Once upon a time, there were couple mild-mannered, well-meaning political ideologies: liberalism and conservatism. Liberals would have you believe that the government should be utilized to solve problems. Conservatives would have you believe the opposite; keep the government out of our lives and we can solve our own problems. For example, the welfare system was started by the liberal FDR to allocate government money to give relief to the poor, among other things. Conservative critics hold the current welfare system up as an example of "big government" sticking its tail where it don't belong.
The distinction is not, and perhaps never was, so clear cut as either side thinks. Conservatives cry for the government to get out of their lives (e.g. taxes, gun control, welfare), while paradoxically condoning government control of much more personal things like high-stakes standardized tests, wars, drugs, abortions, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage. Liberals are arguably just as self-contradictory, pushing for racial, sexual, and socioeconomic justice from up on a pedestal. For example, 72% of all university faculty are liberal, while they work in environments that continue to have severe inequalities in tenure and pay with regard to race and gender.
Recent studies in psychology have started to reveal a new picture of the distinction between conservatives and liberals. The greatest predictor for whether you are a liberal or conservative is the extent to which you feel open to new life experiences. The second greatest predictor is the number of body piercings.
Pop quiz: which of these dudes is a liberal?
Go to http://www.yourmorals.org/ and take one of the quizzes, to see where you stand (don't worry, the site is a legit research site). Far from having political origins, the distinction between liberal and conservative has more to do with one's sense of morality. Conservatives tend to value loyalty to a group, whereas liberals tend to value "fairness" amongst a group. Here is my graph, where green represents my score (blue is liberal, red is conservative):
As you can see, I'm conservrativally liberacious. And part German.