If "liberal" is replaced with "radical" and "conservative" with "moderate" I can say, at the age of 39, that perhaps the saying is on to something.
I respect and dearly love my younger, more radical friends (for it is absolutely true that the two often go hand-in-hand) and yet I often find myself at odds with them. So perhaps it would be worthwhile to take a few moments to explain some of the reasons why I tend towards supporting the smaller, more moderate, less sweeping changes, and to compromise, and to continuing to seek common ground and work with people who disagree with me:
1) The small change that actually happens can help more people faster than the big change that doesn't.
I first learned this lesson, and took my first real steps away from radical left politics to more moderate, compromise-oriented politics when I was 26, after one of my closest friends died unexpectedly.
Before that, I was full-tilt "GAY MARRIAGE NOW - anything else is separate-and-unequal selling out, how dare you?!"
Then, we lost Cilla, suddenly and without warning. Cilla lived with her two daughters and with her life partner, Mary, in a northern exurb of Pittsburgh. Mary had no legally recognized ties to Cilla at all, and thus no right to so much as make funeral arrangements until Cilla's long-estranged mother in California was found and gave consent. This was the first time I had really witnessed the effects of lacking legal family ties, and it changed my mind immediately. A civil union or domestic partnership would not have been as good as marriage - but it would have made Mary's nightmare a lot less nightmare-ish.
Did we need people continuing to agitate for full marriage equality, as well as for LGBTQ civil rights that had nothing to do with marriage? HELL YES.
Does that mean that if the "compromise" measure had been available, it should not have been taken because not good enough? NO. IT DOES NOT.
2) Refusing to support anyone who doesn't pass your ideological purity test, ever, under any circumstances, means there are real people in need who can't get help at all.
...also known as "fine, where are the Neopagan nursing homes?"
When I was in my 20s, it seemed like there was an ever-growing list of charitable causes that good progressives shouldn't support or go anywhere near. It would start with a handful of obvious targets (Salvation Army, Boy Scouts, the usual suspects) and then extend out to "you shouldn't support any group that's worked with a group that's worked with the Bad Guys."
I can give a more specific example that is close to my heart. Yes, there's plenty of stuff that Catholic Charities does that I disagree with (hoo boy, is there). But when I was at SALT, I did a lot of work with Catholic Charities (and my clinical supervisor worked directly for them) because that was the agency that was actually fucking present in the local area helping people who had lost their homes to Hurricane Irene get government help. SALT itself, in the beginning, was essentially a coalition between the disaster response part of the local Catholic Charities and several mainline-to-conservative Protestant churches with congregations in the area of the disaster, with a spike of Americorps NCCC youth thrown in.
Never mind that part of the conditions of being involved in the disaster relief included that nobody was to proselytize or try to recruit for their church or denomination, and that help was to be made equally available to all in need of any faith or none. In the eyes of some more radical progressives, my presence there was tantamount to being pro-fundamentalist and anti-LGBT.
(And of course, conveniently, the fact that so much work was being done by "tainted" organizations excused the people who are the target of this rant from doing anything in the way of offering help themselves. This still makes me angry when I think about it.)
3) The "Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!" scenario - when an activist solution is simple, neat, and wrong.
Fight-for-$15ers, I'm talking about you here:
Simply raising the minimum wage to $15, right away, would help a lot of young, single people.
It would be an economic disaster for many families, especially single-parent families. I know this from a set of projections I needed to complete to submit to the governor's office as part of my job. To make a long spreadsheet into a short paragraph:
A $15 minimum wage would cause many single-parent families that currently have subsidized child care to lose it, while not increasing take-home pay significantly enough to make families whole after that loss. There are other government benefits (low-cost health insurance, housing and utility assistance programs, even food stamps/SNAP) that might similarly be cut without enough of an increase in take-home pay to balance the effect out. Essentially, from the calculations we did where I work, we found that raising the minimum wage to $12 would cause this type of problem far less often, but once the wage went beyond $12/hour it would take a minimum wage of $21/hour to make up for the loss of subsidized child care and the other assistance that they would lose at the $15/hour point.
4) [for parents] Young children CANNOT give informed consent, or even assent, to radical activism, or to the effects their parents' participation in it will have on them.
Yes, I know to some people the answer to this is "don't have kids, then!" Fine, whatever, you do you. I have kids. A lot of us have kids by the time we're 40.
I have activist friends who make it a goal to get arrested at protest actions. I can't do that. I do not believe it is ethical, through my own voluntary actions, to put my kids in a position where I might lose custody of them, or where I might lose my job and thus impair not only my standard of living (by which I mean "ability to pay my bills and do the things I do in every day life") but also theirs. I do not believe it is ethical to put my kids in a position where my activism, or their (unconsenting becasue of inability to give informed consent) participation, damages their relationships with peers, with the parents of their peers, or with teachers and other significant adults in their lives. And I have, more than once, had to make some difficult choices between what I would believe is right in an ideal world and what was actually physically safe for my children - and I had to choose their safety, because they were too young to consent to being put in harms' way, and to make the "idealistic" choice would have been to neglect my duties as a parent. (Yes, I realize my considerable social privilege gave me the options I had when these situations came up. That doesn't mean it would have been morally acceptable to me to fail to use them to get my children out of harm's way to the best extent I am able.)
I can, and do, continue to take actions that do not carry these risks. But putting myself in physical or legal danger is no longer an option, for the sake of my kids.
5) A good deal of progressive activism is incredibly ableist, and older people are more likely to have a significant disability than younger people.
There was one person I entirely stopped speaking to over the presidential race, and he is considerably to the left of me politically. One of the reasons I stopped speaking to him was his dismissal of people with disabilities as a "fringe special interest group." Never mind that by the usual census definition (substantial limitation of a major life activity) something like one person in five has a disability, and that "the disabled" is the one disprivileged minority group that any person could suddenly end up in at any time.
If your activism consists of telling people that "anyone can do" any single specific activity as a way of shaming them into taking that specific action, your activism is ableist. Because no, not everyone can. I don't care what the activity is - there will be someone who is physically, mentally, and/or developmentally unable to do it.
6) All too often, older "radical" progressive activists can be predators, and they can AND DO put the safety of younger progressives at risk.
This is a hard warning to give, and I wish I didn't have to, but it's a thing I've seen over and over again.
Sometimes, it's the same old sexually predatory garbage that exists everywhere, but with more willingness than usual to ignore it because the perp is such a good person, is on our side and are you sure this isn't a misunderstanding, sweetie? Sometimes this enabling of sexual predators to operate in radical-left circles takes the form of telling victims of sexual assault and domestic violence that they are [insert your term of choice for Bad, Unworthy People here] if they call the police to report the rape or to enforce the restraining order.
Sometimes, what's being asked for is labor, physical or emotional or both, unpaid or underpaid. It's the nonprofit job that expects you to put in "volunteer" hours outside of your paid working hours, or that enforces out-of-work social gatherings via peer and supervisory pressure, or that contacts you at all hours when you're supposed to be off the clock to "just answer this one quick question", or that says you shouldn't care about the low pay because it's all for SUCH A GOOD CAUSE, or that hires unpaid interns to do all of the clerical work because that way their overhead numbers look better.
None of this is okay. I thought that part of the progressive platform was supposed to be about fair wages, but apparently that goes out the window an awful lot when the job itself is "for a good cause."