital interests through sophisticated media technology does much to resolve the recurrent riddle, "Is Blank a liberal—or a conservative?"

(see also: Attitudes; Individualism; Public Opinion; Value Theory and Research; Voting Behavior)


references

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——1997 The Rise of European Liberalism (New Edition). New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction.

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Robert Boguslaw

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