Wednesday, 2 July 2014

A Very Important Distinction: The Trouble Isn’t Liberals. It’s Progressives.

The distinction that makes a difference in judging those on the left, argues Nick Sorrentino in this guest post, is between liberals and so-called progressives.

* * * *

In the below essay I speak in some generality. To be clear, progressive, liberal, libertarian, conservative, each camp has good people and bad people.

The "progressive" who brought us the Federal Reserve Act, the Income Tax, and got us involved in the slaughter which was World War I.
U.S. President Wilson: The “progressive” who gave the U.S. the Federal Reserve
Act and the Income Tax, and took them into the slaughter that was World War I.

Like the author of the article to which I link below, I hate to completely give up the term “liberal.” Liberal used to be such a good word. It stood for limited government and human freedom and thought unbridled. Then FDR had to come and screw things up. But that aside, and I haven’t completely given up the term liberal, Charles Murray puts his finger on an important political distinction on the “Left””": There is a big difference between “liberals” and “progressives.”

I remember as a kid growing up with liberal members of my family. I could tell even as a small child that I would grow up and probably not agree with them on many things. However their general advocacy for legitimate tolerance and a generally peaceniky disposition appealed to me on a basic level. Indeed these folks informed my political evolution in a large way and it is these relationships (with lefty family and friends) which gave me many of the the insights I needed to come to my small government philosophy.

Sadly this breed of lefty has been overwhelmed by what I consider a small minded and potentially dangerous political animal, the “progressive.”

It was Howard Dean who started using the word again as the head of the DNC after his ill fated presidential run. It was basically a spin tool used to jettison the term “liberal” which polling had shown the American people saw as another word for permissive, soft on crime, wimpiness. Jimmy Carter was a “liberal.” The Dems wanted to kill that perception. So they landed on the word “progressive.”

It was a smart move actually. Who doesn’t want “progress”? To oppose “progress” and “progressivism” one would have to be a backward thinking troll. It kind of worked for a bit, for some people.

The term came into (re)use just as there was a concurrent (what I perceive as) negative shift on the Left. The politically correct generation came on the scene. A brand of leftism associated with political conformity, with hard core statism, with an antipathy toward a Constitution written by a bunch of white, land owning, gun toting, in some cases slave holding, dead guys even though it was a flower of the enlightenment and a break from centuries of rule by monarch, took hold. The “progressives” were not interested in making a better America. They were interested in “fundamentally transforming” the United States as Barrack Obama said in the run up to the 2008 election. They were and are about power. They were and are about shutting off debate. They were and are about intolerance of any thing or person which challenges the statist worldview. They see the Constitution as an impediment to change. Something which should be marginalized and certainly not celebrated.

I speak very broadly here of course. Not every individual who calls himself or herself a progressive believes all these things or to the same extent.

But as an example, the general modern American progressive mentality I think was expressed beautifully by Michelle Obama when she said that the first time she had been proud of the United States in her adult life was when the country elected her husband president. Hey, America has plenty of problems and we are certainly no cheerleaders for the state, but the first time in your adult life that you’ve been proud of the United States? That’s insane.  But she said it (publicly) like it was no big deal. She was soon to be the First Lady of the country she had never been proud of. [Mind you, this was a pretty good speech by Mrs Obama on free speech, in China no less. – Ed]

I don’t think Jimmy Carter would have said what Ms. Obama said. I don’t think Bill Moyers would have said it. I don’t think Jon Stewart would have said it. I don’t think Ralph Nader would have said it. I don’t think even think Howard Dean himself would have said it.

And I don’t mean to harp on some sort of “patriotism” which is often used for much evil, even in the good ole’ US of A as some sort of litmus test. But the above statement from Ms. Obama exposes a distinct psychology and one of the many cleavages on the American Left.

As Charles Murray points out below, it is vital that people on both the Left and the Right (whatever those terms mean these days) to understand these distinctions. The political landscape is changing. The Left is not a monolith, just as the Right is not. There are opportunities for good work across ideological differences so long as we can operate in something which closely resembles good faith. So long as we generally agree that this is supposed to be, or should be, a free country I think this can be done in a limited way.

Berkeley Free Speech Movement. Liberals not Progressives.
Berkeley Free Speech Movement. Liberals not Progressives.

However, if we don’t agree on the fundamental dignity of the free individual we aren’t going to get anywhere. I think that most modern liberals believe that this country should be a “free” country. They might be misguided (in my opinion) on a whole host of things. They may not understand that liberty must extend in both the personal and economic spheres. But I think they value freedom. Progressives, and this is for another essay, perhaps also the neoconservatives, do not fundamentally. The goal with these folks is power.

