For the most of my adult life, I've been called "liberal." What that means, I suppose, in relation to my politics and world view is that I've always cared more about the individual than the group...that institutions aren't as important as the people who comprise them.
I've always had a problem with the "You got yourself into this mess, now get yourself out" mindset that so many conservatives seem to have. Taking responsibility for your actions is important, but sometimes we forget how easy it is to fall through the cracks. I remind myself daily that not everyone is as lucky as I have been, not everyone grows up with the white picket fence and loving parents and supportive friends and family. If a Fortune 500 company and multi-millionaire CEO's are worthy of a helping hand, then so is a scared teenager or wounded veteran or lonely senior citizen. Everyone is worthy of our attention...no one should be left behind. To badly paraphrase scripture "Whatever you do for the least of these, you do also for Me."
A friend of mine told me the other day that I wasn't so much a liberal as I was an idealist. I think he was right. I don't necessarily agree with all the traditional liberal stances on issues (as I'm sure not all conservatives agree 100% either), but I sleep better at night with a heart that bleeds and not a heart of stone. I have to show mercy and love to repay the mercy and love I've been shown.
So, I guess in the strictest definition it all boils down to this:
Conservatives see the world as it is.
Idealists see the world as it could be.
It's a shame we all can't meet in the middle and make it the world that it should be.