Why can't I just be a liberal?
January 20, 2010 3:54 PM   Subscribe

When and why did modern liberals, especially bloggers, begin to label themselves as "progressives"? Why do they do so?

I'm well aware of the history of various progressive movements and Progressive parties in the United States. But, speaking as an outsider (I'm from Canada), it seems that recently, particularly in the past year or two, left-wing liberals have begun to use the term "progressive" increasingly to describe themselves.

I've been following American politics quite closely since the early 90s, and this seems to be a new phenomenon. Political commentators in the mainstream media refer more and more to the "progressive" political perspective, and this is echoed by politicians and pundits who embrace the label. Previously, as far as I know, these people would have been described as liberals or "far-left" Democrats, perhaps.

I'm aware that there is a Congressional Progressive Caucus in Congress that has been around for nearly 20 years, but, again, the term "progressive" itself just seems to have caught on recently.

I have to say that this trend annoys me for several reasons. Firstly, it seems to imply that being a regular old "liberal" (which I consider myself to be) is a bad thing. Secondly, progressives, particularly bloggers, seem to be turning into the Tea Partiers of the left, so that if you don't agree with their beliefs and worship their heroes such as Paul Krugman (which I don't), then you're the enemy. Finally, using a term that decades-old allows conspiracy nuts like Glenn Beck to link modern progressives to their older counterparts, however speciously, making it easier for him to weave his vast webs of insanity.
posted by hiteleven to Society & Culture (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
My sense is that it started during W. Bush's presidency, when liberals wanted a way to differentiate themselves from Democrats who were going along with his policies, particularly regarding war and torture.
posted by rhizome at 3:58 PM on January 20, 2010

Umm... because that's what they are?

Have you really noticed formerly-liberal bloggers start to identify themselves as progressives, or are Progressive bloggers just getting a larger slice of the blogging pie?
posted by muddgirl at 4:02 PM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Far-left people call themselves "progressives" because Rush Limbaugh succeeded in making "liberal" into a dirty word in the '90s. And before that, words that many far-left people used to describe themselves, "communist" and "socialist," had become dirty, which is why they were calling themselves "liberal" in the first place.

But I think "progressive" will stick. It's nice to be able to call yourself a progressive. You define "progress" as whatever you are for. Then your opponents are obviously against progress.
posted by kindall at 4:07 PM on January 20, 2010 [8 favorites]

First of all, you're clearly asking a valid question about a real phenomenon. Saying it's just because "that's what they are" is begging the question.

"Progressive" is viewed more positively than "liberal."

Here are two previous threads about it.

One comment in the latter thread linked to this Democratic debate from the last presidential race:
QUESTION: Hi. My name is Rob Porter, and I'm from Irvine, California. I have a question for Hillary Clinton. Mrs. Clinton, how would you define the word "liberal?" And would you use this word to describe yourself? Thank you.


CLINTON: You know, it is a word that originally meant that you were for freedom, that you were for the freedom to achieve, that you were willing to stand against big power and on behalf of the individual.

Unfortunately, in the last 30, 40 years, it has been turned up on its head and it's been made to seem as though it is a word that describes big government, totally contrary to what its meaning was in the 19th and early 20th century.

I prefer the word "progressive," which has a real American meaning, going back to the progressive era at the beginning of the 20th century.

I consider myself a modern progressive, someone who believes strongly in individual rights and freedoms, who believes that we are better as a society when we're working together and when we find ways to help those who may not have all the advantages in life get the tools they need to lead a more productive life for themselves and their family.

So I consider myself a proud modern American progressive, and I think that's the kind of philosophy and practice that we need to bring back to American politics.

COOPER: So you wouldn't use the word "liberal," you'd say "progressive."


posted by Jaltcoh at 4:10 PM on January 20, 2010 [7 favorites]

Then your opponents are obviously against progress.

Well, to be fair, progressives opponents are "conservatives." One side wants to progress; the other wants to conserve the status quo. It's a relatively natural opposition.
posted by Tomorrowful at 4:11 PM on January 20, 2010

Political terminology comes and goes. Terms acquire connotative meaning over time. "Liberal" has meant a whole slew of things in the last three hundred years, some good, some not so good, though which is which depends on who you ask and indeed, when you ask them.

I think the reason many people who today self-identify as "progressive", people who would have self-identified as "liberal" in the 1980s and 1990s without batting an eye, realized that the term had acquired significant negative connotations for a big section of the population, i.e. "tax and spend liberal." You can probably run a campaign as a liberal in San Francisco--and I've has aid Massachusetts until yesterday--but you can't really run a national ticket on that basis, as you'll get clobbered. The term "progressive" has gained some traction in recognition of those realities.

