Conservative and Libertarian Misconceptions of Liberal Viewpoints

I’ve quoted Will Wilkinson in several posts recently. We share some views in common and disagree in other areas. I generally tend to prefer this type of post as there is little point in liberal blogs which only quote liberals, conservatives only quoting conservatives, and libertarians only quoting libertarians.

In my case it is easier to find conservatives and libertarians to quote on some topics as there are areas where my views don’t always coincide with the consensus of the liberal blogosphere. I’ve also quoted Mathew Yglesias many times, both agreeing and disagreeing with him from time to time.

One of the topics I have frequently quoted Will Wilkinson on is his interest in liberal/libertarian fusionism. In general there are areas of overlap between the two on civil liberties issues, social issues (excluding the many libertarians who are far more conservative than libertarian), and the war. Wilkinson has supported more communication between liberals and libertarians because of these areas of agreement.

There is less disagreement in economic matters, although Wilkinson frequently does point out that some liberals are more market-friendly than others. Some of this disagreement is based upon true policy issues, but there does remain the problem of non-liberals having many misconceptions about liberal beliefs, often believing the stereotypes coming from the right wing noise machine.

All of this leads to this post by Mathew Yglesias which shows how many of the differences are based upon misconceptions about what liberals believe. He begins by saying, “Someone emailed me this Will Wilkinson post which I find interesting because his description of what progressives think about the economy has basically zero points of contact with what I think about the economy.”

Will Wilkinson pays far more attention to what liberals are saying than most conservatives and libertarians. If his writing prompts this comment of “zero points of contact with what I think” imagine how little relationship there is between the average conservative or libertarian blog post and liberal thought. Some conservatives and libertarians waste a tremendous amount of space for posts which amount to nothing more than straw men attacks, attacking beliefs which sound far more like those of the villains of Ayn Rand novels than any one’s actual beliefs.


  1. 1
    Eclectic Radical says:

    I’ve read what the average conservative or libertarian ‘on the street’ appears to believe about what I think a few times. What’s really scary isn’t even the conservative misunderstanding of my positions (though it is hardly as if my opinions are hard to find, between my own blog and comments on HuffPo and the blogs of others), but the moderate tendency to buy into conservative misrepresentations and misunderstandings of liberal positions. It’s hard to say whether the people in question are truly centrists or whether they simply think they are more centrist than they are, but the frequency with which I read ‘I don’t buy into GOP extremism, but your side isn’t any better’ really shocks me.

    Has anyone else encountered this particular syndrome?

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    Conservative dominance of the media is largely responsible for moderate viewpoints. Sure there are many liberal media outlets like the New York Times and balanced outlets like PBS but the average person does not get their information there. Conservatives own a greater proportion of local radio and television stations.

    Conservatives also dominate cable news and have a tremendous influence over broadcast network news. In cable we have far right Fox and center-right CNN, with MSNBC also having been conservative until a couple of years ago (and still being a distant third place outfit). 

    Even if they go to the networks, Charles Gibson often repeats conservative talking points. I think Brian Williams tries to be more balanced, but the right wing has concentrated on pushing their talking points on him. Even when the media tries to be balanced, the  right wing has been so successful at inventing claims of liberal bias that journalists tilt towards the right to try to avoid such charges.

    This doesn’t mean things are hopeless. The events of the last few years have opened many eyes. Young people are more likely to get information beyond the mainstream media, and they are avoiding the GOP by wide margins. With the young, having Jon Stewart mock a conservative talking point makes a big difference.

  3. 3
    Eclectic Radical says:

    That’s actually a pretty good analysis of the media. I’m not used to thinking of the mainstream media as ‘right wing’, and I’m not sure it is in every sense, but overall I think you’re right. Certainly the corporate interests who control the commercial media are primarily interested in advancing their corporate-commercial agenda, and that puts them solidly in the neoconservative camp at least on the economic issues.

    Thank you for reminding me. 🙂

  4. 4
    Eric D. Rittberg says:

    You make a huge error by assuming that there’s agreement between libertarians and liberals on civil liberty issues. 

