What are ‘Liberals,’ What are ‘Progressives,’ and Why the Difference Matters

What are ‘Liberals,’ What are ‘Progressives,’ and Why the Difference Matters


Not all liberals are progressive, and not all progressives are liberal. And when we discuss politics, we must recognize and respect our differences.

Contested Concepts

Although I’ll cite sources in these essays, I do not presume to declare The One True Definition for either “liberal” or “progressive.” No such definitions exist, as both “liberal” and “progressive” are what philosopher and political scientist W.B. Gallie called contested concepts:

… concepts the proper use of which inevitably involves endless disputes about their proper uses on the part of their users [that] cannot be settled by appeal to empirical evidence, linguistic usage, or the canons of logic alone.

Simply, people disagree about what “liberal” and “progressive” mean, and none of us can prove that his or hers is The One True Definition. As a result, we often avoid the discussion entirely, assuming others understand a contested concept to mean what we intend, while they assume we understand those words to mean what they intend. More recently, cognitive linguists have explored contested concepts in the context of frame semantics:

The crucial intuition of frame semantics is that words are defined relative to a frame, and highlight certain other concepts and structures of the frame. The word “cost”, for example, is defined relative to the COMMERCIAL TRANSACTION frame, and highlights the PRICE paid by the BUYER for the GOODS. [Original emphasis.]

That is, we define words relative to other ideas that come to mind when we hear, read, or think about them. Those other ideas form the “frame” within which we find meaning for a word. Both “liberal” and “progressive” exist in the POLITICS frame and – in the U.S. – both imply opposition to “conservative.” Add to that the fact that conservatives have for decades used “liberal” as an epithet, and many people have come to believe that “progressive” is simply a euphemism for “liberal.” But those two terms have different histories and hallmarks.

Not all liberals are progressive

Liberalism is a set of ideals grounded in the social contract (rule by consent of the governed for mutual benefit), both negative liberty (freedom from unreasonable interference) and positive liberty (access to basic resources to pursue one’s goals), and both equality in law (legal rights and privileges), and equality of opportunity (social mobility). Liberalism is an ideology, and over three hundred years of history have shown that it can be robust and successful. Indeed the past three centuries can reasonably be summarized as the rise and spread of liberal ideals.

Yet liberal governments have at times stumbled. Sometimes they stumbled because they did not live up to their ideals, as seen in America’s struggle with slavery and then Jim Crow, and European efforts to reconcile liberalism with colonialism. And sometimes liberal governments stumbled because idealism led to excesses, such as the French Revolution and more recent attempts to “spread democracy.”

In short, it’s not enough to hold and celebrate liberal ideals. We must also put them into action, and recognize that implementing an ideal requires weighing the difficulties of specific challenges and searching for solutions that work.

Not all progressives are liberal

Progressivism is a problem-solving method. Historians generally date Progressive Era as 1890-1920, but the progressive method did not end with that date. The progressive method is not an ideology but a pragmatic search for solutions that work, grounded in a healthy skepticism. Thus, for example, Prohibition was a progressive project and was based on the social science of that era, but “The Great Experiment” of Prohibition failed in practice and progressives also worked for its repeal. The 20th century can reasonably be summarized as the rise and spread of the progressive method.

Yet, again, progressive governments have at times stumbled. Some have applied the progressive method toward horrific, illiberal ends, such as the Tuskegee Experiment, the Holocaust, and Project MK-ULTRA. And the progressive method is susceptible to the paralysis of analysis, to public demands for boldness and confidence, and to being out-spun by voices who don’t need data to justify criticism.

In short, it’s not enough to practice the progressive method. That method must be applied toward goals grounded in liberal ideals, and it we must recognize when it’s time to “fish or cut bait” and be willing to advocate the best solutions we can find with confidence, even as we recognize that we will need to adapt to new information and changing conditions.

Talking with “the Left”

As we’ve noted often at BPI Campus, the face-to-face politicking that we call Fred Whispering begins with finding shared values. Although our Fred is an archetypal median voter and thus does not identify as “liberal,” the same method applies when liberal progressives converse with liberals who are more idealistic and less progressive.

That is, we must first affirm our shared values, and not merely with a de rigueur “Yes we agree on your ideals so let’s focus on my pragmatism.” Instead we must recognize and respect that, for idealists, those ideals are paramount. We can and should discuss how progressive liberalism tries to implement those ideals, but we should not demand or expect that liberal idealists will nod obediently and accept less-than-ideal solutions. While we should not abandon our pragmatism, we may and often will need to accept agreeing-to-disagree on pragmatic points while still affirming our agreement on and commitment to our shared ideals.

Talking with “the Center-Right”

Here is where we more often find Fred, but it’s also where we may meet pragmatic conservatives. Yes, they do exist, and Josh Barro, David Frum, and Bruce Bartlett are excellent examples (and well worth following on Twitter). These and other pragmatic conservatives apply the progressive method but do not share all of our liberal ideals.

Again, we should begin by affirming what we share and, again, that cannot be a de rigueur “Yes we agree on your pragmatism so let’s focus on my ideals.” Conservatives value their ideals just as much as liberals value ours, and we share ideals of the social contract, negative liberty, and equality in law. We may also share ideals of positive liberty and equality of opportunity, and our disagreements may be more about how to balance tradition and order with the need for change, or how we determine whether – and for whom – a solution is working. Again, often the best we can hope for is to affirm the points on which we agree, clarify the points on which we disagree, and respectfully accept that disagreement.

As liberal progressives, we should be able to have productive conversations with both “the Left” and “the Center-Right.” Of course, conversations with “the Right” – conservative ideologues – will be less productive, because we have too few points of agreement. But the progressive method still requires that we avoid sweeping assumptions, looking for and affirming shared values and other points of agreement.

It’s not enough to call ourselves liberal progressives. For those words to be more than mere labels, we must practice them: testing goals against our liberal ideals, and seeking solutions through the progressive method.

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