Progressive or Liberal? Good Question, to a Point

Last week, political science professor and biographer of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Greg Weiner wrote in the New York Times about the need to revive the term "liberal."  His argument, broadly speaking, was that there is a great deal of good in the ideology the word represents that he worries will be discarded along with the word itself.

I generally agree with him on that narrow point, but, in making it, he sets up the word "progressive" as an alternative and defines it in an incredibly bizarre way.  I ran across the article when Vox columnist Matt Yglesias shared the article with the comment; "This involves putting a really shocking amount of weight on fairly arbitrary terminological issues."

I actually tend to vest words and terminology with a fairly unusual significance, but my issue with Weiner's column is more with his case for what "progressivism" entails.  And for that reason, I feel the need to redeem the term "progressive" from the strange wilderness to which he has it exiled.  According to Weiner:

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.

This, to Weiner, is in contrast to his idea of liberalism:

The basic premise of liberal politics, by contrast, is the capacity of government to do good, especially in ameliorating economic ills. Nothing structurally impedes compromise between conservatives, who hold that the accumulated wisdom of tradition is a better guide than the hypercharged rationality of the present, and liberals, because both philosophies exist on a spectrum. 

He makes a decent point here, in that liberals tend to fight for change within a system and progressives are more willing to move outside it.  While liberals and progressives may want many of the same things, progressives tend to identify the goal as the positive outcome and social structures as aiding, inhibiting, or neutral toward that end.  Liberals tend to see the existence of the structures and the preservation of the system as a good in and of itself.  There's nothing wrong with that.  My father has never thought of himself as a liberal but he probably is in the current climate (at least according to Weiner's definition).  We often seek the same end but, where he feels that change must happen within the confines of existing institutions, there are some ends which I think supersede the importance of institutions or that institutions themselves may be part of the problem. 

But Weiner takes this (admittedly substantial) philosophical difference much too far:

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.

I consider myself to be progressive and am often far to the left of more mainstream liberals, but I have spent more time than I care to admit criticizing the left wing of the Democratic Party for its inability to consider the cost of structural change and its tendency to undervalue some existing institutions.  That Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama would consider themselves progressive should be evidence that my appreciation of the cost of change is shared by others who label themselves the same way.  My willingness and that of other progressives to acknowledge that positive change sometimes must happen outside of or dismantle existing social structures do not automatically equate to an eagerness to destroy them for the sake of their destruction.  You'd be hard-pressed to find a progressive anywhere but a radical fringe who does not value Medicaid and Medicare.  Bernie Sanders, avatar of the progressive "revolution," found a rather remarkable array of uses for the existing Postal Service during his 2016 primary campaign.  To argue that progressives have no interest in conserving is disingenuous.  Perhaps they can be a little quick to discard existing institutions, but making that claim simply places them on their own "spectrum" and is less rhetorically useful to Weiner.

Weiner continues, however, and it's in his zeal to frame progressivism, not simply as misguided, but as dangerous, that Weiner truly outpaces his argument: 

But progressivism is inherently hostile to moderation because progress is an unmitigated good. There cannot be too much of it.

He continues:

Because progress is an unadulterated good, it supersedes the rights of its opponents. This is evident in progressive indifference to the rights of those who oppose progressive policies in areas like sexual liberation.

It's here that Weiner moves into a purely academic area and that his argument becomes untethered from the change that is the essence of politics.  Progressives may or may not believe that "progress is an unmitigated good," but as he argues earlier, they generally attempt to define what constitutes progress ("identify a destination, grip the wheel").  Racial equality, gender equality, full employment, fair housing, and bargaining rights for workers would be a fair representation of common progressive goals, for example.  While any fair reading of history would reveal excesses in pursuit of any of those ends, Weiner's contention that there could be too much progress, when progress is equality or justice, rings a bit ridiculous.  It's his assumption, however, that progressives feel that their goals necessarily supersede the rights of others that is particularly odious.

