In the 19th and early 20th Century the term for liberal had a completely different connotation then it does today in the beginning of the 21st Century. In the late 1800's and early 1900's if you claimed to be a liberal thinker everyone knew that you espoused an ideology that strongly supported constitutionalism, capitalism, free enterprise and free market economics, small government, low taxes, equal opportunity for all, liberty, freedom of religious expression and the ability to preserve a free and fair electoral process. Before the latter half of the 17th Century this kind of thinking was hardly perceived by the masses and certainly rejected by the nobility class. It found expression with the coming of what many have called the Age of Enlightenment in Europe. This Free Thinking caught on and was the impetus for the freedom movement that exploded throughout Western Europe and Great Britain. It found full expression in the New World of the Americas with those seeking freedom from religious persecution in their homelands and royal suppression in their daily lives.
Conservatism had its beginnings long before the idea of liberalism. It's original meaning dealt with maintaining the status quo by ensuring existing long held beliefs and institutions remained in power. Change was allowed but over the course of many generations so that by the time the change was in full bloom it was already a well established societal norm.
By the 19th & 20th Century the term conservative took on a completely different meaning in the United States of America. Its definition was completely unfamiliar with its European counterpart. In fact, what was described earlier as 19th and 20th Century Liberalism was the Conservative outlook by most Americans. If you were a member of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party in the early 1950's there was little real distinction in the ideology, especially if you were a Democrat from a Southern State. It was mainly in the East and West Coast States that a clearer distinction between Republican and Democratic ideas were distinguishable. However, they weren't delineated so much by the terms liberal or conservative as they were Roosevelt New Dealers and Hoover Statists. Most Democrats and Republicans followed the liberal ideology described above and little distinction could be made say between a Harry S. Truman or Dwight D. Eisenhower when it came to topics like the economy, the military, the constitutional rights of the individual and State rights. Knowing this it is easy to understand why someone like a Ronald Reagan could start his political life as a Democrat. There were two exceptions to the rule during the early days of modernity in America - Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, however, most of their more "socialized" programs can be warranted to the fact of World War I and World War II when the need for more control and austerity were in force. Yet, it was those early socialistic foundations of these two men that has eventually led to the current age of entitlement mentality.
The question remains, however, what do the terms Liberalism and Conservatism mean today and when did these definitions occur in American society?
Today liberalism, as defined by the modern media and its conservative counterpart has taken on a label that seems more in line with a state socialism frame of mind. What is meant by state socialism in this case is the rights of the individual can and must at times be curtailed by the rights of the nation as a whole. If need be, the constitutionally guaranteed rights can be supplanted, if only temporally, by an autocratic governmental mandate or executive order for the well-being of the whole. Individual States must also give up their independence to the federal government if said government indicates it is in the best interest of the entire nation. Liberalism today proclaims itself not against the rights of the individual but believes those rights are best served when all equally benefit. Today's liberal ideology states that not only is the pursuit of happiness a right, the very act of happiness for everyone is a mandate. This differs greatly from the original founder's meaning but one that has evolved over the last 100 years or so.
On this idea of having the right of happiness Conservatives also differ from modern day Liberal ideas. When having is seen as a basic right then a society has become a welfare State with an entitlement mentality. In this nation the rights we have as human beings are the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To the modern conservative everything else is not a right but simply an added pleasure that some gain and others don't. Where the problem lies is when the right to pursue is taken away and replaced with the right to have. Many conservatives believe this usually indicates the beginning of the end of every great civilization.
When this great shift between modern day liberalism and American conservatism began was with the advent of President Lyndon B. Johnson's great War on Poverty initiative. The institution of the Food Stamp program and federally governed sponsorship of a non-working welfare entitlement, which was originally designed to assist struggling families has grown into a massive undertaking that has created several generations of people totally dependent on government benefits at the ever increasing cost to the middle class worker through ever increasing taxes. This was also the beginning of the present day battle between what has commonly become known as the social and political struggle between "right-winged" conservatism and "left-winged" liberalism in the United States. While there has been a history of defections from one party to another since the days Lincoln formed the Republican Party many members of the old Democratic Party migrated to the Republican Party after 1964, including such Democratic giants like Ronald Reagan. Some of this was due to the increased opposition by many Southern Democrats to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A lot of white tolerant Democrats migrated to the Republican Party because that party supported the Act and helped to get it passed for President Johnson. After Reagan became President there was another big shift in the voting of the Democratic Party, which by this time under the leadership of President Jimmy Carter had become much more "left-leaning." While most voters remained in their respective parties a lot of Democrats voted for Reagan, thus becoming known as Reagan or Blue-dog Democrats.
By the early 21st Century the definition for liberal and conservative has become a bit murky. With the advent of 24-hour cable news channels like CNN, FOX News and MSNBC and their talking heads that proliferate the airways with their own political point of views and favorite politicians the line between liberal and conservative has become razor thin. When people think of liberal they now have in mind politicians like President Barak Obama or Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. Conservatism is now equated with the policies and agendas of former President George W. Bush or Senator Mitch McConnell. Nothing could be further from the truth. President Obama isn't a liberal anymore than former President Bush is a conservative. They are both cut from the exact same cloth - big government politicians.
The gap between true liberalism and real conservatism isn't very wide at all. In fact, real conservatism is a far cry from what is currently touted by the media, and real liberalism isn't that great evil thing portrayed by those who call themselves right wing, such as Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity. In reality actual conservatives and liberals want pretty much the same thing. The difference isn't what they want at the end of the trail, but the slightly different paths to get there. Whereas, the Bush, Obama, Pelosi, Reid and McConnell types don't want that same destination. They want total control over the lives of every individual, organization and enterprise in this nation. True liberals and conservatives want as little federal big government interference as possible but strive for all those ideas presented earlier - constitutionalism, capitalism, free enterprise and free market economics, small government, low taxes, equal opportunity for all, liberty, freedom of religious expression and the ability to preserve a free and fair electoral process. More importantly they both see the value and worth of the individual, while those favoring big government see the masses as a singled-celled unit to be guided and controlled by a bureaucratic monopoly without accountability, not the individuals making up those masses who seek expression, autonomy and liberty.