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writing for godot

Liberals vs. Progressives: What’s the Difference?

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. your social media marketing partner
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