Monday, April 07, 2008

Liberalism -vs- Progressivism: Towards a Meaningful Distinction

A Long Compendium of Half-Baked Ideas, Unfinished Thoughts, and Other Errors of Subjectivity

I don't know if I am updating my thinking on this issue or just spinning my wheels on a trivial problem of labels. I don't like labels - never have. But we have always used them. Labels are always subjective, perhaps only ‘real’ in the mind of the user. But if users never attempt to explain or define them, labels become useless distractions which can generate misunderstandings. Not to examine them encourages everyone, my self included, to abuse, misuse and confuse them.

Avoiding confusion is especially important in this election cycle when political change possibly involves the shifting of Teutonic plates and the realigning of established coalitions. I hope I’m not being too grandiose or hopeful in saying this?

If we don't make the effort to distinguish between Liberals and Progressives, we surrender to the popular inclination to use them interchangeably or to send inarticulate messages. Someone who claims to be a progressive might stand accused by still-defiant Liberals of having had his liberalism 'beaten out of him' by conservatives. Alternatively, without clarity in definitions, self-identification as a Progressive might be dismissed as a meaningless surrender to a passing fashion.

I have always especially eschewed the label of 'Liberal'. In my later college days, in the first months of JFK's term, I 'flipped' and abandoned my inherited conservative identity. I found Dwight Macdonald's definition of 'radical' most comfortable. MacDonald wrote that in order to change society for the best, one had to engage in a responsible and intellectual process in order to discover the roots of existing evils. Thus, to be 'radical' in one's ends was not to be an extremist in the means; it was simply to analyze politics and address policy after one became grounded in the roots of society. And, most fundamentally, MacDonald said the root was man.

As the 60's decade continued, I felt increasing uncomfortable with the "Liberal" tag. Most prevalent in my academic surroundings were the 'white liberals'. This was definitely a pejorative term. And most - not all - of my professors identified themselves as Liberals. As Liberals, they were academics, people who pursued truth - but, I suspected, without any expectancy of finding it. As I now recall dimly, it was another one of my favorite writers, C. Wright Mills, who described Liberals as the great obfuscators.

OTOH, I presumptively thought of myself as an intellectual: one who no longer pursued truth, but one who existentially possessed Truth. I had no use for Liberals. Looking back, I cop to having been frustrated by their refusal to commit to any position. That was their academic, professional duty, of course: to entertain all perspectives, or at least as many as possible, simultaneously. But their tolerant habit of mind - weighing multiple alternative solutions, interminably - epitomized Liberalism for me, and I didn't like it. They must have considered that it was above their pay scale to take definite action or to support specific policies, or to back individual candidates.

Okay, are you following me? I am not sure I have ever been a Liberal. I gyrated from conservatism to radicalism in the early 60's. I might concede that if I had to cop to a Liberal stage of life it would have been during my hedonistic-sportsman decades of the 1970's and 1980's. I prefer to think of that period as my apolitical stage. If pressed to the wall, I'll have to make a very painful and remorseful confession: I voted for Reagan twice. Although I voted twice - legally - against George W. Bush in 2000, I was still not a Liberal. As evidence of my apolitical illiberality, I further confess I did not know who Paul Wellstone was until after he was tragically killed in October, 2002. But, by then, Bush had already radicalized me into Progressivism.

I say all of this just to establish that I currently don't avoid the label of 'Liberal' for the reason that conservatives have done a good job in recent decades, of pummeling the liberal label into the ground.

Discussing the difference between Liberalism and Progressivism is a hard topic to launch. It's more than a discussion of nuances among friends and less than a dialectical debate between adversaries. What's the diff? Everyone has their own taxonomy. I'm not sure mine will stand up to much criticism. But it is what it is.

Anything I can say in a normal length piece will be incomplete. I'll just start in a random fashion and say a little of what's been tugging at my mind. Only by inviting an exchange of ideas will I really grasp the extent to which my thoughts are tentative or settled.


Liberals are good people. I mean it. (Some of my best friends are Liberals.) They are sensitive to cruelty. They recognize inequity and become outraged at injustice. Liberals are eclectic problem solvers. They want to do good works. They see a problem, they want to fix it. They are policy wonks.

Liberals continue to respond and address each new move serially, as if each event somehow occurred in a vacuum. But Liberals often - give the impression anyway - of failing to 'connect the dots'.

When Liberals see a problem, their immediate response is to spend some bucks or send in some troops.

