“Progressive” and “Liberal” (Let Alone “Left!”) Are Not the Same: Why I’m...

“Progressive” and “Liberal” (Let Alone “Left!”) Are Not the Same: Why I’m a Progressive


A few years ago, I was at a dinner party and someone asked me what the difference between a progressive and a liberal was. Now, maybe it was the wine (excuses, excuses!), but I feel like my answer left much to be desired. Anyway, I’ve been thinking about the difference between progressivism and liberalism recently, partly in light of the Democratic presidential contest between self-described “democratic Socialist”/super-liberal Bernie Sanders and self-described “progressive who likes to get things done”/”pragmatic progressive” Hillary Clinton. Clearly, I feel an emotional pull at some level to Sanders (part of it is he’s hard not to like; part of it is what he’s aspiring to accomplish), but ultimately my head — and my heart, in the end — are far more in sync with Hillary’s “pragmatic progressive” worldview.

So what are the differences between being a liberal and a progressive? In many ways, I feel like the 2004 piece by John Halpin of the Center for American Progress gets at a lot of it. Key points:

“At its core, progressivism is a non-ideological, pragmatic system of thought grounded in solving problems and maintaining strong values within society.”

“Like the debate over of the role of government, liberals and conservatives today fight endlessly over the primacy of freedom versus equality in setting public priorities. In contrast, progressives escape this false divide by focusing on fairness the legal, political, and economic conditions that provide access to equal opportunity and allow people to combine their abilities and aspirations and make the most of their lives.”

“By stressing fairness, progressives move the debate about freedom versus equality to commonly accepted norms about providing access to equal opportunity, asking both government and citizens to participate in creating a fair and just society.

“Most importantly, progressives believe that citizens and leaders alike must give something back by staying involved in the affairs of their community, voting, voicing opinions, volunteering, and placing the country’s needs above narrow self-interest.

“…given the focus on pragmatic approaches to solving world problems, progressives want to return to a bipartisan American foreign policy that focuses on the proven and successful path of building alliances, sharing burdens, using strong public diplomacy, and developing an integrated national security strategy based on prevention in the broadest sense rather than preemptive wars and an over reliance on military might alone.”

I strongly agree with all of that — a pragmatic approach to solving problems, access to equal opportunity for all, a focus on fairness. I also strongly agree with David Sirota, who wrote back in 2011 that “traditional ‘liberals’ in our current parlance are those who focus on using taxpayer money to help better society,” while progressives “focus on using government power to make large institutions play by a set of rules.”

And possibly most of all I agree with this from Generation Progress:

Progressivism, on the other hand, is far more flexible than any one ideology. Traditionally, conservatives see the world, especially human nature, as predictable and static. Liberals are often burdened with endless optimism – a belief that all problems can be solved through implementing utopian visions (especially through government intervention).

Progressives aren’t simply liberals; progressives see the world for what it is, accept it as ever-changing and dynamic, and choose the best course of action in line with decidedly American values.

It is pragmatic.

And that, fundamentally, is more in tune with my world view and value system than either: a) the pessimism and negativity (nihilism?) of assuming that nothing can (or should) ever change for the better (conservatism); or b) “endless optimism” (liberalism). Instead, my goal is a system in which realistic, pragmatic and fair; one based on everyone being treated equally under the law; one which constantly looks to improve; one which identifies problems, such as “market failures” and “negative externalities,” and which figures out the best (quickest, most cost-effective, etc.) way to address those.

As for liberalism, I think that David Sirota nails it when he says it’s mostly about “using the government’s treasury as a means to an end,” while progressivism’s “central theory is that government…can set parameters channeling capitalism’s profit motive into societal priorities – and preventing that profit motive from spinning out of control.” Again, I’m much more on the progressive than liberal side here, but I’m certainly open to using public funds to achieve goals that are beneficial and/or necessary to “promote the general welfare,” “provide for the common defense,” and other goals set out in the U.S. constitution.