Racial equality, gender equality, full employment, fair housing, and bargaining rights for workers were signature goals of Martin Luther King Jr's fifteen-year struggle for civil rights.  By the end of his life, he was considered a moderate in his movement and spent considerable time pushing back against the more antagonistic elements within his coalition, but he was unquestionably radical.  He never (to my knowledge) embraced the progressive label, but he fought alongside socialists, spoke regularly of "revolution," spoke with sympathy about rioters even as he condemned leaders who would use their anger as a tool for change, and wrote at length about the hypocrisy of moderates and the immediacy of the need for extraordinary social change.  He argued, after his massive civil rights gains, that passing laws that made long-sought changes to the existing system was his easy work and that the real work of revolutionary change that could produce economic equality was just beginning.

Dr. King was, without question, a radical.  He also defined himself as an "extremist for love."  In his account of the Montgomery Bus Boycott that broke segregation of public transit in the Jim Crow south, he reiterates over and over and over again that he and his nonviolent companions were fighting "for equality, not victory."  The idea that his rights superseded those of any white American was anathema to his campaign.  The idea that progressives who share many of his goals feel that those goals supersede the rights of others simply because the label they chose mirrors that of turn of the century technocrats like Woodrow Wilson makes as much sense than tying John McCain to Theodore Bilbo just because both were considered conservatives.

Not entirely satisfied with his hammering of the terms flat, Weiner, however, writes further:

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

He frames this as a bad thing, but perhaps therein lies the reason for liberalism's deteriorating reputation.  Weiner argues that conservatives have so maligned the term "liberal" that left-of-center politicians dare not use it.  He's right to a point but the assaults on the term predate modern conservatism and came not only from the right.  Radical movements as far-flung as European socialist parties, Bolsheviks, and interwar fascists maligned the squishiness of constitutional liberalism and blamed its (real) tendency to reform only enough to quiet its opposition for the paralysis of the 1920s and 30s.  Of course, such extreme movements' refusal to yield even an inch toward compromise is equally to blame, but their accusations against liberal politicians gained traction because they contained a measure of truth.

Weiner's disregard of those who see the need to solve problems rather than ameliorate their effects is as much a reason for left-of-center politics to eschew his label as the causes he cites. 

I worry, perhaps as much as Weiner, about a progressivism that does treat the rights of others as secondary to progressive ends.  But to consider progressivism itself, rather than simply its excesses, to be so dangerous Weiner must ignore what those progressive ends even are; particularly when he ignores the enormous social consequences of parallel liberal excesses toward consensus (the construction of the modern carceral state, for one and the forfeiture of foreign policy and the ability to make war to the executive, for another). Goals that attempt to realize equality and compassion for the poor are quintessentially progressive and seek mostly to enshrine economic and social justice.

I'll be the first self-proclaimed progressive to agree with Weiner about the dangers of progressives who substitute their goals for the rights of their opponents and who substitute lofty goals and antagonistic rhetoric for incremental steps toward progressive ends and helping others immediately.  But if words are important, Weiner would be wise to consider the freight carried by the term liberal and the way in which his almost glib assertion that cutting checks were preferable to addressing the root causes of poverty validates its most derogatory caricatures.

Weiner concludes by stating that "One cannot, of course, make too much of labels."  He is, of course, correct.  But if he is intent on doing so, he would be wise to consider that any etymological study hinges upon the way in which the meaning of words changes over time.  Weiner seems bent on maintaining the original definitions of particular political terms but utterly resistant to how the meaning of those terms has changed.  He fails to consider the political realities about which he argues; the legacy of liberals, the program advocated by progressives, the way they apply the term to themselves, and the frequency with which their interests overlap. 

There's a certain point at which arguments over terminology are very useful.  I believe vehemently in the power of our choice of words to change how we frame events or think about ideas.  But that point lies long before we dig in our heels applying hundred-year-old definitions of political philosophies to make judgments about movements without considering the actual principles for which they advocate.