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Today in America, just about everyone can describe the difference between a moderate Republican and a Tea Party ideologue.  Those who are more politically astute could easily define the various factions within the GOP, such as social conservatives, libertarians, neoconservatives, and the upper-echelon establishment.  But when it comes to the constituency of the Democratic Party, even educated observers struggle with the definitions of liberal and progressive.  This is due in part to three factors:  1) the right-wing’s thirty-plus year-old propaganda campaign to uniformly vilify left-wing politics (as “librul,” “socialist,” etc.) has been largely successful, 2) the corporate media has been more amenable towards pro-business politics than towards pro-government politics, and 3) the actual lines between liberals and progressives has blurred since their infamous split in the late 1960’s.

In the classical sense, liberalism is a philosophy that dates back to the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries.  John Locke is one of its most influential founders who advocated inalienable natural rights and a social contract between citizens and government.  The focus of liberalism is on the individual, and is embodied by the practice of democracy and the rule of law (republicanism).

Conversely, progressivism is a political movement born in the late 19th century in response to the social inequities of The Gilded Age.  Theodore Roosevelt was the first American president who was instrumental in advancing the progressive agenda, and Wisconsin’s Robert LaFollette was one of the movement’s greatest champions.  It is interesting to note that both of these politicians were originally Republicans.  As the Industrial Revolution created an environment for the vast consolidation of wealth (in a few number of hands), the oppressive exploitation of labor, and the blatant self-serving corruption of government, progressivism arose as a populist backlash.

Essentially, liberalism is antithetical to aristocracy and authoritarianism while progressivism is antithetical towards plutocracy and corporatism.

When some Democratic politicians cowardly switched their self-identification from liberal to progressive, in response to the right-wing caused branding problem, all they accomplished was generating even more public confusion about what these terms actually mean (see:  http://www.gallup.com/poll/141218/americans-unsure-progressive-political-label.aspx).

Generally speaking, these are the demographic and issue-based distinctions between liberals and progressives in a modern context (subjective interpretations by the author):

Liberals tend to have higher incomes and education than progressives.

By and large, liberals are more ethnically and culturally diverse than progressives.

Progressives are typically more religious than liberals.

Progressives are more numerous, and are distributed more evenly throughout the nation.  Liberals are mostly clustered in a smaller number of urban/suburban communities.

Liberals are more concerned over a wider range of issues including human rights, civil rights, sexual equality, healthcare, public education, social services, immigration reform, poverty, international peace, environmentalism, the separation of church and state, domestic violence and gun control, voting rights, prison reform, constitutional protections for individuals, and the eminence of the Fourth Estate.

Progressives are more oriented towards economic issues, and see income inequality as the greatest threat to the nation.  They support collective bargaining, workers’ rights, labor empowerment, progressive taxation, small business entrepreneurship, and domestic production.  They oppose industrial monopolies, corporate consolidation, deregulation, money in politics, globalization, outsourcing, off-shoring, and the omnipotence of big banks and multinational interests.

The politicians and media personalities that best exemplify these distinctions are President Barack Obama and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on the liberal side, with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and MSNBC’s Ed Schultz on the progressive side.  Although it’s true there doesn’t appear to be many substantive policy differences now that is only because the two factions coalesced in the early 1990’s out of necessity to contest the Reagan-Bush era.  In fact, liberals and progressives suffered an historic split in 1968 over the Vietnam War (and other issues) that took over two decades to repair.  Even today, there are dormant fault lines in the Democratic Party.  One only needs to examine progressives’ frustration with President Obama’s lukewarm support of labor, and his all-too-cozy relationship with Wall Street, to appreciate this.

Why does any of this matter?  There are two reasons.  First, even in their current dysfunctional condition, the GOP still possesses the ability to exploit divisions within the Democratic Party.  They accomplished this in 1980 and it resulted in the ongoing disaster of supply-side economics.  Second, and most importantly, serious fundamental problems remain in American society which cannot be appropriately addressed without a thorough understanding of liberalism and progressivism.  They are each as uniquely vital to our political discourse as the more ballyhooed libertarian philosophy is on the conservative right.  America needs to hear and recognize all voices because fundamental change never originates from the pragmatic center of politics.  The Abolitionists of the 19th century were extreme and disrupting, and they happened to be correct.

Further reading:  Progressive vs. Liberal – What’s In a Name?

20 thoughts on “The difference between Liberals and Progressives and why it matters

  1. Yesterday I finished ‘The Righteous Mind’ by Johnathan Haight. Your article really echos his work on moral psychology. Have you read it by chance?

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  3. Progressive or liberal definitions really apply only in an intellectual sense and have no meaning in real elections. The last campaign was an emotional one designed to play on the envy of the rich and fundamentally appealed to a distribution of income shafting the middle class. In an age of international banking and business, the internet, robotization, monopolies, and standardization of parts the middle class jobs are being eliminated and soon there is a high likelihood that there will be professional or rich people at the top and an army of poor people at the bottom depending on some form of welfare to get by. Inspiring people to hate or fear the opposing party is what politics is all about and liberalism or progressivism play no role in serious real politics.

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    • Thanks for commenting. Your assessment of our socioeconomic situation is fairly accurate, and I agree with your general characterization of the current political dichotomy.

      However, to say that the dynamics of internal party factions applies “only in an intellectual sense,” and that it plays “no role in serious real politics” is… well, exceedingly simplistic and – quite frankly – erroneous.

      On the Democratic Party side, the liberal establishment is constantly being pushed by its progressive base. The Obama Administration has been repeatedly frustrated in trying to find a happy medium between the two, and has been damaged in the process. Disillusioned young voters stayed home during the disastrous 2010 midterms (which Dems are still paying for), and only some came back in 2012. In the healthcare debate, the battle over a “public option” was costly. So was the refusal to prosecute Wall Street. So was Obama’s weakness in the 2011 budget negotiations. So was his reluctance to scale back the wars and close Guantanamo. So is now the NSA mess, the infringement of civil liberties, and the surveillance-state suppression of journalism.

      All this infighting had, and still has, a great impact on public policy.

      On the Republican Party side, their internal schism is more dramatic and has erupted into an outright war for control. Had not the Tea Party ruined the party brand during the 2012 primaries, Romney would have had an even chance to win- IMO. Now, the radical right is threatening either a “government shutdown” or “default” this fall if Obamacare isn’t repealed. Also, comprehensive immigration reform – which is vital to our economy – appears dead in the House of Representatives.

      These things matter tremendously. Those of us old enough to remember when government actually worked, understand this.

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