Should we discard the political label "progressive"? I say no

In this recent article, political commentator Michael Lind argues that “progressives” should drop that label and start calling themselves “liberals” again – revive that once-honorable name, instead of trying to distance themselves from the RW’s demonization of it by rebranding. Reasons given:

  1. It’s futile – the RW is going to bash the center-left based on its policies, whatever name it uses.

  2. Neoliberals have tried to appropriate the name “progressive” for themselves, which makes it rather confusing.

  3. Radical leftists – socialists and Communists of various stripes – have done the same.

  4. There is also risk of confusion with the early 20th-Century Progressives, whose politics were substantially different from all of the above.

  5. The word “progressive” is “too German,” deriving as it does from Germany’s bureaucratically-oriented 19th-Century Deustche Fortschrittspartei (the word Fortschritt means "progress), whereas liberalism proper is rooted in values and civil liberties, not state action.

  6. The most interesting objection: The world “progressive” implies “progress,” which is not necessarily a liberal value.

  1. “Liberal” is, or could be once again, a badge of pride. It describes an American political tradition with an honorable history and great achievements to its credit.

All very good reasons, to be sure; very persuasive and cogently argued; but I object for the following two reasons:

  1. The word “liberal,” as Liberal will shortly be showing up to remind us, also is prone to ideological confusion. In the 19th Century it meant more or less what we call “libertarianism” today, which, at least in its modern incarnation, is also very, very different from what Lind considers “liberal” as described above.

  2. In my judgment, in contemporary American political discourse, the word “progressive” actually means something, and not what Lind seems to think it does. Specifically, it means something well to the left of “liberal” and well to the right of “socialist.” It is the political position of America’s erstwhile NDP-inspired New Party, or the Working Families Party, or the Vermont Progressive Party – any of which is easily distinguishable from even such a moderate socialist organization as the Democratic Socialists of America. Their politics is that of the social democrats of Europe. They don’t envision wholesale expropriation of wealth or socialization of all means of production, but they do regard greater socioeconomic equality as an important end-in-itself, and they do regard movement in that direction as a form of “progress,” and they do believe in the idea of “universal progress in general.” The American Greens – at least, the main body of them, the Green Party of the United States – are a branch of American progressives. (There is also a smaller and distinctly far-leftist, Marxist-influenced party, the Greens/Green Party USA.) And progressivism so defined is an important political tendency, far more important in American politics today than socialism as such – and, I think may become much more important in coming decades. The word “progressive” is worth preserving in American political discourse because it denotes that political tendency as no other term in current usage adequately does.

Eh, I’m a social democrat. (Or a pragmatic socialist egalitarian, which is too long & still unclear to people.) “Progressive” is too void of intrinsic specificity & clarity, as are “conservative” & “liberal”.

I’m a proud liberal. We accomplished too damn much to be letting the Right demonize our very name.

“Social democrat” is too (wiping an ishy thing from my hand) European. We Americans have a long liberal tradition to draw upon without any need to associate ourselves with the European goulash of political types.

“Liberal” is to politics as Coors Beer is to brewing. It implies acceptance of change rather than advocacy for change, which is the progressive. I found the “centrist” three-legged Clintonista agenda uninspiring, too anxious to win the approval of “business”, too eager to soothe reactionary anxiety. “Heavens, no, your investments are safe, we don’t mean to really change anything, a few throwrugs, some doilies…” They give themselves points for not actually getting in the way.

Time was, I took this stuff kinda seriously. Liberals annoyed me. Now, not so much. Still, I’m about as likely to describe myself as a “liberal” as I am to describe myself as “fabulous!”

Yeah, well, how’s our “long liberal tradition” working now? I’m quite ready to draw on European ideas where they’ve been empirically proven to work. An absence of awareness of the success of social democracy in Europe means we politic in self-inflicted darkness. Thus the right seems as full of usefully “new” ideas as the left, though its ideas & schemes are unproven.

Change in and of itself is not a value of any merit whatsoever.

But progress in and of itself has merit. E.g., the abolition of Jim Crow – not merely change, but progress; the sweeping away of something both unjust and anachronistic in such a way that it could not possibly be revived.

Within three bullet points of the OP I was already looking up definitions.

The average voter, in any country, has no idea what a “progressive” is versus a “liberal” versus a “neoliberal.” Most people - I know this will shock Internet discussion board veterans, but it’s true - do not know what a “libertarian” is. Precise labelling of political positions is a fool’s game in any case, and doesn’t serve a lot of purpose. elucidator’s claim of the distinction betwene liberal and progressive is purely subjective - any number of people will disagree - and would be lost on anyone you were trying to convince.

