The two streams in American politics are not liberal vs conservative, they can be roughly defined as "Leave Me Alone" vs "Make It Better". Leave Me Alone seeks personal independence, self-reliance and freedom from interference. Make It Better believes in the progressive betterment of society through regulation, intervention and education.
"Leave Me Alone" is defensive. It creates boundaries and asks that they be respected. "Make It Better" is offensive, it pushes through individual boundaries in the name of the greater good. Neither of these are purely moral positions. Rather they are preferential positions. "Leave Me Alone" can turn a blind eye to evil with long term consequences. "Make It Better" sometimes brings positive change. But like any course of positive action, "Make It Better" is more likely to be associated with negative consequences.
The difference between "Leave Me Alone" and "Make It Better" is cultural. It's in the way we prefer to live and how we see other people. To "Leave Me Alones", other people are either good or bad. But to the "Make It Betters", everyone is in a gray area and in need to enlightenment. "Leave Me Alones" trust people more as individuals, while being suspicious of groups. "Make It Betters" think of groups as more moral than individuals.
"Make It Betters" judge people by their web of interconnections. The interconnectedness is their way of morality. The more involved with others someone is, the better of a person they are. By contributing to the whole, they demonstrate selflessness. Their understanding of morality is purely external, as shown by interaction with others. It is why "Make It Betters" are often unable to process how one of them could possibly be guilty of a crime, when he is so involved in helping others. They derive their sense of moral worth from group participation, which makes self-examination difficult for them. Dissatisfied with the group, they often search for happiness and pursue self-improvement, but lack the internal moral code that makes either one truly possible.
"Leave Me Alones" see morality as internal. A matter of character. Public interactions can reveal character, but are also dominated by social pressures. "Leave Me Alones" distrust those who make a show of their social morality. To them external morality is often a cover for private sin. They are prone to self-examination and have a keen awareness of their failings. And suspect that everyone else also has a similar mismatch between their outer and inner selves.
The "Make It Betters" are hierarchical, as all social movements must be. Their movements promote equality through brotherhood, but as in any movement, function defines status. Inequality is the impetus for their movements, and by pledging to remedy this inequality, they also acknowledge it and enshrine it. By taking on the role as the uplifters, they elevate themselves to a higher status, and unconsciously seek to maintain their superior role in relation to those they wish to uplift. If actual equality occurs, they feel lost for equality removes their status as the uplifters.
Moral "Make It Better" movements typically assign blame for the inequality to the unequal, and political "MIB" movements assign it to those in power. Moral movements call on the unequal to improve themselves. Political movements call on those in power to stop oppressing them. Both approaches are incomplete and opportunistic. But in both cases the "Make It Betters" take on the role of intercessors for a portion of their community, their country or the world.
The "Leave Me Alones" are often accused of being dysfunctional members of the community, but it is more accurate to say that the "Make It Betters" are often dysfunctional as individuals. They have never learned how to be alone with themselves or to accept the inevitable aspects of life-- and need a group to give them what they cannot give themselves. They cannot live on their own terms, and must live through others instead.
The "Leave Me Alones" accept the reality of the world. The "Make It Betters" deny it. They deny death by seeking immortality through the group. They deny human fallibility by their constant programs of collective betterment. They have made the group their god, and they kill and die for it. If the LMA's can be accused of selfishness, the MIB's are guilty of a much more pervasive and unthinking selfishness. Their religion is social progress and they deny the right of anyone to dissent from the worship of their faith. LMA's are capable of private and mob cruelty, but it is MIB's who routinely enshrine that cruelty into law in the name of the greater good.
Of course few people or movements are purely one thing or another. Most are a mixture of the two. The difference is usually one of proportion. People have their own preferred mix of independence and interdependence that they want to practice on their own terms. And this is a "Leave Me Alone" approach.
The American tradition has a strong bias toward independence. Our myths, from the minute man to the cowboy to the superhero, are about vigilantes. Lone wolves who fight for what's theirs or stand up for what's right. While in other countries, liberators often overshadow revolutions, here George Washington may be the nation's greatest figure, but he still stands in the shadow of what was genuinely a popular revolution. No American leader's cult of personality has ever been allowed to overshadow the nation's achievements.
Even our collectivist movements are forced to resort to this tradition, framing a collectivist agenda in terms of individuals who make a difference by breaking from the herd and acting on their own initiative. The American psyche is resistant to stories of any other kind. They can be told, but they don't persist. The American Hero is still the individual, who remains suspicious of authority and willing to speak up where others remain silent.
But politics favors the "Make It Better" agenda. For it is an agenda, rather than the absence of. It is a difficult thing to set a man to the task of opposing change. It is much easier to make him an agent of change. For change has momentum. Its opposition has the potential energy of the backlash, but it has the kinetic energy of a progressive agenda. Those who want to make things better carry more weight in public debates than those who wish to be left alone. And the MIB's are usually better organized, for organization is in the nature of what they do.
The American narrative began with those who wanted to be left alone. Religious dissenters looking to practice their faith in an empty land without a state church. Planters and merchants looking for a place that had room for them and their ambitions. Farmers who wanted scarce land in a continent full of it.
Each confrontation between the authorities back home, their governors here, and the people brought the inevitable clash nearer. Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, was a forewarning of 1776. But the very act of rebellion required increasing organization. And so the Whiskey Rebellion that came in the aftermath of independence. And those post-independence clashes foreshadowed the Civil War and the present day conflict between the individual and the state. Each triumph of centralization solidified the narrative of union. The need of the central government to be able to set laws and have them obeyed in the name of the greater good-- trumping all else.
The Tea Party movement is driven by "Leave Me Alone" rhetoric, but it is up against a political system in which is government an enterprise with the need to create demand for its services. "Leave Me Alone" is also a service, and there are politicians and lobbies who have made careers on promising to provide it. But they can never succeed, or else they would be out of business. To successfully fight for political change is to bring a constituency into being, along with all the infrastructure that comes with it. It is the first step to going from LMA to MIB. In a democracy, to successfully resist the system is to become part of the system. To go from shooting at Redcoats at the Battle of Lexington, to shooting at farmers over Whiskey excise taxes.
The American narrative is still on the side of those who want to be left alone, even if the media and the cultural establishment is not. It is the romantic ideal at the heart of the American experience. But is freedom possible without a frontier, and can we fight to be left alone, without becoming what we are fighting against? The coming years will answer those questions in ways we cannot predict, but must learn from.