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writing for godot

Liberals vs. Progressives: What’s the Difference?

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Written by Billy Bob   
Friday, 25 May 2012 13:29

Well, what is the difference? There seem to about be as many theories regarding the origin of each term and the effectiveness of each in conveying left-wing messages as there are internet commenters to argue about it. Can we discuss it, or should we all just call ourselves, “left-wing loonies” and be done with it?

Many on the left have chosen to shy away from the word “liberal” altogether in favor of “progressive”. Some claim it’s because of the perceived link to “classical liberalism”, which would favor the existence of an unchecked and unregulated economy. However, this is only one meaning of the word. There is also the original meaning of the word liberal itself, which generally has something to do with open mindedness regarding people and modes of thinking. Why should lefties suddenly choose to adopt a meaning for liberalism that was virtually absent from the ordinary American political lexicon just a few decades ago? Is it just another case of backpedaling by the left from supposedly deeply held beliefs? Is it re-branding or appeasement?

Concerning “classical liberalism”: The term classical liberalism (to my knowledge) seems to have its roots in 18th and 19th Century discourse. In that context, although it does relate to so-called “free” markets, it also appears to be associated with the concepts of freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly. Are those not left-wing concepts? They certainly don’t agree with much of the current right-wing agenda. So, the connections between the term “liberal” and “classical liberal” seem pretty tenuous. Perhaps the modern definition of liberalism shouldn’t be so strictly beholden or limited to pre-twentieth Century uses.

The term “progressive” has recently cropped up as a way to avoid the association altogether. However, does it? The basic definition of the word seems pretty generic. In fact, any conservative with a bold plan could claim “progressivism” based on the most straightforward definition of the term. It seems like a pretty vague label to put on a set of strongly held principles.

I’m not the only one who’s noticed the sudden replacement of “progressive” for “liberal” starting around the time Newt Gingrich became the Speaker of the House in 1994. I agree that progressivism, as a political movement, has its roots in much older history. However, it doesn’t appear to have replaced that naughty “L word” until the early ‘90s. It’s no secret that the Reagan revolution was a stark attack on all things deemed liberal and that the torch of anti-liberalism was carried full-tilt by AM radio as soon as the Fairness Doctrine was nullified by the Reagan-appointed chair of the FCC in 1987. I certainly remember the early early ‘80s bumper stickers stating, “I don’t believe the liberal press”. A well orchestrated attack on the political language and evenhanded discourse was under way. It’s roots extended at least as far back as Spiro Agnew’s “pointy-headed intellectuals” remark. In fact, politics since the McCarthy era has been a war of attrition for the American right. The left has often seemed aloof and too easily sucker punched by a fight it refused to acknowledge it was even engaged in.

So, why suddenly has the word “liberal” become exclusively associated with the (now right-wing) panacea of laissez-faire capitalism? Why has it suddenly become forbidden to associate itself with the basic definition of the word itself, including all of its left-wing implications? Why is the left suddenly incapable of defining its own meaning for a label it once gave itself? What happens when “the P-word” suddenly becomes a target for witch hunts? Do we have another backup?

Obviously I have an opinion of my own on the subject. I consider it to be an example of what we could call “classical pansy liberalism”. “Anything to avoid or divert confrontation” could be the motto of this movement. To me, the historic progressive political movement of a century ago was a strategy of moving forward with a liberal agenda much more than one of anti-liberalism. At any rate, the word “liberal” has its own history as a proudly worn label for the left-wing movement for many decades before this sudden rebranding. I find it distasteful to run from a word because the conservative media has decided it has naughty connotations. In fact, the act of hiding from it shows a lack of conviction more than anything else.

 

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+6 # Innocent Victim 2012-05-27 12:13
The word "liberal" in the context of politics in most of the world means an economic liberal, a follower of John Locke who taught that the king (government) should not grant monopolies, special charters and market privileges to favored subjects. The free market ought to be the determinant of economic interactions and fortunes. The more general meaning of the word, open-minded, etc., belongs in the general context rather than in the political or economic one.

Ironically today, the term neo-liberal has come into use in the US in order to restore the narrower economic meaning - as is used in Europe - and also the social meaning, an abandonment by government of its role in, as our Preamble says, promoting the general welfare.

I think it a good idea to adopt the world-wide usage of the word in political economy so that we may get rid of the "neo" that has been prefixed to it unnecessarily.
 
 
+2 # Billy Bob 2012-05-27 15:30
Thanks for commenting. Good comment.