Progressives - not a clear set of people but let’s not worry about that - may as well keep using that word if for no other reason than it’s a positive-sounding, optimistic word. It SOUNDS good.

I like this, to be honest. At the risk of oversimplification, it allows us to somewhat accurately gauge political attitudes to change in the direction of increased social, economic, and political equality.

Conservative: resist change.
Liberal: accept change.
Progressive: advocate for change.

Of course this doesn’t take into account neoliberalism, which I would argue falls between conservative and liberal in that they take conservative policies and put a liberal mask on them (ie resist change while acting like you’re accepting change) or the fundamental divide in advocating change, which is whether or not you “rock the boat”. Arguably both would fall under the “progressive” label since you are advocating for change, just using different methods.

Furthermore, the as-yet unspoken link between all three of them is that the question of the sociopolitical and socioeconomic system remains unaddressed - change only within the system, not of the system itself. Which is where the term ‘radical’ comes in - they advocate for both types of change.

So yeah - keep the label ‘progressive’. As a radical I’d much rather work alongside people who want to advocate for change than simply just passively accepting it!

But, “social democrat” is also a term prone to ideological confusion. Lenin, after all, was a Social Democrat. So are the nearly-defunct [-- the more conservative, or, at least, more anti-Communist-hawkish and pro-Vietnam-War, faction, that emerged from the breakup of the [url=]Socialist Party of America](]Social Democrats USA[/url) in 1973. Neither is “progressive” in the sense I am here using and attempting to promote the term.

I disagree completely. I mean, really, conservaties “resist” change? Just as silly here is my own oversimplification of over 300 million Americans:

My own oversimplified compartmentalization of the three

Conservatives: “Utopia is impossible.” Change what’s necessary only a case-by-case basis. Anything more than that is usually chasing an impossible utopia, and leaves usually a mess of unintended consequences in its wake. For this reason the greatest fault of conservatism is sometimes not acting when in retrospect perhaps they should have.

Liberal: “Utopia is possible.” And let’s keep changing everything until we reach it. We haven’t reached it yet? Obviously we just haven’t changed enough things. back to the drawing board! For this reason Liberals are often rightly accused of chasing impossible ideals and creating a mess of unintended consequences in their wake.

Progressive: “Utopia = a constant state of change.” For this reason anytime anything is changed, progressives claim a temporary victory (they don’t have to see the end results, just the change itself is sufficient). This is different than anarchy, however, because progressives take a logical and ordered approach to constant change, while anarchists aren’t interested in order whatsoever. The greatest fault of progressives is that they often try to come up for a reason for change after first advocating the change has to be made.

Not exactly. The best definition/explication I’ve yet encountered of contemporary American conservatism comes from The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, by conservative British journalists John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge:

I’ve never seen an example of that. Could you provide one?

The fact that utopa is impossible doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t strive to achieve it. Because even if utopia is impossible, it is still possible to achieve a state which is better than it is currently.

True – if you go slow and careful, by experimentation, giving yourselves the opportunity to learn lessons from unintended consequences. That’s the progressive way (in theory; in practice, progressives have to push as hard as possible for change as fast as possible to get anything done at all in a non-progressive political environment). Lenin, triumphant in the October Revolution, proudly declared, “We shall now proceed to build the socialist order.” – unreflectively confident that his Bolsheviks knew how to do that, all at once, from top to bottom throughout Russia’s society and economy, when socialism was a thing that had never before been tried in history on a large or lasting scale, and the Bolsheviks were mostly intellectual ideologues with no experience in commerce, industry, administration or government – not even as a party-in-opposition. We know how that worked out.

Sure. Take, for instance, the issue of Prop 8 in California. Now here I’m not talking about the voters who passed it, but the people and organizations who built, organized, and ran the “Yes on 8” campaign. Social attitudes towards the acceptance of gays and lesbians has softened greatly over the last two or three decades, to the point where anti-discrimination measures have been put on the law books, and in some states (like CA) and towns gay marriage has been officially sanctioned. How do conservatives in California respond? A campaign to amend the state constitution in order to outlaw gay marriage. That’s resistance to change right there.

Oh, I think most of the right’s ideas & schemes have been given a fair field test, by now. And failed.

Admittedly, any debate on that question is complicated by the fact that the left and right cannot even agree on by what standards to measure failure or success.

What does any of this have to do with keeping or discarding the label “progressive”?