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The Difference Between Liberal and Progressive

shystee's picture

From a recent article by Teh Krugman:

OK, before I get there, a word about terms—specifically, liberal vs. progressive. Everyone seems to have their own definitions; mine involves the distinction between values and action. If you think every American should be guaranteed health insurance, you're a liberal; if you're trying to make universal health care happen, you're a progressive.

(h/t to J Fyrste)

This is similar to my own personal definition* of Liberal:

people who want things like universal healthcare, out of Iraq, privacy rights, help for the homeless, good public schools, justice, equality, etc... but accept the excuses made by politicians and the media for why these things are not possible. See the Process Dodge for more on this.

Progressives, on the other hand, know that progressive policy is possible (and necessary, real soon) and want to fight whatever stands in the way of making it happen.

Another difference is the Liberal and Progressive attitude towards elections:

- For Liberals the ultimate goal in politics is to get Democrats elected.

- For Progressives the ultimate goal is the enactment of progressive policy.

These are not always the same thing.

As Progressives learned from the last year, getting Democrats elected does not automatically translate into progressive policy. The Democratic controlled congress has failed to promote or even defend Progressive values on pretty much every issue that has come up, from Iraq to FISA.

Progressives also learned from the last 8 years that progressive policy has NO chance if the Republicans are in charge.


Democratic Party (or non-Republican) control of government is a necessary but not sufficient condition to bring about progressive policy.

This explains my and possibly others' concerns about efforts at bipartisanship and triangulation by Democrats running for office.

Since the liberal prime directive is to win elections, they argue that compromises must be made in terms of policy, because policy is secondary.

What we need is both electoral success and the successful promotion of progressive policy. These thing have to happen simultaneously. Here is a picture to help understand this concept.

Progressives would argue that policy is everything: what is the point if a candidate wins the election but does not enact progressive legislation?

Also, Progressives would argue that progressive policies are popular, so why would candidates make compromises with conservative policy in order to gain popularity?

The Media Filter

This is where the corporate media's reality filter comes in. The media filter takes people's real concerns and turns them into the concerns of corporations and super-rich individuals.

Corporate media's paymasters fear nothing more than progressive policy. Politicians themselves, not so much, because they can be steered away from progressive policy.

One way of steering politicians is to force them to play to the corporate media's version of reality. Fictions like "the problem with Washington is excessive partisanship". The reality is that the problem with Washington is the Republican Party and the Conservative movement's infrastructure.

The lure of subscribing to the corporate media's version of reality can be seductive. Because corporate media controls most voters' access to information, making nice with the corporate media can be very good to a cooperative candidate.

But this allows the corporate media, the Conservative think tanks and the corporations that fund them, to shape policy. And these policies will always be in the interest of corporations and the super-rich rather than the interests of the citizens.

To quote one of the greatest movies of all time: "this is our concern, dude".

* Everything that follows this asterisk should to be interpreted as my own thoughts rather than an interpretation or paraphrasing of Mr. Krugman's. The initial quote was simply the inspiration for this post.

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On the foreign policy front, it seems to be that liberals are those who bought into the "grave threat" of the Soviets during the cold war and currently take seriously our need to fight a "war on terror". Said differently, liberals back the military-industrial complex and are not about the threaten the jobs of America's bomb and missle makers simply because they are irrelevant.

Progressives however, realize that America cannot be the world's policeman and that it is ludicrous to spend more than the total of all other nations on the military in an era when our greatest threat is from small bands of terrorists.

Liberals support the empire, progressives oppose it.

Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

Liberals were purged from the Democratic Kennedy administration

Yes it was a liberal idea to contain the Soviet Union.
It was the ideologically pragmatic Kennedy administration that opted for an increase in militarism.

There have been very few Liberals in government since then.

The rejection of liberalism by progressives is as much of a straw man as the attacks on liberalism by conservatives.

Submitted by lambert on

And a year or six month's ago this would have seemed to me a distinction without a difference.

But I think it goes to the heart of the distinction between Obama and Edwards (and even, bless her heart, Hillary).

Obama's a liberal--and it's significant that his supporters overwhelmingly identify as liberals. Now, that's probably because the Conservative Brand has been so terribly damaged, and and "liberal" is the only alternative offered in whatever survey was tracking the identifications. Which rather proves Shystee's point.

