The Difference Between Liberals and Conservatives

Teenage student in middle of classroom reading.
Troy Aossey/Taxi/Getty Images

In the political arena today in the United States, there are two main schools of thought that comprise much of the voting population: conservative and liberal. Conservative thought is sometimes called "right-wing" and liberal/progressive thought is called "left-wing."

As you read or listen to textbooks, speeches, news programs, and articles, you will come across statements that feel out of line with your own beliefs. It will be up to you to determine if those statements are biased to the left or right. Keep an eye out for statements and beliefs that are commonly associated with liberal or conservative thought.

Conservative Bias

The dictionary definition of conservative is "resistant to change." In any given society, then, the conservative view is one that is based on historical norms. defines conservative as:

  • Disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.

Conservatives in the United States political scene are like any other group: they come in all varieties and they don't think uniformly.

Guest writer Justin Quinn has provided a great overview of political conservatism. In this article, he points out that conservatives tend to find the following issues most important:

  • Traditional family values and the sanctity of marriage
  • A small, non-invasive government
  • A strong national defense focused on protection and the fight against terrorism
  • A commitment to faith and religion
  • The right to life for every human being

As you may know, the most familiar and influential national party for conservatives in the U.S. is the Republican Party.

Reading for Conservative Bias

Using the list of values stated above as a guideline, we can examine how some people might find political bias in a given article or report.

Traditional Family Values and the Sanctity of Marriage

Conservatives put great value in the traditional family unit, and they sanction programs that promote moral behavior. Many who consider themselves to be socially conservative believe that marriage should take place between a man and a woman.

A more liberal thinker would see a conservative bias in a news report that talks about marriage between a man and a woman as the only proper type of union. An opinion piece or magazine article that suggests gay unions are harmful and corrosive to our culture and standing in contrast to traditional family values could be considered conservative in nature.

A Limited Role for the Government

Conservatives generally value individual accomplishments and resent too much government intervention. They do not believe that it is the job of the government to solve the problems of society by imposing intrusive or costly policies, such as affirmative action or mandatory health care programs.

A progressive (liberal) leaning person would consider a piece biased if it suggested that the government unfairly implements social policies as a counter-balance for perceived social injustice.

Fiscal conservatives favor a limited role for government, so they also favor a small budget for the government. They believe that individuals should retain more of their own earnings and pay less to the government. These beliefs have led critics to suggest that fiscal conservatives are selfish and uncaring.

Progressive thinkers believe that taxes are a costly but necessary evil, and they would find bias in an article that is overly critical of taxation.

Strong National Defense

Conservatives advocate a large role for the military in providing security for society. They tend to believe that a large military presence is an essential tool for safeguarding society against acts of terrorism.

Progressives take a different stance: they tend to focus on communication and understanding as a means of safeguarding society. They believe that war is to be avoided as much as possible and prefer negotiation for safeguarding society, in lieu of amassing armaments and soldiers.

Therefore, a progressive thinker would find a piece of writing or a news report to be leaning conservative if it boasted (excessively) about the strength of the US military and extolled the wartime accomplishments of the military.

Commitment to Faith and Religion

Christian conservatives support laws that promote ethics and morality, based on values founded in a strong Judeo-Christian heritage.

Progressives do not believe that moral and ethical behavior is necessarily derived from Judeo-Christian beliefs, but instead, can be determined and discovered by each individual through self-reflection. A progressive thinker would find bias in a report or article that finds things indecent or immoral if that judgment reflected Christian beliefs. Progressives tend to believe that all religions are equal.

A real-life example of this difference in viewpoints exists in the debate about euthanasia or assisted suicide. Christian conservatives believe that "Thou shalt not kill" is a pretty straightforward statement, and that it is immoral to kill a person to end his or her suffering. A more liberal view, and one that is accepted by some religions (Buddhism, for example), is that people should be able to end their own life or the life of a loved one under some circumstances, especially under extreme conditions of suffering.


Many conservatives, and especially Christian conservatives, express strong feelings about the sanctity of life. They tend to believe that life begins at conception and therefore that abortion should be illegal. 

Progressives may take the stance that they also cherish human life, but they hold a different view, focusing on the lives of those who are already suffering in today's society, rather than the unborn. They generally support a woman's right to control her body.

Liberal Bias

The most familiar and influential national party for liberals in the U.S. is the Democratic party.

A few definitions from for the term liberal include:

  • Favorable to progress or reform, as in political or religious affairs.
  • Favorable to or in accord with concepts of maximum individual freedom possible, especially as guaranteed by law and secured by governmental protection of civil liberties.
  • Favoring or permitting freedom of action, especially with respect to matters of personal belief or expression: a liberal policy toward dissident artists and writers.
  • Free from prejudice or bigotry; tolerant: a liberal attitude toward foreigners.

You'll recall that conservatives favor tradition and generally suspect things that fall outside traditional views of "normal." You could say, then, that a liberal view (also called a progressive view) is one that is open to re-defining "normal" as we become more worldly and aware of other cultures.

Liberals and Government Programs

Liberals favor government-funded programs that address inequalities that they view as having derived from historical discrimination. Liberals believe that prejudice and stereotyping in society can hamper the opportunities for some citizens.

Some people would see liberal bias in an article or book that seems sympathetic to and appears to lend support to government programs that assist poor and minority populations.

Terms such as "bleeding hearts" and "tax and spenders" refer to progressives’ support of public policies that are designed to address perceived unfair access to health care, housing, and jobs.

If you read an article that seems sympathetic to historic unfairness, there could be a liberal bias. If you read an article that seems critical of the notion of historical unfairness, there could be a conservative bias.


Today some liberal thinkers prefer to call themselves progressives. Progressive movements are those that address injustice to a group that is in the minority. Liberals would say that the Civil Rights Movement was a progressive movement, for example. Support for Civil Rights legislation was, in fact, mixed when it came to party affiliation.

As you may know, many people were not in favor of granting equal rights to African Americans during the Civil Rights demonstrations in the 60s, possibly because they feared that equal rights would bring about too much change. Resistance to that change resulted in violence. During this tumultuous time, many pro-Civil Rights Republicans were criticized for being too "liberal" in their views and many Democrats (like John F. Kennedy) were accused of being too conservative when it came to accepting change.

Child labor laws provide another example. It may be hard to believe, but many people in the industry resisted the laws and other restrictions that prevented them from putting young children to work in dangerous factories for long hours. Progressive thinkers changed those laws. In fact, the U.S. was undergoing a "Progressive Era" at this time of reform. This Progressive Era led to reforms in the industry to make foods safer, to make factories safer, and to make many aspects of life more "fair."

The Progressive Era was one time when the government played a large role in the U.S. by interfering with business on behalf of people. Today, some people think the government should play a large role as a protector, while others believe that the government should refrain from taking a role. It is important to know that progressive thinking can come from either political party.


Conservatives lean toward the belief that the government should stay out of the business of individuals as much as possible, and that includes staying out of the individual's pocketbook. This means they prefer to limit taxes.

Liberals stress that a well-functioning government has a responsibility to maintain law and order and that doing this is costly. Liberals tend to lean toward the opinion that taxes are necessary for providing police and courts, ensuring safe transportation by building safe roads, promoting education by providing public schools, and protecting society in general by providing protections to those being exploited by industries.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Fleming, Grace. "The Difference Between Liberals and Conservatives." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Fleming, Grace. (2021, February 16). The Difference Between Liberals and Conservatives. Retrieved from Fleming, Grace. "The Difference Between Liberals and Conservatives." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).