Freedom for people versus power to the state. Which one values more if one is on the Left is the distinguishing factor between being a “progressive” and being a “liberal.” *

Says Charles Murray in the Wall Street Journal:

A few weeks ago, I was thrown into a situation where I shared drinks and dinner with two men who have held high positions in Democratic administrations. Both men are lifelong liberals. There’s nothing “moderate” about their liberalism. But as the pleasant evening wore on (we knew that there was no point in trying to change anyone’s opinion on anything), I was struck by how little their politics have to do with other elements of the left.
Their liberalism has nothing in common with the political mind-set that wants right-of-center speakers kept off college campuses, rationalizes the forced resignation of a CEO who opposes gay marriage, or thinks George F. Will should be fired for writing a column disagreeable to that mind-set. It has nothing to do with executive orders unilaterally disregarding large chunks of legislation signed into law or with using the IRS as a political weapon. My companions are on a different political plane from those on the left with that outlook—the progressive mind-set…
…the progressive movement at the turn of the 20th century had roots in German philosophy ( Hegel and Nietzsche were big favorites) and German public administration ( Woodrow Wilson’s open reverence for Bismarck was typical among progressives). To simplify, progressive intellectuals were passionate advocates of rule by disinterested experts led by a strong unifying leader. They were in favor of using the state to mold social institutions in the interests of the collective. They thought that individualism and the Constitution were both outmoded.

*Another good test is whether when you were in college you ever thought “speech codes” were a good idea. If you did you are pretty much a slam dunk “progressive.”

Nick Sorrentino

Nick Sorrentino is the co-founder and editor of A political and communications consultant with clients across the political spectrum, his work has been featured at,,, Townhall, The Daily Caller, and many other publications. A graduate of Mary Washington College he lives just outside of Washington DC where he can keep an eye on Leviathan.
This post first appeared at Against Crony Capitalism.


  1. 20 years too late, Libertarianz latches on.

  2. To be clear, progressive, liberal, libertarian, conservative, each camp has good people and bad people.

    Let's try that again. To steer clear of Godwin's law: the KKK, the Baader-Meinhof Red Army Fraktion, the Red Hand Defenders and Boko Haram, each camp has good people and bad people.

    OK, so it's clearly not true. Why then do you think "Progressives" - in NZ most strongly represented by NZ's Labour/Green/Mana-Internet parties, but also basically National and now even ACT - has one good person?

    As you yourself say: " if we don’t agree on the fundamental dignity of the free individual" --- but, by definition progressives and liberals don't agree on the fundamental dignity of the free individual. Frankly they don't even agree on the existence of individuals --- where Thatcher said: "there is no such thing as society" progressives and liberals believe that "there is no individual without society" (which is why they "still hate Thatcher"). Of course it's usually phrased as "it takes a village to raise a child" or talking about "public good" or whatever.

    Anyone who subscribes to progressive is - by that act - altogether evil.

  3. The problem isn't liberals or progressives, it's people mindlessly labelling themselves and others.

  4. There are two kinds of people. Those who divide people into two kinds of people, and those who don't. I fall into this last camp.

  5. "There are three types of people, those who can count and those who cannot." Mark Twain


  6. 5 years ago I posted a comment giving the general definitions of what these terms mean in America and think I should point this out again -

    Conservative - State intervention in personal liberties, but not economic liberties
    Liberal - State intervention in economic liberties, but not personal liberties
    Libertarian - No intervention in either economic or personal liberties
    Progressive - State intervention in both economic and personal liberties

    The term 'progressive' used to be called "populist" - in the days of Henry Wallace or George McGovern (which is why no one had heard the term for a while before Howard Dean dug it out of the archives haha!)

    This fudging around terms like 'progressive' or 'populist' is for a couple of reasons -

    1. Because the term 'socialist' is a bit.... un-American - even the hard core left are uncomfortable either using it or thinking of themselves as such

    2. The smartypants hard left - Harvard Professors, movie stars, rich trial lawyers etc - can plausibly claim to be very well meaning in helping the poor despite their own personal wealth and lifestyles, but that would be impossible to get anyone to swallow if the term "socialist" was used due to the obvious hypocrisy.

    It should be noted that the current fashion for 'progressive' is likely to be temporary; every so often in American politics certain fringe groups who make a lot of noise get into positions of power and create the impression everyone in the party is like them.

    A good example was Ron Reagan in the 1980s and the view the Republican party agreed with his ideology, whereas even George Bush didn't and quickly knocked it on the head once Reagan had gone.

    Similarly - and giving certain Democrats credit where it is due - it is a bit silly to suggest the Clintons (or Biden?) or people like Harry Reid, Begich, Pryor, Nelson,Testor, Heitkamp etc are extreme left wing Progressives who listen to and hang onto the every word of loons like Sean Penn! haha!

    One of the ironic elections this year is the Kentucky Senate where Mitch McConnell is the left wing candidate compared with his [low tax, pro coal, massive spending cuts to balance the budget] Democrat opponent! haha!

    And could you seriously imagine someone like Senator Jon Testor at a Hollywood or Harvard cocktail party with the smartypants 'Beautiful People'!?!? (oh please!)

    So give it a couple of years and the constant discrediting of the Obama agenda (and a ticking electoral clock) and watch the left wing progressives fade away fairly quickly, and the Democrats back to more centrist "Liberalism".

    I predict that by the 2020 electoral cycle you won't even hear the term 'Progressive'.


1. Commenters are welcome and invited.
2. All comments are moderated. Off-topic grandstanding, spam, and gibberish will be ignored. Tu quoque will be moderated. Links to bogus news sites (and worse) will be deleted.
3. Read the post before you comment. Challenge facts, but don't simply ignore them.
4. Use a name. If it's important enough to say it, it's important enough to put a name to it.
5. Above all: Act with honour. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.