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I've always called myself a liberal rather than a progressive. Why I do is not entirely clear to me. The left today seems to be divided between those who prefer to call themselves progressives and those who prefer to call themselves liberal, but no one's quite sure what the difference signifies, even though many attempts have been made to explain it. In the diary below, I delve more into the question and attempt to make sense out of my own preference. I invite readers to explain theirs.

The linguist Geoffrey Nunberg did a good piece on this topic, and I tend to agree with his conclusions. He first discusses attempts by other writers to explain the liberal/progressive distinction. One writer suggests that "liberals are content to make an uneasy truce with capitalism, while progressives favor more vigorous social experimentation." Another "argues that liberals favor expanded social programs whereas progressives favor more direct limitations on corporate power."

Nunberg comments: "Those are solid philosophical distinctions, and so are many of the others that people have proposed. But none of them has much to do with with how the labels are actually used." According to Nunberg, the difference "has less to do with ideology than genealogy," because "Far more than liberals, progressives see themselves in the line of the historical left."

That makes sense to me. For me, my self-identification is more habit than anything else. I was raised by people who call themselves liberal, I grew up among people who call themselves liberal, I hang around people who call themselves liberal. I've never thought of my use of the label as much of a conscious decision; it was more just a natural acceptance of what I am.

Yet the difference between me and a progressive, other than the label, is hard for me to pinpoint. Whenever I listen to descriptions of the kinds of positions that progressives take, I find myself in agreement with most or all of it. I am uneasy about the hostility toward Israel that is common on the left, and I suspect I have slightly more hawkish instincts than the average progressive. These instincts never led me to support the Iraq War, but I did support the first Gulf War. (Of course I was only 14 and thinking about other things, but I have not changed my mind.) When progressives use words like "colonial" and "corporate" with an almost conspiratorial tone, I start to phase out.

My first impression of the "progressive" label I kept hearing people use was that it was an attempt to run away from the "liberal" label that had been tarnished from decades of right-wing abuse. Surely there is some truth to this assumption. Conservatives made "liberal" into a dirty word, to the extent that many people who hold liberal positions are reluctant to identify by the term.

Conservatives may have started this process, but liberals have helped it along by accepting many of the negative connotations that the word has acquired, instead of working to reclaim the term. I wasn't surprised, for example, when self-identified liberal Roger Ebert referred to the "weak liberal mumbles" of a character in the movie American History X. Stereotyping liberals is so popular a sport that even liberals do it. In the popular imagination, liberals are do-gooders whose concern for the weak and needy sinks into condescension. They drive Volvos, drink lattes, and are almost a secular version of stereotypical fundamentalists: pious, self-righteous, and humorless. They are pictured, ironically, as white male elitists--think Meathead from All in the Family, a show created by liberals. It's no wonder so many people avoid identifying with liberalism, which by now is less a political philosophy than a character type.

The term "progressive," on the other hand, is loaded with positive connotations. It contains the word "progress," and its opposite is "regressive," something nobody wants to be. It therefore shouldn't surprise us that lots of people want in on the term, not only Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but former Governor Gray Davis of California, a middle-of-the-road Democrat, and even Meghan McCain, who calls herself the oddly oxymoronic "progressive Republican."

While there may be little practical difference between liberals and progressives, the choice of which term to use has a strong rhetorical impact, because it suggests which historical strain of thought you identify the most with. People who call themselves liberal are, consciously or otherwise, linking themselves with the classical liberals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Because those liberals advocated limited government involvement in the private sector, conservatives and libertarians often claim to be their true heirs and consider today's liberals to be impostors. Modern liberalism does in fact owe a great debt to the Progressive movement of the early twentieth century, which sought the government's help in protecting consumers from harmful business practices. Because of this, it would seem that the current definition of liberalism is practically the opposite of what it was before the rise of progressivism. That's what many conservatives claim, and what many liberals concede.

But this picture is simplistic. The classical liberals attacked the government because, back then, the government was the strongest force that stood in the way of the individual. The rise of big business toward the end of the nineteenth century presented a new kind of tyranny that needed to be kept in check.

The root of the word "liberal" is, of course, the Latin liber meaning "freedom," and by spurning the term in favor of "progressive," we play into the hands of those on the right who claim to be the true champions of freedom. We should be making the case that freedom is still central to liberalism. While libertarians argue that any government involvement in the market is an infringement on individual liberty, one has to be blind to think that in a purely capitalistic society someone born into poverty will be naturally as free as someone born into wealth. Libertarians are correct that enforced equality of the socialist variety does end up limiting people's freedom, but that's because it's the opposite extreme of what they advocate. The greatest freedom that a society can offer requires some balance between the two positions.

I agree with Alan Wolfe, author of the recent book The Future of Liberalism, who defines liberalism as the philosophy of working to achieve this balance to give the most people the greatest control over their destinies. Wolfe dislikes the term "progressive" because "by returning us to the days of Woodrow Wilson and others who once adopted the label, it would take liberals back to a political agenda too convinced of its own moral superiority and too hostile to civil liberties to serve the needs of an open and dynamic society." He adopts the term "liberal" because he sees no essential barrier between the liberals of the past and those of the present:

There is a taste for equality that runs through the liberal idea, in part because you cannot really imagine a society surviving in which liberty extends only to a few. The notion that there was a kind of golden age of classical liberalism and that liberalism today is statist is false. What really happened in history was that Adam Smith was a great liberal. The idea of the free market arose and it took root in western societies and people began to lead lives in which they were in control of their destiny. This was so compelling that people said, "If some can do it, why can’t the rest of us?" To me there’s no contradiction between Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes, or between the eighteenth-century notions of the free market and the twentieth-century welfare state. They follow one from the other because they’re both committed to the same. That’s why I think equality is built into the liberal idea.

Originally posted to Kylopod on Wed Aug 26, 2009 at 07:13 AM PDT.


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