    The only areas where we intersect are on abortion and gay rights, and even on those two issues, we libertarians only agree with liberals on half the equation; liberals want government funding of abortion, we don’t, and they favor special privledges for gays through affirmative action, we don’t.

    On a ton of civil liberties issues that matter most, it’s the liberals that are pushing the anti-libertarian positions:

    Seat belt laws!

    Smoking bans

    Gambling restrictions

    Outlawing Prostitution for “health and safety of the community”

    Restricting Swingers rights to utilize their own private property: House parties and private clubs

    Lowering the speed limit to 55 mph to “protect the environent”

    Mandatory Draft/National Service to “promote egalitarianism”

    Lowering the Drinking Age to 18, most especially for Military Personnel

    We libertarians have very little in common with liberals.  Ironically, you might even say we have more in common with some liberals in economic areas, than on civil liberty issues.  For instance, many liberals, including some East Coast elitists, are Pro-Free Trade, while many Conservatives are protectionist.    And a small handful of liberals are decent on the issue of Welfare Reform. 

    So, kindly stop citing civil liberties matters as an area of intersection between us libertarians and you all liberals. 

  5. 5
    Ron Chusid says:


    It looks like Democrats are on the same line of thought with regards to guns. They have been avoiding the issue for the last few years.

    You are right that there are aspects of media outlets which cannot be characterized as liberal or conservative. Often there is no clear distinction. On cable it is a bit clearer. Fox has a clear far right bias and MSNBC, at least during prime time, has gone with clear liberal bias. CNN is more difficult to characterize but they have hired far more people with Republican and conservative backgrounds in recent years. Some of their on air people, such as Wolf Blitzer, are much more clearly siding with conservatives while there is not as clear a bias with others.

    Another factor we often have with the media is that the younger reporters tend to be liberal and owners tend to be conservative. Then we have the extremely wealthy top on air talent at the networks. In general they tend to be more socially liberal and economically conservative (in terms of being concerned about their tax rates).

    The fact remains that the bulk of viewers of the mainstream media are being exposed far more to right wing talking points being passed off as fact. This tilt lessened in the last few years as virtually everyone turned against Bush, but there are still studies showing that the Republicans received more favorable coverage during the election, despite all the enthusiasm for Obama.

  6. 6
    Fritz says:

    I think it is a huge error to view media outlets as “liberal” or “conservative”.  They are corporate urban elitist.  Conservatives hear the “urban” and “elitists” tone in their reports and call them “liberal”.  Liberal/progressive types hear the unrelenting corporate tone and call them conservative.

    In all seriousness if liberals want to have more positive connections with libertarians or conservatives, cut the gun-banning crap and come shooting with us. 

    Many years ago when I was taking a handgun course, I went out the the woods for the practical training part (a long weekend with a lot of lead going down range).  My car had a large collection of gay-rights stickers and I have a few earrings.  One old guy wandered up to me, looked at my car, looked at me, said “That your car?”.  “Yep”.  Looked at my car, looked at my ears, looked at my targets, said “At least you shoot straight”.

  7. 7
    Ron Chusid says:


    Your comment was eaten by Akismet and I almost didn’t see it. For some reason their system thinks you are a spammer. (Maybe it knows what it is doing.)

    Note that I am using terms like libertarian and liberal in the sense that most people use them, not the bizarre definitions you use. As many libertarians have already pointed out, you are a conservative (even if you do have libertarian views on a few nanny state issues) and your views are quite inconsistent with libertarian beliefs.

    Your ideas on the views of liberals remain quite different from the actual views of liberals. Most liberals are strongly opposed to the draft. Liberals support an end of discrimination against gays, not special privileges. The issue is getting the government out of personal decisions such as abortion. Most of the items you list have nothing to do with liberal/conservative divides and may or not be supported by any individual liberal. They certainly do not define liberal beliefs.

    These items are also not the issues which most people mean by civil liberties. We’ve already established in previous discussions here that you are opposed to civil liberties as the term is generally used, considering  your support for the Patriot Act, your opposition to freedom of speech and freedom of the press when used to oppose government action you back such as the Iraq war, your support for authoritarian warmonger Rudy Giuliani, your support for what would amount to a military dictatorship, and your backing of a book-banner and social conservative such as Sarah Palin.

