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What's The Difference Between Progressives And Liberals?

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by Eric Rauchway
Over at Unfogged, the blogger LizardBreath1 asks an excellent question: "What's the difference between a progressive and a liberal?" Because I am a historian, I will take the liberty of posing one answer to this question by recasting it in the past tense: back when those terms really meant something, what was the difference between a progressive and a liberal? Let's begin with The New Republic's own Walter Lippmann, whose 1914 Drift and Mastery affords us a fine starting point in modern American political philosophy.

Lippmann starts off by saying,

the adjective "progressive" is what we like, and the word "new," be it the New Nationalism of [Theodore] Roosevelt, the New Freedom of [Woodrow] Wilson, or the New Socialism of the syndicalists. The conservatives are more lonely than the pioneers.... For no one, unafflicted with invincible ignorance, desires to preserve our economic system in its existing form.

When Lippmann was writing, there was actually a Progressive Party. In 1912, it had tried to make Theodore Roosevelt the president (again). It stood for a grab-bag of changes--reforms, they liked to call them--in American politics:

1. direct election of Senators and other direct democratic reforms like the initiative, referendum, and recall;
2. labor laws, including the 8-hour day, Sundays off, workmen's compensation; also laws specifically protecting women and children;
3. woman suffrage;
4. limits on and publicity for campaign contributions;
5. regulation of business and finance, including of the currency;
6. conservation of natural resources;
7. inheritance tax and income tax;
8. federal jurisdiction over securities crimes;
9. internationally agreed arms limitation, but until such agreements came about, building two battleships a year

among others. Does all this stuff hang together, in some coherent vision of what's to come? Not really; the easiest way to see that is probably the battleships, which were the price that pacifist social democrats like Jane Addams had to pay for having the bellicose, nationalist Roosevelt on the ticket.

What they could agree on was the need, as Lippmann said, not for progress toward anything in particular, but progress away from something--away from the existing political-economic system, which many Americans believed gave corporate chieftains too much access to the levers of government. Progressives wanted to alter this system to increase fairness to the rest of America in a variety of ways. Not any one of them necessarily had anything much to do with all the others. But the proponents of some agreed to back the proponents of others, and sought common philosophical explanations for doing so.

The sense of progress as movement-away (as opposed to movement-toward) may not seem like much of a basis for anything: but it provided the foundation for the most fertile period in American thought since the Revolution (see, e.g.) and for the most successful of third parties since the Republicans. To a considerable extent the Progressive agenda later became the agenda of the Democratic Party.

Okay, that's progressivism. What about liberalism? Well, it's precisely that sense of progressivism as movement-away rather than movement-toward that gave Lippmann his definition of liberalism, too.

there is a great gap between the overthrow of authority and the creation of a substitute. That gap is called liberalism: a period of drift and doubt. We are in it to-day.

Here is a nice ambiguity: when Lippmann says "a substitute," does he mean, "a substitute authority" or "a substitute for authority"? I think it's fair to say there's some disagreement on this point--some people think the former, that Lippmann expected a class of technocratic, engineering, managerial types to emerge as a kind of substitute authority. I think this is not quite right: Lippmann says that

If it is possible to destroy, as we are doing, the very basis for authority, then change becomes a matter of invention and deliberate experiment.

He is proposing a society organized without any non-human authority, a society whose norms are always provisional and subject to reconsideration. By this definition a progressive is someone who wants to see society vault the gap of liberalism's drift and doubt to settle on a permanent embrace of provisionality.

You may say, what is the difference between doubt and provisionality? Doubt, in this sense, is uncertainty about the basis for values; provisionality is certainty that there is no permanent, extra-social basis for values. (This is a very short and unsophisticated version of James Kloppenberg's rather brilliant Uncertain Victory.)

Okay, so now we have the idea that liberalism is a period of drift and doubt, as distinct from a vigorous, progressive embrace of provisionality. And now we have a clear historical problem: What happened to the progressives, and specifically, why and when did they get displaced by the liberals?

This will be another short and rather unsophisticated version of a rather brilliant argument, this one Alan Brinkley's End of Reform. What happened was, the early New Deal looked a lot like Lippmann's "invention and deliberate experiment." But then, in 1937 or so, some crises beset the New Deal, crises worked out by the Second World War, which left a very different philosophy in place. Brinkley:

The critique of modern capitalism ... was largely gone.... In its place was a set of liberal ideas essentially reconciled to the existing structure of the economy and committed to using the state to compensate for capitalism's inevitable flaws.... When liberals spoke now of government's responsibility to protect the health of the industrial world, they defined that responsibility less as a commitment to restructure the economy than as an effort to stabilize it and help it to grow. They were no longer much concerned about controlling or punishing "plutocrats" and "economic royalists,"... Instead, they spoke of their commitment to providing a healthy environment in which the corporate world could flourish and in which the economy could sustain "full employment."2

Here at last was liberalism as we knew it: managerial competence along with permanent philosophical drift and doubt, shorn of progressivism's philosophical vigor and enthusiasm for experimentation. Here, in other words, was liberalism as reality-based, center left technocracy.

If progressivism was at the outset more experimental than liberalism, it's probably fair to say it was at the outset more to the left than liberalism, and so, we can probably say, it remained.3 Which is to say, even though liberalism triumphed, progressives didn't go away. And in liberalism's recent weakness, you can see some leftish yearnings for a return to progressivism.

Now, this concludes my attempt to answer the original question, but if you want to know what I think happened next, you can see my short history of American liberalism, here. As a bonus, if you scroll up from there or use your browser to search that page for the phrase, "Progressivism is not Liberalism," you can find Siva Vaidhyanathan's explanation of what he thinks is the difference between progressivism and liberalism--with which, you'll realize if you've read this far, I disagree, but I want to be sure you're getting full value for your time and effort if you're really interested in reading all this stuff.

______________________
1Who characterizes herself as one of those "pseudonymous lawyers who blog about cake."

2Alan Brinkley, The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War (New York: Vintage, 1995), 6-7.

3But, you may say, I thought Theodore Roosevelt, Jane Addams, Robert La Follette and a lot of those old Progressives were and to an extent remained Republicans--how could they be to the left of liberals? This is a very interesting point. And to answer it, you have to think about the electoral challenge facing the Republican party between 1890 and 1917. Perhaps predictably, I will now say that you can find some of these challenges explained in my new book and some others in my not-as-new, but quite-worth-your-time, book. And I will try to explain all of these challenges more fully in the next book but one. Meantime, if anyone else, pseudonymous legal cake-blogger or otherwise, wants to ask specifically, I might try to provide an explanation in this very space.

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