We need to talk about the myth that is “social liberalism, fiscal conservatism”
Let’s be clear: it doesn’t exist.
Yes, that guy you met at a party one time chatted with you about current events and eventually explained that he “isn’t really a Democrat or a Republican—he’s actually socially liberal but fiscally conservative.” Yes, your aunt says she cares about minorities but thinks the government should stay away from our checkbooks. You might even consider yourself a part of this category, as I once did.
But here’s the problem—these two policies don’t work together. To call oneself “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” is either an indication of a lack of understanding of government and social issues, or a cop-out to make friends from marginalized communities feel like they matter while actually supporting the very things that go against them.
In my own experience, considering oneself socially liberal but fiscally conservative (something I’m going to go ahead and refer to as SLFC from here on out, because the label is exhausting) has been the halfway point between realizing it’s good to care about other people and learning about how that works in the context of one’s government. I had to come to terms with the fact that if I’m going to advocate for women’s access to healthcare (a social issue), doing so will involve fighting for Planned Parenthood’s funding, ensuring everyone in the United States can enjoy the benefits of health insurance, and preventing anti-abortion lobbyists from paying off the legislators who make it illegal for a woman to terminate her pregnancy (all fiscal issues). I couldn’t ignore that transgender people (a community I care about, as a person fighting for gender and sexual equity) disproportionately struggle to secure financial aid, jobs, and especially now, healthcare (all issues heavily impacted by state and federal financial policies). The list of areas in which fiscal choices affect the issues socially-progressive people care about is virtually endless.
Not to mention the fact that if you want people to escape poverty, it is impossible to ignore that our government currently allows the top 0.01 percent of US households to control more than one tenth of the country’s wealth, and that only the top 20 percent of US households have recovered since the Great Depression. Truly viewing social issues in a progressive light requires you to acknowledge that those social issues won’t improve unless the fiscal policies affecting them are also improved. Otherwise, you’re banking on things like “thoughts and prayers” (and, I don’t know, crossing your fingers?) to fix the very issues you claim to care about.
I get the appeal of SLFC as an identity. I used to dig Ayn Rand and complain about “handouts” while simultaneously realizing I was queer and educating myself about women’s inequality. I got angry when a friend told me that a country in Europe was considering a universal basic income, but I also got angry when my high school teacher explained that women and people of color continue to earn less than white men. (Side note: I know I’m lucky to have had a teacher who was even willing to touch on that subject in the classroom.) But while the concept of keeping one’s government out of both personal life and pocket is theoretically sexy, it’s just that: theory. It doesn’t take into account the real world, where greed, white collar crime, discrimination, and a whole lot of other ugly things exist. It’s like the infamous idea of trickle-down economics: while everyone would like to believe that letting the 1% rule will benefit the rest of the economy as the 1% creates opportunity and donates cash left and right, the rich simply don’t do these things. At least, not in proportion to their extreme wealth.
The process of effectively advocating for social concerns like (but not limited to) LGBTQ+ rights, racial and gender equity, and ending homelessness—all topics SLFC seem to have in mind when they claim they’re “socially liberal”—involves providing financial resources to the organizations who aim to do just that. It means implementing legislation that prevents mega-rich individuals and families from hoarding millions upon millions of dollars while poor individuals and families die. It means ensuring that the people’s tax dollars reach temporary housing, mental healthcare, substance abuse programs, and other resources that help resolve the very issues a socially liberal person prioritizes.
It means putting your money where your mouth is.