"Progressive" as opposed to "liberal"
May 28, 2005 5:51 AM   Subscribe

This post had me wondering: Is there a difference between progressive and liberal? Is it a difference in kind, in degree, or some of each? Is it a case of using one word because the opposition uses the other perjoratively? Started to ask this in that thread, then realized it would derail the discussion...
posted by alumshubby to Law & Government (12 answers total)
There's a Wikipedia entry on Progressivism that mentions the use of the term as a replacement for "liberal" in cases where liberal might have negative connotations:

"In recent years, leftists in America feel that conservatives have successfully denigrated the word "liberal" in the minds of many voters. As such, the term "progressive" is a useful public-relations tool, replacing "liberal" in campaign literature and helping sway voters who would otherwise not vote for a leftist candidate."

The entry also defines progressivism and how it differs from liberalism. Seems like a good starting point for your question.
posted by bcwinters at 5:59 AM on May 28, 2005

The word liberal is a very, very confusing sense.

In one sense, every party in America consists of liberals because they believe in freedom and democracy.

In the European sense, often refered to as "classical liberalism" a liberal is someone who believes in economic freedom. Economists of the Austrian school are "liberal" in this sense. Libertarians follow this sense of liberalism.

Then there's the third sense, which is the common usage in the USA. This is more accurately called progressive. Sort of.

Of course, one of the country's most famous progressives (from the historical progressive movement which produced the Progressive Party) is also one of the most famous fundamentalists -- William Jennings Bryan. So it is totally in line with progressivism to oppose teaching Darwin's theory of evolution. So in this sense progressive isn't a great term, either.
posted by dagnyscott at 6:14 AM on May 28, 2005

What bcwinters said.

Try and ask a democrat politician if they're a liberal, and they'll hem and haw about it. Ask if they're a progressive and they'll say yes. Two words, same modern political meaning.
posted by Arch Stanton at 7:42 AM on May 28, 2005

In Canada the connotations are different. Progressive is used to distinguish conservatives whose main focus is fiscal from conservatives whose main focus is moral.
posted by carmen at 8:46 AM on May 28, 2005

Not sure if this will help but take a look .
posted by arse_hat at 8:47 AM on May 28, 2005

It is a matter of historical interest only, but the American system was once described as "liberal" in a completely different sense - as a contrast to the feudal and monarchic systems then prevalent in Europe. In the 1770s, it was a truly revolutionary and liberal idea that a free people could govern themselves.
posted by yclipse at 12:02 PM on May 28, 2005 [1 favorite]

In Australian politics, we talk about "Big L Liberals" and "Small l liberals".

"Big L" Liberals refers to a major political party - the Liberal Party of Australia, who are infact the conservative party. In this case "liberal" means economic libertarianism.

"Small l" liberals refers to what you might also call a progressive - socially liberal, but not supporting economic liberalism.
posted by Jimbob at 3:25 PM on May 28, 2005

There is also a leftist sense in which "liberal" is denigrated because it's seen as insufficiently committed to a working-class perspective. "Progressive" may have been coined not only to duck the talk-radio bullet but to paper over differences on the left.

Additionally, liberality has a non-political meaning of generous or expansive. Combine that with the successful tarring of the Dems as the party of fiscal irresponsibility, and you can see why there are good reasons to drop the word.
posted by mwhybark at 4:02 PM on May 28, 2005

Left-wing politicians these days just don't know how to use language. Let me show you how it's done.

"Mr. Faint of Butt, are you a liberal?"

"I'm glad you asked that question. When you ask me if I'm a liberal, you're really asking me if I love liberty-- if I love freedom. Freedom is what makes America great. So what you're really asking me is if I love America, and I'm very happy that you asked me that, because the answer is yes. Yes; I love America!"
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:51 AM on May 29, 2005

"I'm glad you asked that question. When you ask me if I'm a liberal, you're really asking me if I love liberty-- if I love freedom. Freedom is what makes America great. So what you're really asking me is if I love America, and I'm very happy that you asked me that, because the answer is yes. Yes; I love America!"

"Hello, I am Thomas Trollmeister, Mr. Butt's worthy opponent. He admits he is a card-carrying member of the liberal party and therefore not a true American. Your only hope for family values and safety is to vote for me." Spinning the L-word will, I fear, do nothing to assuage most American's concerns. The progressive label may be a panacea but until the Dems regain their mettle, they will continue to lose to the rhetoric of the right.
posted by DeepFriedTwinkies at 10:05 AM on May 29, 2005

There's definitely a difference, although out of self-interest certain parties are known to fudge them for their own purposes. For starters, "liberal" -- in the American political sense -- is simply a broader term. I would say that Democratic candidates for the presidency have always (in the modern era) been liberal, but rarely can any be described as progressive. Bill Clinton is arguably liberal; Hillary Clinton is certainly liberal. Paul Wellstone was progressive. Howard Dean wasn't a progressive governor but he certainly energized a progressive rank-and-file in the party. Liberals bristle at being described as "out of the mainstream" in that classic, somehow still effective political insult, but I doubt many self-described progressives would mind that definition; they know they're nowhere near the center.

Progressives represent the wing of the Democratic party that is as far left as you can go and still be interested in practical politics. The label also extends out beyond the party lines to include Greens and Naderites, but it isn't radical or revolutionary. It wants to change the system from within, not smash it. Many progressives would be comfortable with the term Socialist, but others wouldn't; the best label, rarely used in America today, is probably Social Democrat.
posted by dhartung at 12:16 PM on May 29, 2005

Isn't it really all just bullshit? I don't consider myself progressive or liberal -- just a Democrat.
posted by incessant at 4:01 PM on May 29, 2005

« Older Where's the keel?   |   Running shoes for painful running Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.