If I understand you, would it be correct to say that so called "neo-liberals" aren't economic liberals at all (not even in the traditional sense)? Afterall, whereas they don't favor providing for the general welfare, they do believe in granting monopolies (e.g. military contractors), special charters (corporations), and market privileges (Wall Street & the bail outs).

Do you prefer the word "progressive" in regards to social policy (i.e. what we do in our bedrooms)? I think of it as too non-specific. Maybe we should adopt "social liberalism" and "economic liberalism" respectively, while as you say, rejecting the "neo".
 
 
0 # BobM 2012-06-11 14:15
I view 'liberal' as a social democrat - trying to save capitalism through regulation, as opposed to a socialist (like me) who wants to end capitalism. 'Progressive' is a term used by all on the left, focusing on what we have in common rather than on our differences.
 
 
+1 # Billy Bob 2012-06-11 18:52
That's interesting. So would you consider "liberal" and "socialist" to be two subsets falling under the umbrella term "progressive"? Are there basically two kinds of progressives: liberals, and socialists?
 
 
0 # engelbach 2012-11-16 03:37
I agree with that.
 
 
-1 # kyzipster 2012-06-12 07:13
Good article and I agree with the conclusion. I think left leaning people have embraced the term 'progressive' only in response to the success of conservatives demonizing the term 'liberal'. Equating it with all of the evils of Soviet communism and the rest of their insane propaganda that paints liberals as anti-American.

Giving in to right-wing propaganda is one of the biggest problems on the left. After the economic crash of 2008, proof positive that conservative ideology has been an absolute failure, it's inexcusable. I did notice many people in the media embracing the word 'liberal' at the end of the Bush Presidency but that seemed short lived.

"Liberal bias" has come to mean any point of view outside of Fox News and all of the Limbaugh-like blowhards in the media. In other words, reality is "liberal bias" and embracing the truth is nothing to be ashamed of. Our representatives need to stop acting like cowards.
 
 
+1 # futhark 2012-06-12 08:04
The most classically liberal politician we have seen in America in recent years has been Dr. Ron Paul, a true defender of market-based economy and non-interferenc e of government in the private affairs of citizens.

The American Revolution is one of classical liberalism vs. privileged individuals and groups. This means that defending the values of this Revolution put one in the somewhat ambiguous position of being a conservative of liberal values.
 
 
+2 # Billy Bob 2012-06-12 13:14
By any definition, I have a hard time labeling someone a liberal, who would gut the social safety net under the guise of "freedom". I'd also have a hard time applying that word to someone who would have voted against the Voting Rights Act and doesn't believe in the freedom of choice. He belongs to the camp that feels the only purpose for government is military/police . It's a very anti-democratic viewpoint.
 
 
-2 # Martintfre 2012-06-13 21:06
//the word “liberal” altogether in favor of “progressive”. Some claim it’s because of the perceived link to “classical liberalism”, which would favor the existence of an unchecked and unregulated economy. However, this is only one meaning of the word. There is also the original meaning of the word liberal itself, which generally has something to do with open mindedness //

Something we have not seen for a long time "Open mindedness" or respect for individual rights that is necesary for a consumer driven economy rather then a bureaucraticall y driven one the progressives worship.
 
 
0 # Billy Bob 2012-06-14 12:59
Are we allowed to be open minded about the will of the electorate? Does the electorate have rights? Do those who become the feudal subjects of successful robber barons have the individual rights to vote for laws that keep those robber barons in check? Is voting an individual right you respect?
 
 
+2 # tarheel10110 2013-04-15 01:35
To me.. the word liberal conjures up an
idea of giving in ..no restrictions...
unbridled freedom...runni ng wild. Not how I like to think of myself politically although, opposed to the
narrowness of conservatism.
Doesn't mean I am not reserved in some areas.. just not opposed to being open to
new ideas.
...Progressive is more in line with what
I feel is the way of the future. Learning
from the past and not repeating the same
stupid mistakes..on either side..but
re-evaluating positions and moving
forward. We are an evolving world and
sticking to old ideas is dragging us
down. Progressive means changing with
the times and conditions based on new
and improved ideas.. not stuck in some
misguided principle for the sake of
tradition that no longer applies to reality.
...Examples: pro-life..women 's rights..
gay rights...aborti on...conservati ves
are stuck in the past even tho there
is evidence to the contrary especially
in the area of sexual orientation for
both homo/heterosexu als. I challenge
a straight to tell me when they decided
to be straight instead of gay. Meaning
I suppose, we are born "neutral" and at
some point make a decision which sex
we prefer... I just don't remember that
episode in my youth... I think I shot out
of the womb loving girls right away and
never looked back.
...Sorry, got a little off subject..!!!
 

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