I've done a lot of thinking about this subject over the last few years. I have heard various definitions of both leftists and conservatives for some time now, but these haven't seemed workable.
For instance, some define the Left as being "pro-government", but such a definition is shallow and doesn't account for the Left's disdain for certain branches of the government, such as the police and the military. On the right, some have posited (most notably Rush Limbaugh) that "freedom" is the unifying principle for conservatives. This has a certain ring to it, but what do you make of mainstream conservative positions on cultural issues and law and order?
I have been tempted in the past to use the Potter Stewart/porn approach: I know them when I see them. For example, Ted Kennedy ... leftist? Check. Ronald Reagan ... conservative? Check. Howard Dean ... leftist? Check. William F. Buckley ... conservative? Check.
But now, I have a definition to pass on to my kids and answer that burning question: "Dad, what is a damleftist?"
So, here's what I think: In simple terms, the more one embraces the post-modern view of mankind, the more he or she is a leftist; the more one embraces a traditional or Judeo-Christian view of mankind, the more he or she is a conservative.
To provide a bit more explanation, the prior defininition doesn't rest on one's acceptance of any faith per se, just the view of mankind as being either post-modern or traditional/Judeo-Christian.
To further break down this definition, the post-modern view of mankind is essentially: the unlimited, unconstrained individual, whose personal reality is defined entirely without resorting to what the philosophers call "metanarratives", i.e., religion, family, country. The individual is supreme in all respects, in making decisions and in defining reality as he or she sees fit.
The traditional/Judeo-Christian view of mankind says that each individual has dignity, yet is limited. The individual does not define the universe, but is part of it.
Again, none of us fits perfectly on this philosophical continuum. We all have our "heresies". But I think this is the best way to determine and define who is a leftist and who is a conservative.
So, let's give the definition a test drive.
How about an easy one? Take permissive social mores on sexual issues, for instance. The Left looks to the individual to decide whether a relationship "works" or feels right. The Right generally looks to rules or traditions to decide whether conduct is permissible or healthy.
The free enterprise system? In some ways, this is so antithetical to postmodernism that it considered a "metanarrative". More fundamentally, though, the free enterprise system runs on an understanding of the limits and self-centeredness of individuals. Leftists don't see the need to incentivize the radically unconstrained individual. I mean, would you put God on a rewards system?
It's not always self-evident, though. Why is it that radical individualists seem to gravitate to totalitarianism? If you start from the premise that a Leftist is not required to be consistent (because each individual defines his reality without reference to any external rules or standards), then everything starts to fall into place. Plus, there are other factors, too, such as the following: A totalitarian leftist state works real well for the individuals running it.
Environmentalism? The Leftist view here is primarily a reaction to conservative institutions and the traditional view of mankind itself, namely the view that advocates human dominion over nature.
Back to the Potter Stewart approach ... Is there any doubt that Ted Kennedy is a paradigm of the radically unconstrained individual?
So, what do you think? Is there any example that doesn't work or fit? If you think so, let me know.