Liberals Not Progressives

The always interesting Michael Lind has a piece out in Slate saying that the left should stop using the word progressive and return to calling themselves liberals (I agree).

He gives seven reasons for the switch (or rather return), a few of which really are key (my numbers don’t line up with his numbers).

1. Progressives has come to mean either:

A) The DLC centrist pro-corporate wing of the Democratic Party (neoliberals)
B) The radical left of the pre WWII era (more pro-Communist in other words)
C) The early progressives of the 20th century who for all their good in some areas were also deeply social conservative, authoritarian in places, technocratic, and often racist.

None of A,B, or C is really a good tradition going forward for a healthy left in the US.


Hubert Humphrey, liberal, championed integration and federal enforcement of civil rights. Woodrow Wilson, Progressive, resegregated Washington, D.C. The Warren Court liberalized abortion and censorship laws. The early 20th century Progressives campaigned to outlaw alcohol and outlaw abortion and many of them favored eugenic sterilization of the “feeble-minded.” New Deal liberals celebrated Americans of immigrant stock. Progressives like Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt were horrified by “hyphenated Americans.” Roosevelt and Truman inherited a disturbing progressive fondness for executive prerogative but by the 1960s and 1970s civil libertarianism and a renewed interest in checks on the imperial presidency became part of the liberal tradition.

2. Progressive is too Prussian Germanic (and therefore militarized and worried about centralization of power as well as purity issues) growing out of an original vision that was Bismarckian not Lockean (i.e. classical liberalism) in nature.

3. Lastly the following:

Like “conservative,” “progressive” is a term associated with a particular view of history. The conservative wants to stand still or go back; the progressive wants to move forward. Progressivism implies a view of history as perpetual progress; conservatism, a view of history as decline from a better world in the past. Needless to say, nobody who actually thinks this way could function. In the real world, self-described progressives aren’t mindlessly in favor of everything new, just as self-described conservatives aren’t indiscriminately in favor of everything that’s old.

Unlike progressivism and conservatism, liberalism is not a name that implies a view that things are either getting better or getting worse. Liberalism is a theory of a social order based on individual civil liberties, private property, popular sovereignty and democratic republican government. Liberals believe that liberal society is the best kind, but they are not committed to believing in universal progress toward liberalism, much less universal progress in general. Many liberals have been skeptical about the idea of unlimited progress and have believed that a liberal society is difficult to establish and easily changed into a nonliberal society.

The upshot of which as Lind correctly points out is that liberals can be or have progressive ideas (contextually) as well as conservative ones.  Lind is making the argument (contra Jonah Goldberg) that the mid-century New Deal Liberals were just that liberals (not progressives primarily–though of course they did have some progressive goals, aims, and policies).

It would hopefully also allow liberals to not continue to act like they have to out hawk the neocons in order to look tough on foreign policy.

Update I:  For those interested, in integral politics according to Ken Wilber’s scheme this is the breakdown of the three meanings of liberal.
Liberal as:

I. Rights (which is the upper left quadrant)
II. Transformation from one worldview to the next (i.e. progressive)
III. Liberal as External (right-hand Quadrants) oriented. i.e. New Deal Social Liberals.


Mark Schmitt on Obama

One of the more thoughtful and reflective American liberals around with an interesting post.

He details three pieces of ways in which Obama will likely be viewed by later thinkers as paradigmatic of certain large scale forces at work (as opposed to the great man biographies of Obama that would suggest he arises like Athena from Zeus’ political head sui generis).

Number three might be the most interesting:

The third trend is one that Obama not only didn’t have much to do with but one that he might seem to contradict. That is the emerging sense of a meaningful Democratic Party as a broad coalition with a coherent vision, not just an alliance of interest groups. The older model of the party was defined by checking off the boxes of what Sen. Joseph Lieberman called the “internal constituencies” — labor, environmental, civil-rights, and women’s groups. Getting 100 percent on those groups’ vote scorecards, Lieberman argued, should have been enough to validate any candidate.

The new model party, by contrast, champions an ambitious, transformational, coherent agenda, on issues such as health care, the economy, and foreign policy. With his language of cross-partisan pragmatism, Obama might seem far removed from this growing sense of party identification and ideological coherence. But in fact, Obama has succeeded without the overwhelming support of any of the traditional internal constituencies, something that would not have been possible in earlier years, while Hillary Clinton remains very much the “checklist liberal.”

This renewal of the Democratic Party as a coherent force would not have been possible without the transformative experience of six years of Republican rule, which broke down the ability of interest-group liberalism to function as it had. So the ultimate trend that created a role for Barack Obama as the bearer of the new Democratic purpose and ideology was, simply, the presidency of George W. Bush.

It may be that none of these trends are mature enough yet to bring about a transformation equivalent to 1980, but if we look away from the personality of Obama for a minute, we can see the near future of American politics in which Obama — or someone like him — may be the central figure.

This idea of a Democratic Party that is not simply interest voters is one I first saw raised in Matt Bai’s excellent book The Argument.

Unfortunately to date Obama on the policy side has not broken through enough (domestic politics) from the interest voter past of the Democrats. Not on abortion, environmentalism, affirmative action, or guns. On foreign policy he has shown himself to think differently but it is unclear whether he will have any leeway, were he elected, to do so. Which is too bad because that is where his real juice is it seems to me. His best domestic policy agendas are the Infrastructure Bank and perhaps early childhood education funding in high risk sectors.

Stylistically and organizationally he’s light years out ahead of Clintonianism. But he’s still underwowing me on a number of domestic issues. The alternative (McCain or Clinton) is no alternative, so that should be said as well.

Domestically, he and whatever this new Democratic Party to come, should be after are ideas like those of The Breakthrough Institute.

Here’s Breakthrough’s Michael Shellenberger on Bloggingheads. He describes how Breakthrough’s New Apollo Project was tested through Pennsylvania’s blue collars workers, and yet no similar ideas were pushed by either Democrat in the recent race there (though on the plus side the did continue their useless anti-NAFTA talk woo hoo!!!).

What Breakthrough understands is that the key is to move to a post-carbon future (combining both advanced living in a non-environmentally destructive way). The traditional enviro left (represented by Al Gore) argues for cap and trades which will eventually lift the price on gas so high as to make renewable energy affordable. The typical right response is to say that the market will move by itself, left free from governmental interference, to do its thing.

The Breakthrough guys (Shellenberger and Nordhaus) reject both these views. The cap and trade (only) position fails because people are not going to massively change their lifestyle. Politically it will not work to get oil prices up that high (see the talk the presidential candidates talk now on gas prices). On the market (only) side there is no reason to invest at the level now necessary–because in won’t be lucrative for awhile.

The infrastructure has to be built for corporations to be able to create wealth and offer services/products upon them.

And that is only going to happen via government investment. Not that civil society, personal choices around less use, market don’t have a role. But the key should be putting as much into investment of the green sector and creating the platform for wealth and green living.

Not anti-trade talk (Clinton and Obama) nor paeans to centrism and vague policy proposals (McCain).

Published in: on April 27, 2008 at 5:51 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,