Liberals have an admirable view on every thing, every little thing. Many times it is an emotionally-based, or 'morality'- based position. Those types of postures tend to be static, predictable and not subject to re-examination. Liberals are often burdened with endless optimism which they inflict on everyone and apply everywhere.

That's all fine and good with me. Especially as I find myself in sympathy with most liberal positions on each issue and micro-issue. The problems arise with Liberals' effectiveness in the long term, which should require attendance to larger, macro-issues.

Liberals make creative and effective elected government officials. The problem with Liberals comes when they are confronted with the problem of winning that 'next election'. That is often said to be the difference between liberals and conservatives: conservatives are as good at winning elections as liberals are at governing whenever they manage to win.

Having just a Liberal position on micro-issues used to be effective in American politics. That was before the country became the mass-society it is today. Before, Democrats (under Liberalism) could take a position on issue X in Belvedere, California, without mentioning anything about it in Little Rock, Arkansas. Now, with the omnipresence of the electronic media, everything said anywhere, is heard everywhere, instantly. A Democrat who might be winning on position 'Y' in Arkansas stands to be embarrassed by his party's position on 'X' in California. Within the Liberal mindset, it's difficult to establish or follow an over-all strategic game plan to fit in with main street opinion across the country and the mainstream media that serves it.

Thus, the Liberals' Democratic Party is often criticized as not standing for anything.


Progressives prefer to look at problems through a big-picture lens, globally, strategically, in a pragmatic context.

Progressives see each evil or problem - recognized individually by Liberals - as only a temporary obstacle to an over all project of establishing a permanent and irreversible humane direction in our national politics, and through that, our culture.

Progressives, to my mind, are more politically oriented. Whereas Liberals tend to be casual citizen voters, Progressives remain political between election years, which used to be thought of as 'off-years'. Progressives are never 'off', 'on hiatus' or on vacation.

Unlike Liberals, Progressives are not so much on the lookout for new micro-issues for fresh sources of outrage. They are more interested in integrating small issues into a coherent whole. Instead of treating symptoms, they task themselves with systemic analysis and change.

Progressives are historically oriented. As the similarity between the words implies, progressions are nothing if not a sequence of stages along a continuum toward goals. Now, Liberals may share the goals, but the point is Progressives are more focused on the series of objectives which have to be contested for and won along the way. Progressives see that these objectives have to be strategically addressed in some sort of prioritized array.

Progressives tend to be more politically pragmatic and strategic; Liberals are less political, more idealistic. Whereas Liberals strive to win converts over to their ideals, progressives try to win consensus on objectives.

When Liberals talk of competing interests, they often fasten on the rights of individuals and the concerns of groups. Their concerns are always well-meant, not always misguided, but they can be passing fashions. Progressives, OTOH, speak of the public interest, and the obligations of intermediate action needed to attain it. Progressives have the big picture in mind; Liberals are focused on the details. On C-SPAN yesterday afternoon I heard Eric Liu, co-author of The True Patriot, contrast the roles of movement and values such that you have the
the Progressives cas as architects and Liberals cast as the plumbers, electricians and carpenters. Let me sum it up this way:

  • Liberals are policy wonks; Progressives focus on politics.
  • Liberals create menus and check-off items; Progressives draw maps and set itineraries.

A Little Bit of History

Skimping on this a lot here, but here's a quick and dirty version of recent history. I liked what I found by VikingKingQ on D-Kos a few days ago about the Progressive Era:

Progressives like Theodore Roosevelt or Robert LaFollette proposed far-sighted policies such as universal health insurance, the right to vote for women, the right to an eight hour day, the minimum wage, old age insurance, unemployment insurance, and disability insurance, the right to join a union, industrial health and safety regulations, and the abolition of child labor. In many ways, they defined the agenda that liberalism would pursue.

However, the scope of progressive imaginations was larger than just this. Progressives looked beyond the world they lived in to advocate for a new economic order, something different from either capitalism or communism. In bold, confident terms, Progressivism argued that an activist government should exercise economic sovereignty and engage in economic planning, and regulate, nationalize, or abolish the great industrial corporations of the day. Their vision was a way of life in which cooperation replaced competition as the guiding impulse of economic life, in which human values would be privileged above market values, and in which sweeping inequality would be replaced by a rough equality of wealth, a fair share in national prosperity, something they called "an American standard of living." Their rationale for this vision was not grounded in traditional liberal concerns about the individual or in Marxist ideology that the worker should own the means of production.

