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

What’s in a Name? Part III: Liberal and Progressive (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature explores the terms “liberal” and “progressive,” and why they are not merely synonyms. Thursday we began with the history and core tenets of liberal ideology: liberty, equality, and the social contract. Yesterday we looked at the history and development of the progressive movement: the rise of science and the search for effective solutions to societal challenges. Today we conclude with how “liberal” and “progressive” overlap, and how they differ.

Not all liberals are progressive

As we saw Thursday, liberalism is a set of ideals grounded in the social contract, both positive and negative liberty, and both equality in law and equality of opportunity. 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

As we saw yesterday, progressivism is not an ideology but a method, the search for pragmatic solutions to real problems. The progressive method has a shorter history than does liberalism, and the 20th century can reasonably be summarized as the rise and spread of that 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 as we saw yesterday, 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, Fred Whispering – productive conversations about politics – begins with finding shared values. Although our Fred is an archetypal median voter and thus does not identify as “liberal,” the same applies when liberal progressives have conversations 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.


Happy Saturday!