Dividing Progressive and Liberal Beliefs

Terms such as liberal, conservative,  progressive, and populist all have some ambiguity as a variety of people fall into each category, and often the lines are not clear. People who use these labels might have historical influences, but they generally do not have specific ideological leaders. While Marxists or Objectivists might trace their views specifically to Karl Marx or Ayn Rand and there is a clear definition of these philosophies, liberals and conservatives typically have a variety of influences on their views.

Nate Silver recently drew a distinction between two forms of progressives. It looks like this grew out of blog wars which I don’t want to get into, and his definitions are tilted in favor of one view and against that held by those he was arguing with. Ignoring these issues, there is still some value in looking at his breakdown.

The first type of progressivism has its philosophical underpinnings in 18th Century, Enlightement-era thought. It believes that politics is a battle of ideas. It further believes that through the use of reason and the exchange of ideas, human society will tend to improve itself through scientific and technological innovation. Hence, it believes in progress, and for this reason lays claim to the term “progressive”. Because of its belief and optimism in the faculties of human reason, I refer to this philosophy as rational progressivism.

Rational progressivism tends to be trusting, within reason, of status quo political and economic institutions — generally including the institution of capitalism. It tends to trust these institutions because it believes they are a manifestation of progress made by previous generations. However, unlike conservatism, it also sees these institutions as continuing works in progress, subject to inefficiencies because of distorted or poorly-designed incentives, poorly-informed or misinformed participants, and competition from ‘irrational’ worldviews like religion. It also recognizes that certain persons who stand to benefit from preserving the status quo, particularly elected officials but also corporations, may seek to block this progress to protect their own interests. The project of rational progressivism, then, is to propagate good ideas and to convert them, through a wide and aggressive array of democratic means, into public policy.

The second type of progressivism is what I call radical progressivism. It represents, indeed, a much more radical and comprehensive critique of the status quo, which it tends to see as intrinsically corrupt. Its philosophical tradition originates in 19th Century thought — and specifically, owes a great deal to the Marxist critique of capitalism and the Marxist theory of social change. It also finds inspiration in both the radical movement of the 1960s and the labor and social movements of late 19th and early 20th centuries (from which it borrows the label “progressive”).

Radical progressivism is more clearly distinguishable from “conventional” liberalism and would generally be associated with the “far left” — although on a handful of issues such as free trade, it may find common cause with the “radical” right. Radical progressivism embraces the tradition of populism and frequently adopts a discourse of the virtuous commoner organizing against the corrupt elite. It is much more willing to make normative claims than rational progressivism, and tends to view conservatism as immoral and contemporary American liberalism as amoral (at best). Its project is not reform but transformation.

Actually I tend to avoid the term progressive and prefer liberal, seeing two primary uses for the term progressive. Often it is used by as an alternative in response to the demonization of the word liberal by the right. I would often use liberal in place of Nate’s use of rational progressivism and reserve progressive for radical progressivism or populism from the left. This is not entirely satisfactory as the word liberal is used by others in a variety of ways, often including Nate’s radical progressives. There are certainly no hard and fast lines between each group, and Nate acknowledges this:

The truth is, I don’t particularly care whether you call me a “progressive” or not. In fact, I’m suspicious of people who line up on the same side of the ideological divide on every single issue. The world is more complicated than that, especially when one strives to see the world through a scientific, empirical lens. While progressives, in my view, clearly have the preponderance of good ideas, they do not have a monopoly on them. Nor do conservatives have a monopoly on bad ideas, especially when radical progressives flirt with Marxist modes of discourse.

While recognizing that liberal is often used in other ways, I generally use liberal in the way that Nate uses rational progressive as a philosophy growing out of the age of enlightenment (thus the tag line of the blog). Primary principles of liberalism include a belief in liberty, limitations on the power of government, openness to new ideas, and use of science and reason to evaluate the world and influence public policy.

Progressives (or Nate’s radical progressives) may share many of these beliefs, but they are often more concerned with what they view as economic fairness. They are often the supporters of larger government programs, while liberals vary tremendously in support for “big government.” There is often a considerable blurring between these two groups. They might share many of the values of the other and the difference is often based upon which ideas they stress more.

The line between liberals and progressives versus conservatives often comes down to political alliances on the major issues of the day. During the Bush years both rational and radical progressives shared common ground in opposing many of Bush’s actions. Opposition to the Iraq war provided further common ground.It is not surprising that with the Democrats in power disputes between different segments of the left would be more visible.

Lumping people with some diversity of views into one of two groups based upon the major issues of today (along with who they supported in the last election) will give a general breakdown of liberals and progressives versus conservatives, but there are clear limitations. I recently cited Andrew Sullivan as an example where the labels breakdown.

Sullivan supported Obama over McCain, opposes the war, supports same-sex marriage, and holds other views which cause many conservatives to consider him a liberal as opposed to conservative. He falls on the liberal side when looking at a division based upon current issues, but when his views are evaluated in greater detail it is clear that his fundamental views are based upon historical conservatism as opposed to liberalism.

Sullivan traces his views back to the political tradition of Burke, as opposed to the religious fundamentalism which now dominates the conservative movement. His opposition to this fundamentalism places him on the same side as liberals on many issues despite his conservative philosophy. Similarly there are also other conservatives who stress civil liberties and constitutional limitations on government power who have sided with liberals in opposing the actions of the Bush administration.