Rather, Progressives were animated by a faith in collective action, and a belief that the flaws in society created by humans could be fixed by humans. In a very real sense, the Progressives were the heirs of a rich tradition of American republicanism, a philosophy that saw the sovereign people as the only legitimate source of political and economic power, that believed in the defense of the common-wealth against private privilege, and that demanded the great concentrations of wealth be redistributed to create a "rough equality" among equal citizens, lest inequalities of wealth become inequalities of political power. Ultimately, the vision put forward was that economic sovereignty - the right to decide how each one of us lives our lives in the workplace, in the marketplace, and in the public square - must be taken from the hands of monopolistic corporations and restored to popular government.
VikingKingQ goes on to say, if I read him correctly, that World War II drained Progressivism dry. Post war, the Liberals trundled along without them and did pretty well under Truman. George Kennan stood the West up against the Soviets but social Keynesianism was abandoned in favor of accommodating capitalism and capitalists who were all about establishing freedom's industrial base. Progressivism staged a brief comeback in the 60's of course, but literally had its brains blown out by three tragic assassinations. What remained was LBJ. The Democratic Party fractured in Chicago between the Hubert Horatio Humphrey Liberals (obsequious and faithful followers of LBJ’s War) and the Robert F. Kennedy Progressives represented (if not led) by the uncharismatic Eugene McCarthy. That's the real reason why Barack Obama was right when he told that Nevada newspaper that all 'the big ideas' after the 60's were Republicans'. The truth of it was that all the Progressives giants had been shot down. Fast-forwarding, Bill Clinton and later, John Kerry were quintessentially Liberals. They were smart, benign, wonkish flip-floppers, and always consulting the weatherman to see which way the wind was blowing.

Now, Al Gore is a special case and provides an instructive lesson. Can you believe that, in addition to ‘inventing the Internet’, Senator Al Gore held the first Congressional hearings on global warming in 1980? He pioneered a new way of thinking about progressive economic and industrial policies which accommodated environmental concerns. Despite the fact that by 2000, the science had caught up with and validated Gore's thinking, his Liberal campaign handlers urged him to suppress his Progressive ideas. He ran as a Liberal and lost to a warmongering idiot.

The Real Choice

I want to believe that Progressives are a sub-group of Liberals. Some of us who find shelter in the vast tent of the Democratic Party are Progressives. It doesn't come down to a choice of interchangeable labels, therefore. It's a choice in attitude. To be a progressive is to be literally and directly contradictory to "conservative". "Progressive" means "forward looking". Its opposite is to be regressive or retrogressive. Somewhere in between is conservatism's or 'resistance to change', or preference for 'status quo' and stasis.

What Kind of Change?

All that I'm saying is that even though Liberals and Progressives need each other - or need both impulses - but they are separate. When they each speak of change, they have different things in mind. I think Eric Schneiderman in Transforming the Liberal Checklist, is saying that the Liberal is transactional:
Transactional politics is pretty straightforward. What's the best deal I can get on a gun-control or immigration-reform bill during this year's legislative session? What do I have to do to elect a good progressive ally in November? Transactional politics requires us to be pragmatic about current realities and the state of public opinion. It's all about getting the best result possible given the circumstances here and now.
And the Progressive is Transformational:
Transformational politics is the work we do today to ensure that the deal we can get on gun control or immigration reform in a year-or five years, or twenty years-will be better than the deal we can get today. Transformational politics requires us to challenge the way people think about issues, opening their minds to better possibilities. It requires us to root out the assumptions about politics or economics or human nature that prevent us from embracing policies that will make our lives better. Transformational politics has been a critical element of American political life since Lincoln was advocating his "oft expressed belief that a leader should endeavor to transform, yet heed, public opinion."
Transformational change requires investments in think tanks and the nurture of strong leadership. The Overton Window has to be adjusted in a big way:
  • identify a set of assumptions that control the public's understanding of an issue;
  • develop a language and message to shift those assumptions;
  • maintain a sustained, disciplined effort to bring about that change over a period of years.


A major step in moving the Overton Window is insisting on the correct framing on issues. This is just another way of saying that we need to adjust the way we think about things in dispute in our society. This involves changing the words and language we use. Let me give a couple of examples from the work of George Lakkof:
  • Pro-Life vs. Abortion Rights. Conservatives try to frame themselves as Pro-Life and their adversaries as abortion proponents or advocates. The only way they can get away with this crap is through Liberals' lackadaisical laziness and inattention. Liberals don't advocate abortion. Although often you would never realize this, but Liberals recognize that reproductive rights reside within a woman's right of control over their own bodies, their right to privacy, and their right to pursue whatever medical consultations and contraception measures as they may desire. Progressives refuse to join in conservatives' game between Pro-Life and 'Abortion-Rights'. No one is in favor of abortion or abortion rights. Abortion is not something you want to march through a wall for. But reproductive rights are! Moreover conservatives' position is not so much as a 'pro-life' posture as it a state-sanctioned forced-birth position. Progressives define their position as reserving to women the role of responsible choice.