    At least I do find it interesting that you break from the conventional wisdom that Republicans are closer to libertarians on economic policy.

  8. 8
    Fritz says:


    Pelosi saying “We don’t want to talk about that right now, do we?” is hardly confidence-inspiring.  I would like to see a few more self-defined liberal politicians getting their photos taken shooting full-auto downrange.  But so it goes.

    Outside of the gun-owning issue, my major gripe with liberals wrt civil liberties is that liberals tend to be sort of, well, wishy-washy.  For the most part, this stems from a belief that people have a right to not be offended.  So you get weird oppositions — a right to view porn gets pitted against some woman announcing that porn is violence against woman.  A  negative reaction to Islam gets pitted against a “right” to religion not being insulted.  The list goes on.

    And as far as media bias goes — well, viewers get exposed to right-wing talking points being passed off as facts because that was the quickest way for the center-left media to get through showing anything from conservatives.  Seriously, I don’t love conservatives at all, but the general ideological tilt of most broadcast news is screamingly evident.  But maybe that’s because I usually listen to NPR.

  9. 9
    Mark Thompson says:


    I think you have to distinguish which groups of liberal, conservatives, and libertarians you’re talking about.  You are certainly correct that a lot of popular/grass roots conservative and libertarian sites engage in little more than straw-manning of what liberals believe, or at the very least what mainstream liberals believe.  But the same is true in reverse – witness, for example, the popularity of Naomi Klein’s screed against Milton Friedman, which manages to take a quote that was intended as a warning about the use of crises to expand government power and turn it into the basis for the “Shock Doctrine.” 

    The conclusion I’ve come to is that there are some conservatives who are interested in discussing the substance of what liberals and libertarians have to say, some libertarians who are interested in discussing the substance of what liberals and conservatives have to say, and some liberals who are interested in discussing the substance of what libertarians and liberals have to say.  With some rare but notable exceptions (Yglesias being one), few of these voices are held in high regard by their respective movement’s “base.”  This is deeply saddening, but it’s unfortunately true. 

  10. 10
    Ron Chusid says:

    “I think you have to distinguish which groups of liberal, conservatives, and libertarians you’re talking about”

    There have been some posts on the differences between different liberal, conservative, and libertarians previously. This is part of a series of posts and these topics were discussed previously.

  11. 11
    Eclectic Radical says:

    I have to address some of Eric’s statements even though Ron has done so. As a liberal who finds his views somewhat misrepresented, I’d like to do what I can to correct them.

    I am against seat belt laws for adults. Not only ideologically, but also practically: seat belts are not made to fit all of the population equally and people outside the norms of height, weight, girth, etc cannot wear them with comfort and still drive effectively. They can be as much a safety hazard for such people as they are a safety device for someone else. Likewise, seat belts cause as many injuries as they prevent even in more ‘average’ people.

    I see both sides on smoking bans. While I have serious problems with much of the conduct of the tobacco companies over the years, people have a right to smoke if they wish to smoke. I do not believe they should be penalized. On the other hand, I have an equal right not to smoke and a significant amount of second hand smoke violates MY rights. On the flip side, smoking bans have been used in some industries (notably air travel) to cut fiscal corners in ways that have seriously worsened public health dangers rather than lessened them. If proper air conditioning can completely replace the air in a given location’ or an outside patio exists, I don’t have any problem with people smoking. I have a problem with being forced to smoke by inadequate ventilation.

    ‘Gambling restrictions’ is a hazy statement. I am against the legal prohibition of gambling by most states. People have a right to gamble if they wish. I believe someone who runs a casino, sports book, or lottery should be properly licensed and registered and that some regulation should exist. Industrial gambling and social gambling are not the same thing. That said, I oppose the current situation where legal bans on industrial gambling create artificial monopoly conditions for the benefit of specific business concerns and state governments. Does that mean I support gambling restrictions?

