In our inimical way, we like to boil down complex issues to simple generalizations. We're all guilty of this; each and every one of us. Some people blame it on our over-reliance on the three-second soundbite, but I think as a people we like having a foundation of understanding to build on. A concept to start from before we start getting into the details. So when Conservatives/Republicans start accusing Liberals/Democrats of wanting to live under a "nanny state," they're generalizing. However, I concede there is truth to this, and I intend to explore that concept while offering a generalization of my own.
Liberals like myself (progressives, if you want the re-branded name -- which I don't) are in favor of a government system that looks after the welfare of its least fortunate citizens as well as its most fortunate. We demand socialized medicine, equality for everyone and representation for all voices. While we generally don't favor the idea of enabling people to leech off public funds(*) without supporting themselves, we acknowledge that circumstances can make that unavoidable during periods of economic crisis (like now!) or medical disability. We want the government to oversee those functions of daily life that can't be entrusted to private interests like education, healthcare, retirement and regulation. We expect the government to enforce the laws it creates, and that it remain accountable to the people for those same laws. We expect fair and balanced treatment in our daily lives regardless of our social or economic situation. When bad things happen, as they inevitably do, we want the government to be there to ensure we can't fall too far or too hard, so as to enable us to get back on our feet that much quicker. Socially, we want the government to recognize any and all lifestyle choices as valid and preserve our rights in matters such as sexuality and abortion.
In short, we expect the government to be there to wipe our noses and hold our hands while we cross the street. We demand a nanny state that oversees our development.
How about conservatives? They want the government to adopt a hands-off approach, at least when it comes to individual fortunes and business regulations. Many of them are hardcore proponents of the Free Market Fairy where the markets handle all of the services needed by the people such as healthcare, disaster recovery and education. People who are financially destitute are effectively barred from entry; if you're down on your luck your options are to find some more fortunate person or organization willing to give you charity or accept whatever conditions are necessary in order to earn a living. People who live on the street are suffering the consequence of their own bad judgment, and no one is responsible for lifting them out of it. If -- and when -- the market fails to address the needs of the people through quality control or fraudulent business practices, the market will correct itself as people move away from those businesses guilty of betraying the public trust and "vote with their money" to support businesses that are more ethical. The government's role is strictly to treat with other nations and form an army for common defense. In the event of a national emergency (defined by the government, naturally), all rights are suspended while the government addresses the threat and takes whatever actions it deems necessary.
Admittedly, for the past thirty or forty years these economic conservatives been forced to form a coalition with social conservatives who want the government to regulate private lives. So, in essence, we have a political party dedicating to keeping government out of private markets while ensuring that private individuals are adhering to religiously dictated morality. They pride themselves in promoting choice, so long as you make the choices they approve of.
In short, conservatives demand a daddy state: an authoritarian entity that leaves us alone to play with matches while it does its own thing, except when it gets drunk and decides to abuse us for a while.
So, how's that for generalizations?
(*) Note: Ronald Reagan's "welfare queens" were the result of a strawman argument that had very little basis in fact (no, Virginia. A fraction of a percent of the population does not constitute a crisis).