Edwards is a progressive (and so, in her wierd, Village-crippled way) is Hillary. They both want to get stuff done, they've got a concept of what the obstacles are, and they've got a plan to deal with them. (Hillary rattling off those numbers.)

Now Hillary, for whatever reason, thinks the problems are technocratic in nature, and so it takes a technocrat to deal with them.

Edwards has the larger view, and sees the problem as corporate power, and the solution is to cut their power back to size.

And Obama... Well, hope is not a plan. He's got the problem wrong, because the problem is not "partisan bickering," which is a right wing trope propagated by the press, which is one reason they love him: He reinforces their framing (The other reason is that the CEOs love the youth demographic.) Since Obama misidentifies the problem, he can't have a solution, but his putative solution, "unity," though vacuous, is also loved by the press--and, it must be said, by the OFB, unless with conflict be with those who think their leader is not teh awsum. Like, er, progressives.

Well done! Tools to think with!

[x] Any (D) in the general. [ ] Any mullah-sucking billionaire-teabagging torture-loving pus-encrusted spawn of Cthulhu, bless his (R) heart.

vastleft's picture
Submitted by vastleft on

... your well-articulated bifurcation aside, hardly anyone running for office self-describes as a "liberal" anymore, since it was made an official dirty word during the Reagan years?

Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

I just discovered this blog a couple of weeks ago. It's now a daily staple.

I remember Phil Ochs' definition of a liberal "10 degrees to the left of center in good times, 10 degrees to the right of center when it affects them personally." Maybe not a completely relevant quote, but it makes me laugh.

Submitted by lambert on

Making it all the more remarkable that people self-identify with it. But I think the identification is content-free. They just want cooked instead of raw, but they don't know what goes into cooking....

[x] Any (D) in the general. [ ] Any mullah-sucking billionaire-teabagging torture-loving pus-encrusted spawn of Cthulhu, bless his (R) heart.

shystee's picture
Submitted by shystee on

Yes, it is just a label, a brand. But if I've learned anything from reading the blogs and studying the right-wing machine is that marketing is how politics works in this day and age. In today's marketing, branding is pretty much everything.

The Liberal brand was systematically destroyed by the right-wing over the last decades. The liberals themselves did a poor job of defending their "brand equity".

So it's time for re-branding. I think the struggle will be to prevent Progressive from being co-opted and distorted by the megacorporations, like they have done to the whole Green concept.

Here's a start: Progressives are for human rights over corporate rights. And I would would agree with Charley above that Progressives are not about the Empire.

If you are still clinging to the Liberal identity, let me tell you what I've learned from my (very very limited, pace CD) reading of C.G. Jung and Buddhist philosophy: the Self is infinite. There are no labels that encompass the whole of the self. Each of us is many different things, nothing, and everything. So don't worry about it, eh?

"Lot of strands in the ol' Duder's head. Lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what have you's..."

Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

- For Liberals the ultimate goal in politics is to get Democrats elected.

- For Progressives the ultimate goal is the enactment of progressive policy.

This is not true. I mean, you can't extrapolate this from what Krugman was talking about. You just made this up. I'm a liberal, and my ultimate desire is the enactment of progressive policy. Why would my ultimate goal be to get Democrats elected? That's inane.

chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

heh. your opinion of anything you read is just as valid as mine. i do hate jung, tho.

In today’s marketing, branding is pretty much everything.

and thus progressives will continually lose.

hate me for saying it, but i'm too purist to believe otherwise. when you're in a system that requires you to be both a) popular and b) financially successful in a rigged game of "the economy" you're always going to lose.

overton window all the way.

nothing i want will likely happen in my lifetime. things i don't want likely will. we are outliers, vanguards, window pushers, meme g3nerators, what have you. we perceive and react to reality.

most people don't. until they have no choice. hence, no new deal before the depression, only after it. long after it, in terms of human life.

like sensible drug policy reform, what we want will come after the well is dry, and people are on the verge of serious social upset. that is, "progressive" (read: civilized) change will occur when we can't afford anything else. which will be soon, if at all.

shystee's picture
Submitted by shystee on

of Victor Shystee and not of The Mighty Corrente Building and most definitely not of Teh Krugman or the Occult and Hermetic Order of the Shrill.

I thought the words "my own personal definition" were a clue to what followed. But maybe I will put in an asterisk for folks like AC who may get confused.