Libertarians create yet more confusion on the ideological spectrum. The word libertarian has become as ambiguous as any of the other labels. Many libertarians have been aligned with the Republican Party for so long that, even if they disagree with them on some issues, they have become increasingly conservative. In many cases, but certainly not all,  it is accurate to describe a libertarian as a Republican who has smoked marijuana. There are also Libertarian Republicans who still claim to be libertarian despite supporting massive increases in the power of the state as they accept the Republican line on the “war on terror.” The most extreme of these have endorsed what would amount to a virtual military dictatorship with suppression of civil liberties to prevent dissent against the “war on terror” while still claiming to be libertarian. On the other hand, there are left-libertarians and liberaltarians who share considerable common ground with Nate’s rational progressives, but are much further from the radical progressives.Failure to distinguish between the different types of liberals, along with the fundamental conservatism of some who use the libertarian label, leads to the differences in reaction to alignment with liberals among different libertarians.

There is yet one other dichotomy I’ve found useful in discussing the views of liberals. There are the actual views held by liberals, regardless of which strand of liberalism they believe in, and the imaginary liberals created in the scare stories spread by people like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. It would be helpful in political discussion if people understood the differences between various types of liberals and progressives, but it would be tolerable if these were lumped together as long as people understand the differences between actual liberals and the straw men created by the right.


  1. 1
    Helmut O' Hooligan says:

    Excellent post! 

    Sometimes I wonder why labels matter, but, as something of a political theory junkie, I have learned that they may be necessary; if you don’t label yourself, someone else sure will. 

    My own views, in a general sense,  are consistent with the liberal tradition, but I find myself differing with progressives on a regular basis these days.  I  mostly differ with them on  economics, but also on guns, smoking laws, etc..  I believe I may qualify as a Left-libertarian, but in the U.S., if you use that term on a libertarian web site, you ruffle feathers (apparently they’ve never heard of folks like Proudhon, Emma Goldman, Henry George…or Tom Paine).  Oh well, the term “liberal” is good enough for me.  Liberals founded the country.  Liberals ended slavery.   Icould go on…

  2. 2
    Sammy says:

    I’m a dedicated rational progressive and I think it’s about understanding that change means transition. To that note, there’s a new book from the Progressive Ideas Network (The Progressive Ideas Network is made up of these groups: Campaign for America’s Future, Center for Community Change, Center for Economic and Policy Research, Commonweal Institute, Commonwealth Institute, Center on Wisconsin Strategy, Demos, Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, Economic Policy Institute, Grassroots Policy Project, Green For All, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Institute for Policy Studies, The Jamestown Project, New Vision: An Institute for Policy and Progress, The Opportunity Agenda, Progressive States Network, Redefining Progress, The Roosevelt Institution, Sightline Institute) called Thinking Big – a rational progressive agenda for the new administration.

  3. 3
    John F. says:

    Chris Dillow, a brit who writes the blog Stumbling & Mumbling had a post a while back suggesting what divides liberal from conservative is how comfortable one is with inequality. I think this is a good working definition but works a little differently hee in the US. Here Liberals and Coservatives align more according to the issues of the so-called culture wars, e.g., guns, god, gays, church & state, vouchers, stem cells, etc. In the UK the liberals and conservatives line up on opposite sides related to wealth distribution and power of the state, I think.

    Here in the US, liberals and progressives probably split over income and wealth inequality. 

    I don’t know anybody who’s 100 percent anything. I consider myself progressive but support most gun rights. 

  4. 4
    Ron Chusid says:

    Helmut O’ Hooligan,

    “I believe I may qualify as a Left-libertarian, but in the U.S., if you use that term on a libertarian web site, you ruffle feathers”

    One problem is that both libertarian and left-libertarian are used in so many different ways by different groups. If you use either of these terms you wind up running into people who insist they are the only true libertarians or left-libertarians and they will object to any other use of the terms.

    At least with the term liberal nobody feels they have exclusive ownership of the label as with many groups of libertarians.

  5. 5
    Ron Chusid says:


    Maybe it works better in other places, or perhaps worked here at different times, but I don’t find a position on inequality to be very useful in defining political philosophies. There are a number of characteristics which are more common among liberals or conservatives, but I wouldn’t use them as a definition.

  6. 6
    moment_um says:

    Dividing Progressive and Liberal Beliefs – http://liberalvaluesblog.com/?p=7098

  7. 7
    nick says:

    Read “Radical Son” by Horowitz &  “Rules for Radicals” by Alinsky to see what “progressive” means. “Revolution via evolution” & ” demolishing capitalism brick by brick” are frequent slogans…draw your own conclusions.

  8. 8
    Ron Chusid says:

    These are rather old views. Allinsky was far to the left of most liberals in his time, and he died in 1972. Such quotes reflected the views of few progressives of that era are are even less relevant today. At present most liberals support capitalism, especially against conservatives who seek to destroy it and replace it with corporatism.

  9. 9
    Ron Chusid says:

    The logic from Nick is the same as taking a quote from anyone on the far right in the past and to claim it is a reflection of the views of all conservatives today.

  10. 10
    Lisa richardson says:

    Labels, labels. The difference btwn Liberals & Progressives. http://liberalvaluesblog.com/?p=7098

  11. 11
    Barry Wallace says:

    RT @Leazzel: Labels, labels. The difference btwn Liberals & Progressives. http://liberalvaluesblog.com/?p=7098

  12. 12
    Ronald Lewis says:

    RT @Leazzel: Labels, labels. The difference btwn Liberals & Progressives. http://liberalvaluesblog.com/?p=7098

  13. 13
    Patrick says:

    I believe what Solomon said:
    “…there’s a time for every purpose under heaven.”
    My views are center right, with the caveat that things in this world are not so simplistic where a viable and free society could always maintain this ideological and political position without ever moving somewhat to the left or right as the times  and situations require.  I am definitely opposed to extremes. Extremes are deleterious to the public commonwealth.

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