Liberals vs. Conservatives is a False Dichotomy

Most things we commonly split into two piles fall apart if you think about them:

In the U.S. we divide people politically as Liberals and Conservatives, but the terms are so poorly defined it’s easy to find examples of people who have some liberal views and some conservative views.  There are other important alternatives for defining a person’s politics (what do you want to liberate? what do you want to conserve? how do you think it should be done?), but the convenience of the false dichotomy of liberal vs. conservative hides them from consideration. The convenience of binary logic blinds us from how poor a foundation for thought it can be.

All dichotomies can be sub-divided into smaller groups. This is rarely observed in debate, but if you believe you can divide anything in half, this applies recursively. You can have conservative liberals and liberal conservatives. And conservative liberal conservatives and liberal conservative liberals. If you stop to carefully examine anything polarizing, even when you’re certain you’re on the right side, you’ll discover nuance, contradiction and subtlety that will cause any wise mind to challenge the merits of the initial dichotomy.

An excerpt from the post The False Dichotomy of False Dichotomies.

6 Responses to “Liberals vs. Conservatives is a False Dichotomy”

  1. Kenneth Vogt

    This also applies to subdivisions of the thing we are dividing. For instance, I am socially liberal (in the modern parlance) and fiscally conservative. So am I liberal or conservative?

  2. Odai Athamneh

    Liberals want to conserve the environment, and conservatives wanted to “liberate” Iraq.

    My earliest understanding of US politics came from The World’s Smallest Political Test, so I was confused on the subject of gun control. If liberals want fewer social regulations and conservatives want more, shouldn’t their gun positions be reversed?

    I think it makes a little more sense when viewed through the lens of demographics – liberals tend to live in cities, where guns fuel gang violence. Conservatives tend to live in rural areas, where guns are used for hunting.

    But bottom line, I agree that trying to divide the political opinions of an entire nation into two (or even 3 or 4) groups is disingenuous. A false dichotomy.

    1. Scott

      There’s a Life of Brian-esque movie to be made about American Politics and how bizarre all the lines seem from the outside.

  3. Max Kanat-Alexander

    This is really true. This is a particularly weird dichotomy, because:

    (a) There are virtually infinite positions or ideas about how to organize a nation, which is what politics is essentially about. Many of these positions are equally-valid and their rightness depends on the context of the government.

    (b) The “sides” presented often don’t really even *exist*. For example, neither side is attempting to “conserve” or “liberate” much of anything.

    (c) The vast majority of citizens haven’t the faintest clue how the government operates, how a law is passed, *which* laws have been passed, or how to read a law.

    (d) All broadly-disseminated information about this dichotomy is provided by for-profit media companies whose purpose is entertainment over information.


  4. Bruce Bromley

    One interesting way to discriminate between different political parties would be this: imagine what the country would be like if the (fill in the blank) party got everything it really wanted. You’d soon see that a) nobody in the “party” would agree on eveything, and b) it’d be a pretty crazy country. Fortunately, we live in America, where the voters never let anything slide too far to one side without bringing it back on course. It may be sloppy, but, in the long run, it works, and works better than any other type of government – so far.

  5. Collin

    Wouldn’t that be libertarianism?


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