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.