Passing bull 174 –Liberals and Progressives – Labels gone berserk


In a recent piece in The New York Times, the author sought to explain the difference between ‘liberals’ and ‘progressives.’

In recent decades, the label ‘progressive’ has been resurrected to replace ‘liberal,’ a once vaunted term so successfully maligned by Republicans that it fell out of use….

Historical progressivism is an ideology whose American avatars, like Woodrow Wilson, saw progress as the inevitable outcome of human affairs. Of course, liberals and conservatives believe that their policies will result in positive outcomes, too. But it is another thing to say, as American Progressives did, that the contemporary political task was to identify a destination, grip the wheel and depress the accelerator.

The basic premise of liberal politics, by contrast, is the capacity of government to do good, especially in ameliorating economic ills. …A liberal can believe that government can do more good or less, and one can debate how much to conserve. But progressivism is inherently hostile to moderation because progress is an unmitigated good. There cannot be too much of it…..

Unlike liberalism, progressivism is intrinsically opposed to conservation. It renders adhering to tradition unreasonable rather than seeing it, as the liberal can, as a source of wisdom…..Because progress is an unadulterated good, it supersedes the rights of its opponents.

Where liberalism seeks to ameliorate economic ills, progressivism’s goal is to eradicate them…..

But neither liberalism nor conservatism opposes rationality.  Conservatism holds that accumulated tradition is a likelier source of wisdom than the cleverest individual at any one moment….. One cannot, of course, make too much of labels.….The appropriate label for those who do not believe in the ideology of progress but who do believe in government’s capacity to do good is ‘liberal.’ They would do well, politically as well as philosophically, to revive it.

It is unusual to find such vintage bullshit in such a fine newspaper that usually knows enough to leave undergraduate ideology well alone.

The author clearly sees himself as a liberal, and not a progressive, a term that he wants to malign in the same way that Republicans successfully maligned ‘liberal’.

If you ran into John and Betty in the street, and you were told that John was different to Betty – he was a liberal, but she was a progressive – you would not know what to make of it.  And you would be no better off after reading what I have set out above.

As it seems to me, there are at least two mistakes.  In spite of his caveat, the author makes ‘too much of labels’.  The assumption is that people can and should be put in boxes marked liberal or progressive.  The truth is that all of us have views that partake of the two categories mentioned plus that of conservative.  The person who is purely one and not any of the other two doesn’t exist.  We look at the policies of a party and form an assessment of its capacity to implement them.  If they get elected, we expect them to ‘identify a destination, grip the wheel and depress the accelerator.’  And we do so believing in ‘government’s capacity to do good.’  Is there another way in which we could proceed?

The second mistake comes with the criterion of distinction.  We are told that for a ‘progressive’, progress is an unmitigated or unadulterated good.  Very few sane people could believe any such thing.  The problem comes with the word ‘progress,’ which the author does not define.  Progress is the ‘action of stepping or moving forward or onward; travel, a journey, an expedition.’  If you want to go from A to B, and half way there, you start going backwards, then while you are doing that, you are not making progress.  But whether your going forward is desirable will depend on your choice of destination, and the way that you will get there.  If you want to go to Heaven, every step on the way is good; if are heading for Hell, every step on the way is bad.  Let’s say you want to go from A to B.  One way is through mountainous jungle infested with taipans; the other is longer but flat and safe.  It would be absurd to say that any movement on the first route must be good, because it involves being progressive.  It is also absurd to say that any movement that qualifies as ‘progress’ could be an unmitigated or unadulterated good.  The timber of our humanity is far too crooked for this abstract purity.  It belongs in another world.


Whatever the outcome…Mr Trump is showing himself to be a far more savvy political operator….The dispatch of what the President says could be 15,000 troops to confront the migrant caravans snaking north through Mexico may have Democrats in a state of apoplexy, especially when he warns the troops could respond with gunfire if attacked.  But the polls show that Mr Trump’s tough stance on what has become the main issue in the campaign is winning votes and the caravans of defiant would-be migrants, many organised by leftist and communist groups in Honduras, Venezuela and Cuba, are a gift for Mr Trump’s mid-term aspirations.

The Weekend Australian, November, 3-4, 2018

It could happen here.  With the same sponsor.

A pleasant anecdote

Politics in England in the 18th century turned on what they called patronage and we call corruption.  Votes had to be bought and office rewarded.  This was the fare for the thirty-two voters of Bath on St Peter’s Day, 1698:

2 venison pasties, 2 haunches boiled, 2 chines of mutton, 4 gees, 4 piggs, 12 Turkey chicken, plain chickens and rabbits sans number and abundance of claret and sherry.  [The spelling is as it was.] 

A ball followed for the ladies, and

….in the evening there were glass windows broke on purpose that the glaziers that were not worthy to eat with them might have some benefit by the matter.

Now, democracy was a long way off in the U K, and the yet to be born U S, but do you not just marvel at the way the better people looked after those ‘that were not worthy to eat with them’?  An essential part of the constitutional history of England consisted of doing through the back door what they couldn’t do through the front.  That’s why they never had a revolution as vicious as those of France or Russia or a collapse as complete as those of Germany, Italy, Spain and Greece.

2 thoughts on “Passing bull 174 –Liberals and Progressives – Labels gone berserk

  1. The label progressive is worth discussing over there nevertheless. It’s self applied, and so audaciously opinionated about the virtue of those applying it! God knows how they got away with it… It’s a marketing masterpiece. The right cops it sweet, too. It would be like rebranding the right as the Children of God or something (some in that camp do I guess). Free education and free health are way outside the American progressive’s experience but it is gospel for them nevertheless. I often ask progressives what the term means when I go over. Some struggle to answer. Others say it means that social justice is the priority. I got into trouble for saying that to Australians, the American progressive platform might look a bit old fashioned (I also meant naive, but didn’t say that). How so? In that some of the ‘Big Things’ in their platform have already been tried in countries like Australia and then modified – made less comprehensive – almost always because they were proving to be too expensive. The movement or some part of it is now discussing/promoting a “no borders” concept. It even has an acronym. Brett Stephens has written a good column about that, arguing that you can not be for both higher wages and open borders. Economics is not the progressive long suit. They are a conglomerate. Unions are in there, the uni left, SL such as it is over there – but from the ones we know, old and young they are closest in thought and sentiment to the hippies of old. Not that that it is an unalloyed bad thing. I was too, for a while, and survived it. Then again, I was young: I don’t know what Bernie’s excuse is.


    • Very interesting. As a matter of logic, a label does not escape vice because it is a compliment and not an insult. But in fact, progressives are defined by what they are against – as happens a lot nowadays. They are against everything – almost – that Trump and Hannity stand for. What is the other party? Reactionary. That I think is fair. Fairer than regressive.
      I see that The Guardian claims it too.
      In the US, the rest of the West must look progressive.

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