It doesn't necessarily mean anything beyond that. A leftist by any other name will still go left, as it were.

And yes, I know that "left" is subject to exactly the same kinds of definitional creep as any other political label. That's kind of the point.
posted by valkyryn at 4:12 PM on January 20, 2010

I don't know if this is true for everyone you describe, but for some people, "liberal" may invoke a specific political ideology closely tied to capitalism and statism whereas "progressive" simply means that one has a left-leaning stance on social issues, with no necessary implications towards his or her larger political bent.
posted by threeants at 4:15 PM on January 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think this was dangerously close to chatfilter, and your last paragraph about pushed it over. I don't know who you're railing against, really, but blaming the left for anything Glenn Beck does is ridiculous - he'll use anything, that's what he does.

That said, I think it's probably because of two things. Firstly that liberal implies that just any-old-thing is ok, which is how the right have been trying to characterize the left (on social issues and "terrorism") for a while now, and that atheists especially have been accused of having no morals or moral framework. Secondly, I think the term liberal got weird when it got mixed up with "neo-liberalism" and that likely hurt it further.

Muddgirl makes a good point too though, maybe this is as much a generational shift as anything else?
posted by crabintheocean at 4:15 PM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Liberal and progressive are essentially synonymous. But as some commenters have pointed out, it took on a pejorative connotation over time (some say during W's presidency, but I think the word has fallen out of vogue for a while).

I know it's difficult to understand if you haven't lived in America for a good portion of your life, but think of this -- during the 2004 campaign, President Bush & VP Cheney made regular habit of criticizing Senator Kerry as a "Massachusetts liberal." It was kind of an insult, even if nothing in that phrase is false. It wouldn't ring as well if Kerry dinged Bush as a "Texas conservative." It would be more likely that he'd be called "reactionary," "extreme," "ideologically-driven" -- but calling him a conservative wouldn't be a diss.

Hope that helps on the "why" part.
posted by Franklin76 at 4:15 PM on January 20, 2010

A progressive wants to start a blog that'll get picked up by HuffPo and a liberal wants to xerox 200 copies that we can hand out down at the co-op.

But seriously, many good responses above.
posted by applemeat at 4:20 PM on January 20, 2010

It's a marketing term used to imply that the ideology itself constitutes progress.

(Of course, everyone, liberal, conservative, or other, thinks that implementation of their own views would constitute progress.)
posted by The World Famous at 4:23 PM on January 20, 2010

Speaking as someone who identifies with the term "progressive" but doesn't know exactly why, I think it's because "liberal" has been painted as having connotations with extreme political correctness, overwhelming focus on gender/race/orientation equality and so forth. I think they're important to an extent, but I am more interested in strong education, sane and rational foreign and fiscal policy and getting corruption and industry influence out of government. Which in my own head sounds more like a "progressive" agenda than a "liberal" one. I think the only real answer though is what Joe Q. Public thinks about the terms (a mass weighted mean definition) and even then, with pundits and op-eds continually casting the terms with value judgements I think it's kind of pointless to try to pin down the meaning.
posted by crapmatic at 4:23 PM on January 20, 2010

I know you say you've been watching US politics for quite a while, but for this to be bugging you, but I can only surmise you're immune to this part of the equation in Canada: liberal is nearly a dirty word here.
posted by floam at 4:25 PM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

From a taxation (and fiscal policy in general) standpoint, the terms progressive and regressive have specific quantitative, apolitical meanings. I.e. the more you are the paid, the higher or lower the rate of taxation you're subject to. Where it becomes political is that liberals usually support the former, and conservatives the latter.
posted by randomstriker at 4:42 PM on January 20, 2010

First of all, you're clearly asking a valid question about a real phenomenon. Saying it's just because "that's what they are" is begging the question.

I suppose I misread the question. I thought hiteleven was asking why far-left bloggers started calling themselves "progressives". But I guess what zie was really asking was "Why do people who identify with the far-left planks of the Democratic party identify as progressives?" These are two entirely different questions, in my mind.

I don't think "liberal" is necessarily a dirty word any more, but it has been closely associated with the Democratic party. In my experience, and setting aside Clinton's association with the term, people who self-identify as progressive are intentionally setting themselves as a group that wants to pull the public political discourse farther to the left, even if that means abandoning the Democratic party.
posted by muddgirl at 4:46 PM on January 20, 2010

Also, most of the progressive blogs I read think the Huffington Post is a very ridiculous , along with other entrenched liberal organizations like the Human Rights Campaign (although HRC has recently been responding well to criticism from progressive organizations). In general, they're interested in toppling the whole kyriarchal pyramid, not just with gaining specific rights for specific special interest groups.
posted by muddgirl at 4:50 PM on January 20, 2010

Well if you're me, you use the term Progressive to distance yourself from the Center- Center-Left Democrats and try to invoke the New Deal and Great Society programs of the past, both as a way to identify what you stand for, the scope of your ideals, and to give yourself some historical backing for your ideals.
posted by The Whelk at 5:15 PM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Most progressives are liberal; not all liberals are progressive. Liberal/left-wing is the ideology; progressives believe that the ideology is best accomplished through radical legislation. Young bloggers= progressive liberals; current Dem senators: non-progressive liberals (at best).
posted by melissasaurus at 6:03 PM on January 20, 2010

If you're in Australia, the Liberal Party is the major portion of the conservative Coalition. We make the best of the resulting confusion by describing a progressive as a "small-l liberal".