For instance, when it comes to a problem like anthropogenic global warming, that’s a classic case of negative externalities, market failure and the “profit motive…spinning out of control” (trashing our planet in the process). To which, as a pragmatic progressive, I’d say, “we clearly have to act, the question is what do we need to do exactly and what’s the best way to accomplish that in the required time frame?” If it’s putting a price on carbon pollution, whether in a “revenue neutral” manner or some other way, then let’s do that. If it’s a mix of pricing carbon pollution, setting strong renewable portfolio standards, removing subsidies to fossil fuels, providing tax credits for individuals and businesses to invest in energy efficiency and clean energy; then let’s do those things. If we find that certain parts of that program are working better than others, let’s increase our focus on the better-working ones and reduce it on the ones not working as well.

Also, of course, we need strong rule of law applied equally, so that if a company like ExxonMobil is found to be intentionally pushing out false information, there should be significant penalties against that – penalties which are enforced in a timely fashion. Needless to say, this should apply to all corporations, which in turn requires a government and other forces (e.g., organized labor, a strong legal and impartial system) strong enough to act as a significant “check and balance” to business power. Right now, the pendulum has clearly swung too far in the direction of the large corporations, to the detriment of society. What would progressive Republican Teddy Roosevelt have done about that situation? Among other things, worked to break up the great “trusts” (e.g., the out-of-control Standard Oil, one of whose offspring is the repugnant, dirty and corrupt ExxonMobil) and to shift the balance of power more in the direction of the people. It was a good idea in TR’s time, and it’s a good idea today as well.

With regard to our spending priorities, I’d argue that it’s high time we rethink the way we allocate our tax dollars. Right now, it’s almost like the government has become a “giant insurance company with an army,” as the saying goes. For instance, currently nearly 90% (!!!) of all federal spending goes to Health, Social Security, Defense, Income Security and interest on the debt, with just 11% or so going to everything else. That makes no sense whatsoever, given our need to invest in things like building human and physical capital (including massive infrastructure investment), moving rapidly to a clean energy economy and education. Yet our political system seems incapable of having this discussion, let alone taking the actions necessary to put our nation on a much more positive, sustainable trajectory when it comes to our budget, economy and environment.

None of this is simple, of course — there are no easy, black-and-white answers to the world’s complex questions. But, as Generation Progress explains, “Free of ideological structures that tie leaders to strict policy courses, progressivism is averse to simple answers and flourishes within the details of the problems facing our society.”

By the way, on a related note, Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Jeff Schapiro recently referred to me as part of something he calls the “Democratic left” because of my negative reaction to renaming GMU Law School after far-right reactionary Antonin Scalia. And it’s true, in our two-party system, I’m most certainly a Democrat and most certainly NOT a Republican, let alone of the far-right, theocratic Antonin Scalia ilk.

But “Democratic left?” I mean, I’ve written about this a gazillion times, but apparently it never penetrates the thick/impervious heads of the corporate media. Still, let me state it again — and anyone can look this stuff up; it ain’t difficult using the great Google machine — On Issue After Issue, Americans Support the Democratic/Progressive Position. And since the majority, by definition, can’t be on the “left” (or the “right” for that matter), it’s pretty much brain-dead nonsense to refer to said majority as the “left.” Unless you’re actually arguing that the (large) majority of Americans are on the “left.” Which, again, makes no sense whatsoever.

Beyond that, “progressivism” is absolutely not synonymous with being on the “left.” In fact, as noted above, progressivism is fundamentally non-ideological and pragmatic, concerned overwhelmingly with allowing everyone to pursue “life, liberty and…happiness” under a fair set of rules, enforced in a “justice is blind” (to wealth, social status, race, etc.) way. I’d further note that there is a long tradition in this country of Republican progressives, like Teddy Roosevelt and many others. Sadly, that tradition has gone by the wayside, but after today’s extremist perversion of what the GOP used to be cracks up (hopefully), maybe it will be replaced by something more like it used to be, with a strong progressive wing once again. Because, as Teddy Roosevelt said, “a great democracy has got to be progressive or it will soon cease to be great OR a democracy.”