    I believe prostitution should be decriminalized. I am not the only liberal who feels that way. However, this is an extremely divisive issue for liberals. Even the feminist movement is divided, though establishment feminism has taken a firm stand against decriminalization based on the notion that all prostitution is ‘forced’: by circumstance if not by direct coercion. The question is a difficult one. Personally, I believe that society’s responsibility to protect its citizens means that prostitution should be decriminalized so that sex workers can be protected rather than persecuted by the law.

    I should note that bans on both gambling and prostitution (regardless of whether they are supported or opposed by various liberals now) were established by the political pressure of religious movements based on religious morality. The modern religious right wishes to institute more of these kinds of bans, not less, even if the liberals of the past were closer to the evangelical revival community than were the conservatives of the past. This is not a ‘liberal’ agenda, regardless of the feminist movement’s position of prostitution.

    I believe that the sexual conduct of consenting adults is none of the government’s business. This is one of the linchpins of my liberal politics. Many liberals agree with me. I know ‘kinky’ people, none of my ‘kinky’ friends are Republicans.

    Frankly, I think there are more important political issues than the speed limit. I don’t think about it that much or really care. There is evidence to suggest a speed limit of 55-65 miles per hour lowers accident rates. There is evidence to suggest states and municipalities use traffic enforcement as a protection racket to raise funds. I am inclined to accept the evidence on both sides as valid. I generally support lowering accident rates and generally oppose police state fiscal policies. So I am ambivalent.

    The issue of the mandatory draft/national service initiative is complicated. The liberal politicians responsible for it do not philosophically support the draft, they philosophically oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and believe that the volunteer armed service creates a system that represents only the most elite and most disadvantaged segments of society while excusing the bulk of the population from a stake in armed conflict. They believe a national draft would ‘democratize’ the question of military intervention as it would give the entire population an equal stake in warfare. This is not a moral support for the draft, but an attempt to involve the nation as a whole in the moral question of warfare. I understand and appreciate their intellectual effort to address this problem, but I am not certain their method is the right one.

    All that aside, I do support universal, compulsory national service. I do so for a very simple reason: we are all members of this society and we all expect to benefit from such, even the most hardcore ‘hard’ libertarians want their liberties to be protected. Universal national service  requires every citizen to actively serve society, and serving society exposes people from Tuscaloosa, Alabama to people from Bangor, Maine. We need to become less parochial and isolated, national service is an effective way to do so. I believe there should be military and non-military options from which to choose. I suppose, in this sense, I am a scary socialist.

    I support lowering the drinking age to 18. If one is legally an adult, one should legally be able to make consenting decisions for one’s self. Defenses of the higher drinking age have practical points, but if one believes an adult should be able to make adult decisions than there is no legitimate reason for a higher drinking age and a lower age to vote, engage in consensual intercourse, and/or join the military. Arguments against this stance are baldly hypocritical, however ‘right’ they may be in a utilitarian sense.

    I should note that the ‘nanny state’ is not so much a ‘liberal’ platform as a progressive Establishment platform. This is one of the reasons I dislike the word ‘progressive’ when bandied about by liberal Democrats and call myself a ‘radical’ instead. ‘Progressivism’ was the political and cultural philosophy that led us to where we are now and created the existing ‘Establishment’, liberal and conservative. Many Establishment conservatives and Establishment liberals agree on a wide range of ‘nanny state’ issues because of a shared belief in the right of society to make moral decisions on behalf of its members, in their best interests.

    I believe in the duty of society to ensure the security, liberty, and privacy of its members. I believe society should be based on a belief in moral justice, but I do not believe that society has the right to demand its members conform to one socially acceptable morality. Nor do I believe society should restrict freedom of choice without close examination of the need for the restrictions, the possible benefits of the restrictions, and the possible negative consequences of those restrictions.

    I believe in a society of  free-thinking individuals enjoying equality before the law, the liberty to make their own personal life choices, and recognizing their responsibility to collaborate  in the interest of protecting their freedom of thought, legal equality, and freedom of choice. I believe most liberals agree with that statement, even where we disagree on individual issues.

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