In theory, the Labor Party (presently in Government) is on the left and the Coalition opposes it from the right. In fact, just as in the US, you wouldn't get a ciggie paper between the "two sides" on any issue that might actually disturb the economic status quo. The only genuinely progressive political party in the Australian landscape is the Greens, who will never gain Government because the great unwashed public considers "greenie" to be a term of abuse roughly equivalent in potency to "liberal" in the US, and consequently pays no attention at all to parliamentary performance or stated policy. The Greens leader, Bob Brown, gets about as much respect from the general public as, say, Dennis Kucinich.

So, it's no real surprise to find the Australian analog to MoveOn describing its aims as progressive rather than liberal.
posted by flabdablet at 8:33 PM on January 20, 2010

I was always a bit confused by the terms "liberal" and "conservative" because it seems to me that liberals are conservative in regards to military actions, for example, and conservatives are liberal in their attitude towards regulation of industry and other things.
posted by XMLicious at 9:06 PM on January 20, 2010

I lean left myself, but for a political subset that gets criticized for political correctness, I'd say that "progressive" is a politically correct way of saying "liberal." ie, it's a euphemism. As has been said, "liberal" pretty much became a dirty word when tossed about by conservatives ("You... you... liberal!"), so it was only natural for actual liberals to shy away from it.

"Progressive" doesn't have nearly as much of a negative connotation. Although back when I watched O'Reilly semi-regularly, he liked to throw the label "secular-progressive" around, which really doesn't sound that bad to me. I'm sure some prefer the label "God-hating liberals."

I'd have to think it all has to do with the explosion of political talk and analysis media in the past decade or so, but I wonder if "liberal" even had a tinge of negativity back in the '80s and prior. And why "liberal" has become such an insult, whereas "conservative" never has. "Neocon," perhaps.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 10:03 PM on January 20, 2010

You might be noticing this as new, but I've been hearing this term in use amongst lefty politicos (of the local variety) since at least the mid-90s.

Here's an article from the NY Times in 1982 about how Democrats started using the term "progressive" after Regan's victory. (It's behind a pay wall, but you can see the first few sentences.)

Here's a Bob Herbert column in the NY Times in the same year, in which Herbert uses the term as well.

And here's another from 1995.

And here's Wikipedia's take on "contemporary progressivism."

I suspect it's just confirmation bias.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:37 PM on January 20, 2010

To me, "progressives" are a little more left-wing than "liberals". Liberals read Paul Krugman and tend to like the Clintons, Obama, Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker, the folks at Slate. Most Democrats in power are liberal. Progressives may go for Noam Chomsky, Tom Tomorrow, Michael Moore, Molly Ivins, Ralph Nader. Liberals tend to be accepting of capitalism; progressives are suspicious of it to a greater or lesser extent.

But as has been pointed out above, many people use the terms interchangeably.
posted by zompist at 1:28 AM on January 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I suspect it's just confirmation bias.

No, confirmation bias is when you search for links that mention the word "progressive."

Clearly the term has been used for decades. But in the past decade or so, "progressive" has started to replace "liberal" as the default term for those to the left of center in America. I'm surprised anyone is disputing this.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:02 AM on January 21, 2010

Thanks for the answers, everyone. I'll choose a best answer, but only because it's part of the rules. Really, everyone helped.

On zompist's point, however, I would argue that Paul Krugman, rather than being a liberal, is in fact the ultimate progressive. This recent posting of his seems to prove my point.

My dislike of Krugman is one of the main reasons I asked this question, to be honest. I mean, really, he's advocating political suicide for the Democrats if you read that post.
posted by hiteleven at 12:47 PM on January 21, 2010

Here is the Krugman article. Sorry.
posted by hiteleven at 12:48 PM on January 21, 2010

For what it's worth, there is no requirement that you choose a best answer. In fact, I'd argue that doing so when you regard no particular answer as "best" is actually not so great, since people coming to the question later will likely think that you did actually think that answer was the best one.
posted by ocherdraco at 1:05 PM on January 21, 2010

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