I think there's massive confusion when it comes to political sets of belief. In fact I believe the average person can't tell the difference between the two, but I'd bet they would tell you which one they contend they are. I want to clear some of that confusion with a simple look at the modern definitions of the terms conservative and liberal today in America. The two are by historic definition are antonyms, that is, complete opposites. But the terms are loosely used, and part of the political party blurring. If I had to define the two terms as simply as possible, here's what I'd tell someone who is foreign to both ideologies.
Liberalism: Any change is good change.
Conservatism: Most change is bad change.
With that mentality in mind you can understand how a liberal or a conservative would look at a problem. Take health care reform for example. Liberals typically admit the bill that passed wasn't perfect. Conservatives would call it a disaster. But liberals justify the bill as a "Step in the right direction." At the same time conservatives admit health care reform isn't a bad idea, in fact it's necessary. But because the status quo is likely better than the results of action, taking little or no action is better. With that in mind, conservatives typically hold to the Perversity Thesis. Back to health care. Liberals claim premiums (payment for insurance) will go down because of the newly passed bill. According to Perversity Thesis, the exact opposite will happen. They'll go up. Only time will tell which side has it right.
In terms of political parties, liberals best fit in with democrats, while conservatives fit in with republicans. But I stress that the blurring between political parties has messed that up considerably. I predict party reform on both sides will soon happen so that each political party will be more in touch with their core values.
Liberalism: Looking forward to a utopia future.
Conservatism: Looking back to a utopia past.
The reason any change is good change for liberals is because it will lead to a utopia. Conservatives want to revert back to the past in hopes of "unchanging," and getting back to what they argue were better times.
Liberalism: Taxes are for your own good.
Conservatism: Taxes should be lowered.
Liberals are all about social justice, redistribution of wealth, and helping out the poor or even minorities. Conservatives argue that everyone is capable enough to handle their own situation and family. Food stamps are my favorite example here. There used to be a stigma in America against the use of food stamps. Liberals changed that. (So did George W. Bush by renaming Food Stamps to Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program). That's why 1 in 8 Americans are now on food stamps. It's common place. You now use a credit card. Back in the day you went to a warehouse and got a block of cheese, a bag of rice, and whatnot. You can now buy rabbit, steak, and even truffles with food stamps these days. Going through check out at the grocery store isn't awkward any more for food stamp users. Obama just made it easier for college students to get on food stamps. Liberals think that will encourage more people to get an education, or at least help out those who choose that route. Conservatives contend it just creates dependency on the government - and that's the cardinal sin for conservative believers. To wrap up this example, taxes are for your own good in the liberal world because it allows the government to even the playing field for the whole of society.
Liberalism: When we all do well, we all are well.
Conservatism: When I do well, you do well.
Both of those statements are idealistic and Utopian centric. Both are true to some extent. But I wanted to make it clear the two statements are not the same statement at all. While both theoretically result in the same outcome, the means to get there is completely different. Conservatives contend you'll never get a job from a poor man. Liberals contend the rich are too rich, and that the rich are causing the poor to be poor/er. Conservatives argue that if the owner of a company does well, they will pass it onto their employees (or even hire more and expand, which spreads the wealth) while liberals contend that the gap between the rich and poor is getting deeper because of greed.
Liberalism: Big government.
Conservatism: Limited government.
Recent sweeping reforms are proof enough that liberals like big government. Under Obama the role of the government has expanded considerably. Ownership of car businesses, health care reform, expansion of food stamp programs, etc. Liberals argue that those car companies were too big to fail, ie socialism. Conservatives argue that they should fail if they can't turn a profit because the free market will continue to maintain capitalism. Conservatives only want a limited government that will interfere least with the daily lives of the people. Liberals think it's the government's responsibility to step in and protect the people, especially from corporate interest.
From Liberalism to Conservatism
I personally can't wrap my finger around why the media is liberal-centric. Or why most professors (or educated folk) at universities are liberals. Or why Hollywood is. But they tend to be liberal. Religious groups that tend to be conservative are easier for me to understand. I'm a conservative Mormon journalist. I'm in the majority of Mormons who are conservative, but in the minority of journalists. As a reporter in the TV business I've met many other journalists. I still can't figure out why the starter market reporters are spewing out so many liberals. Although if you make it through college without getting a taste of the liberal ways, you're in the minority. After coming straight out of college I was on the change bandwagon and voted for Obama. 1 year later I was a conservative. Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart have made politics fun again, and they're helping that college demographic become liberal. I personally love Colbert. If I one day break into the radio or TV talk show business, I'll likely be a hybrid between Colbert and Glenn Beck. I love gimmicks, and those two are full of them.
Back to my little journey from being a liberal to becoming a conservative. In college I was thinking to myself, what can the government do for me. I felt entitled. I think most liberals do. When I got married that changed. Then it was what can I do for my family. The government was no longer the solution, it was only a road block capable of preventing my family from succeeding on its own.
Oh and for the record I think Sarah Palin is a retard. But after voting for Obama and only recently getting in touch with my conservative roots, I find that I'd readily vote for another stupid hick from Texas (or even Alaska) than a smart politician from Chicago. Why? Because the stupider my president, the less likely he or she will interfere with my family.