I think if the Conservative movement was able to motivate millions based on fake emergencies like "Teh Gay are coming!" and "Defend the unborn snowflake babies!" the Progressive movement should be able to create a sense of urgency around real issues that affect people's lives.

I don't want to wait until the economy and the environment are in total collapse.

chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

by which information is spread, that's the problem for progressives.

you know i love blogging, blogs, bloggers. as well as their allies who don't blog, but work with us or separate from us on the issues. i've met so many good people these last years, and when i despair i remember them, and all the good work they do.

but of late, i've been forced to deal with folks who are probably a lot more representative of a majority than i am. it's...disheartening. far too many just don't have a clue. not about the environment, the destruction of the constitution, so many things. and the thing i hate so much is the all-pervasiveness of the attitude "all politicians are the same/there's nothing i can do anyway/it doesn't affect me so why should i care."

yes, i agree with you, shy: we *should* be able to create a sense of urgency, in the same way that republicans have milked false flag and fake emergencies for far too long. that will happen when we have more reach in terms of the information and facts people need to know. we're getting there.

i don't want to be in a depression either, but at this point, regardless of how many econ bloggers or krugman will say so, a great deal of america already is. so for me, it's mostly a question of when those who don't feel these pressures will- and the housing market crash seems to be delivering that, right on schedule. we'll get there, shy. but it won't be pretty.

bringiton's picture
Submitted by bringiton on

This differentiation between “liberal” and “progressive” is artificial and destructive. Mr. Krugman has column inches to fill, every day, in order to keep his many jobs. Not everything that drips from his pen (spews from his keyboard?) is going to be worthwhile, and this is one that is not.

The distinction made is entirely false and a remaking of historical fact to bolster an empty argument; self-identified liberals gave us the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, feminism, the Peace Corps, on and on. Everything decent that has come about in this country since its inception has come from liberals.

The distinction is destructive because the last thing that either progressives or liberals (assuming that there is a meaningful distinction) need is to peel off one from the other in a way that is denigrative and alienating. Being a liberal is no longer good enough? Claptrap. Liberals “support the empire”? Claptrap.

I am both a liberal and a progressive, and I resent the proposition that I must choose to be one or the other at someone else's behest; I refuse. And to assert that being a liberal is somehow undignified, somehow just not good enough, because the Plutocrat juggernaught of the past 30 years has run roughshod over us, well then, where in the hell have all the wonderful progressives been that whole time and what were they doing that was so worthwhile?

The notion that humanist values are served by serially slicing the left into finer and finer slivers and then damning everyone not just exactly so as unworthy is tactically foolish.

More unity on the left and less divisiveness, please.

chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

democratz, i don't know much about the intertubes, but i'm uncomfortable with the use of the term 'corrente' at the address for your site. why is it there?

chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

i understand your point, i don't wholly disagree. you can be both, clearly you are.

but i work with a younger set than yourself, people who have literally most of their semi-adult lives under the bush regime. and listening to the SCLM for longer, with all its misuse and lying about what certain words mean. truly, there are days when i think critical thinking is just dead, dead as a doornail, in this country. sort of like when i read about people who will vote for obama, but if he isn't the nom, will vote for hucksterbee in the general. oy.

anyway, it's all about the person with whom i'm speaking. if i'm speaking to you, i expect you to know some history, have read some books, and to be aware of how language is fluid, dynamic, etc.

when i'm speaking with one of the OFB, i say "progressive" because i know lots of them are carrying baggage from long years of watching CNN and believing they are watching a "liberal" news channel. "progressive" is realtively unpoisoned, by comparison. sometimes, people even ask me to explain what i mean, and i can introduce them to those wonderful people (including members of my family, i'm proud to say) who fought for what is right back when we had the first great depression.

bringiton's picture
Submitted by bringiton on

I simply refuse to hand over the language to the forces of evil on the right or to the forces of divisiveness on the left - both are wrong. There has also been a redefinition of "conservative" in a negative way that will stick for generations, and should; I support that accomplishment because it is true.

I'm not giving up calling myself a liberal until I need to, and that will only be when I decide that it's time to become a revolutionary. Not quite there yet.

chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

but i'm telling you, for the under 40 set, "liberal" is lost. it's been too confused by fox news style political reporting, and other things. you go right on being you, and i'll call you when it's time to join the Revolution. even taser loving silly people like yourself will be welcome. ;-)