  • Victory in Iraq vs. Surrender. Progressives say that we are not engaged in a war in Iraq. We are in occupation mode. Bush declared victory when our aggression and invasion was victorious. That was 1-May-03. The goal of this invasion was regime change and that was certainly realized by the time Saddam Hussein was captured in December 2003. Occupation is what follows victorious warfare. What we have in Iraq - and have had for more than four years now - is occupation. Progressives can't be put off by objections that our troops are still being killed. (eight in the last four days). Our occupation rests uneasily over a restive population. Counterinsurgency (COIN) is what we call it when an occupying force tries to pacify a people hostile to having been invaded. Pacification is rarely completed. It certainly is rarely completed when the occupier was not invited in the first place. That's what happens when one country invades another without provocation. Unlike wars, hostile occupations are not won or lost; they are merely ended before pacification is complete.

Establishing a new perspective is essential to establishing a Progressive momentum. It involves policing our language. It is hard work and sometimes unrewarding work. If I had a dollar every time I heard a Liberal use the words 'abortion-rights' and 'Iraq War', I could give up my day job.

Liberals and Progressives are Collaborators

Liberals and Progressives are in a collaborative relationship and they are mutually dependent; both approaches are required. Under the big democratic (small-d) tent, teamwork and mutual tolerance flourishes. Schneiderman again:
Finally, this is not a proposal to abandon the day-to-day struggles of transactional politics, which are still a central part of our work. Nor is it a proposal for self-immolation. Progressive candidates in tough races or in swing districts may not always be able to lead in transformational politics (although many conservative warriors displayed such self-sacrifice in the course of their movement's march to conquest). But most Democratic officials are in very safe districts, and they should be pressured to pursue transformational as well as transactional work.
Keeping this in mind, it's important to note that in making the distinction between Liberals and Progressives, I am not trying to set up any disparaging name-calling here. Many might say that the only differences between the two are nuances in different styles of thinking. I can’t find much motivation or energy to argue that point. Liberals and Progressives need each other. But what I'm saying is while it's good that you're Liberal, it would be better if you were a Progressive.

A Minimalist Progressive Program

The minimal program (goals and objectives) for a Progressive caucus, which aims renovate the Democratic Party's ability to restore American democracy and world leadership, include:
  • Restoration of the progressive income tax. Consider this as a sine quo non of Progressivism. That envelops subordinate issues such as balancing the federal budget, annually beginning to pay down the deficit and investment in infrastructure.

  • Restore science as a foundation for policy. This envelops acknowledging the fact of global warming, signing the Kyoto Agreement, legislating significant fuel economy and energy conservation, reviving medical research, especially stem-cell technologies, etc.

  • Redefine the Global War on Terror (GWOT) into something more affordable. Perhaps start by renaming it, as the Brits already have. This is actually a major part of the work in my pages and so I won't go into it here, other than to say that under George Bush, we have been recruiting terrorists more efficiently than we have been fighting them.

  • Legislate a national single-payer health care insurance. This addresses the over-all competitiveness of our economy. For-profit health insurance serves no purpose other than inflating the overhead costs of medical care. Placing the burden on employers and employment encumbers the competitiveness and elasticity of our economy.

  • End illegal immigration. A basic criterion of a non-failing state is one which monitors and controls its borders. Surely this is not too much of a task to ask of our American government. All I am saying is that debate should be over setting the desirable level of immigration and then insure that the de facto rate becomes the de jure rate. But if you don't have the spigots at the borders controlled, you have no policy.
These are big ideas. I know I missed some essentials. But real point is that the small ideas are details. Lots of things on the Liberals' shopping lists are not given bullets. Some may be shocking omissions: adjusting levels of force in Afghanistan and Iraq; restoring to the state national guards their intended duty; ending the back-door-draft of stop-loss; restoring a mainstream balance on the Supreme Court; raising the minimum wage; regulating gun control; adjusting the earned income tax credit; recognizing gay marriage. Mastering the big stuff will get us a succession of electoral victories. The small stuff will follow.

What it takes is think tanks. We have them. Think tanks can help us nudge the Overton Window. Next we need to nurture, develop and select articulate, charismatic and savvy leaders. This year we have one of those in the wings. Let's not turn him away. That was the mistake in 2000.