Scott Wells at Boys in the Bands enters a discussion on the radical-conservative-liberal continuum, and asks for our thoughts. As this is something I've been meaning to post about for some time, I'm grateful for the invitation! Although there are some specific meanings to the terms "liberal" and "conservative" in specific vocations- judicial, for example, or theological- the general mindsets are much the same in most any arena, so I will discuss how I see the differences.
To begin with, both Liberals and Conservatives see that things need improving, and both seek the greater good for all. But...
The conservative believes that the world didn't just appear one day, with the systems and institutions we have picked at random. Things are the way there, generally speaking, because that's the way they must be- or, originally must have been- to function properly. The reasons why may not be obvious, may be counterintuitive, but the reasons do exist; and therefore the conservative will be reluctant to change unless there are clear and compelling reasons to. "Invisible hand" and "unintended consequences" are frequently heard in conservative circles.
The Liberal abhors the negative aspects of status quo more than he fears unintended consequences. While the conservative trusts the collective wisdom of those in the past who created what we have now, the liberal trusts the collective wisdom of those in the future who will administer what we create today. Thus, the liberal is more willing to create new programs with profound consequences, while the conservative would prefer to do it in reversible stages, to gauge effects and make corrections. Phrases such as "Surely in a country that can do ___, we can..." and "If we just..." are frequently heard from liberals.
The conservative sees the liberal as unrealistic, feet not on the ground. It's been tried before, it never works, climb down from your ivory tower and see the real world now and then. The liberal sees the conservative as pessimistic, or even uncaring. Can't you see it doesn't have to be this way? Don't you care? If we just... To my mind, both attitudes, forever in tension with neither side ever gaining permanent ascendancy, are necessary for survival of a person or a society. A society that never gambles never progresses; a society that gambles too much soon dies. History is replete with examples of both failings.
And the radical? A radical can come from either direction; the difference is what he is willing to do, how far he is willing to go. Rita Rudner said "”Neurotics build castles in the air, psychotics live in them. My mother cleans them.” Her mother is a radical.
Evidence that the liberal/conservative is a general mindset, rather than a specific doctrine, is amply provided by the UUA. There is no theological requirement I'm aware of that a liberal church must be liberal politically, but if you look at all the Statements of Conscience, Immediate Witness, etc., the UUA has passed, you'll never see a greater collection of (to my conservative eyes) hare-brained, ivory tower, loony-lefty schemes. I'm convinced that someday a bunch of UUs attending a séance will be accosted by the spirit of Karl Marx himself, saying, "Whoa, slow down with the wobbly stuff already, don't got carried away..." But that doesn't bother me, for rarer than the UU conservative is the UU radical. Without radicals, a society doesn't act at all, it merely discusses things. A society without radicals comes to believe that by writing a letter to their congressman or holding an after-service forum on a given issue, they have actually done something about it. A radical wouldn't be so fooled.