9 Things Progressives Are NOT


Conor P. Williams

Conor Williams on Twitter. More background here.

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79 Responses

  1. Avatar Damon says:

    Curious as to why you didn’t identify a “spectrum” or “distribution” in the Fascist and Marxist categories like you did with Scientific Wonks. Maybe it’s a matter of interpretation, because I surely see elements of Fascism and Marxism in current Progressives.

    They all share similar propensities for state/nation action to fix societal problems and are more than happy to embrace ownership/ties to govt and allegedly private companies.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Damon says:

      Well sure Damon, but your last paragraph describes conservatives just as well as Progressives.Report

      • Avatar Damon in reply to North says:

        Correct. This is why I use the term “statist” for those on both sides of the conventional political spectrum, because they are, in fact, in favor of this. Everything else is simply arguments around the various aspects of it.Report

        • Avatar zic in reply to Damon says:

          So you disapprove people working together to solve problems?Report

          • Avatar 975 in reply to zic says:

            Does all “working together to solve problems” necessarily involve using government?Report

            • Avatar zic in reply to 975 says:


              But I see no reason to exclude government, either. It’s not some ‘other,’ it’s us.Report

              • Avatar Will H. in reply to zic says:

                I really believe that’s one of the defining points of the Left/Right dichotomy.
                And the implications of it are rather odd, because it tends to stand the conventional wisdom on its head.
                Bear with me a minute.

                Generally, the Right favors a diversity of social institutions; while on the Left, government is the most favored institution.
                That is, most conservatives will look for a solution among existing social institutions other than government to fill a certain role. For liberals, government is the default social institution in practically all situations.

                Not so much controversial there.
                But think of the implications.

                It’s really more of a thing of balancing competing interests; separation of powers.
                Viewed in this light, the Left is more similar to monarchists; which is historically associated with conservatism.Report

              • Avatar zic in reply to Will H. says:

                For liberals, government is the default social institution in practically all situations.

                I simply don’t agree with this. Liberals participate in all sorts of non-governmental institutions; they belong to churches, they belong to groups like The Nature Conservancy. I may not be a member of the NRA, but I’m a member of the AMC. My husband isn’t a Mason, but he belongs to several professional organizations.

                Rather, I think that conservatives don’t like to give credence to the kinds of non-government institutions liberals generally join; so those groups are basically viewed as non-existing.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Will H. says:

                Interesting comment Will H. But is this

                That is, most conservatives will look for a solution among existing social institutions other than government to fill a certain role.

                true? It seems to me that conservatism – or maybe contemporary conservatism – and in general, mind – isn’t looking for solutions to perceived problems but rather denies that what liberals identify as problems in fact are. So a fortiori, they reject liberal’s proposed/enacted solutions to problems.Report

              • Avatar Matty in reply to Will H. says:

                I consider myself a left liberal and don’t recognise myself in this. I think of the state as a tool that can be used to achieve a whole range of goals but certainly not the only item in the toolbox or always the best.

                If there is anything in my political views that is pro-state it is a distaste for those who proclaim their desire to reduce the size of the state but only want to cut the bits that benefit poor people.Report

          • Avatar Damon in reply to zic says:

            No, I disapprove of a group of other people getting together and “solving” a problem without 1) my input, 2) my consent and then forcing me to comply by passing legislation.Report

            • Avatar greginak in reply to Damon says:

              democracy sucks dude.Report

            • Avatar zic in reply to Damon says:

              It’s not my fault you don’t participate; every legislative process that I know of requires 1) notice of public hearings, 2) public hearings where you get to add your input, 3) notice before a vote is taken to allow additional time for you to contact representatives, if they’ll be voting, or time to get the actual event on your calendar if it’s direct election. There’s also this amazing thing called free speech, where you can actual offer input to your fellow citizens by speaking out; the traditional forum is the local newspaper’s ‘letter to the editor’ page; the most widely read part of every paper published in the land.

              So if you don’t know how that stuff works in your community and state, if you don’t have the phone #, addresses and emails of your elected representatives in your community, state, and to Congress, that’s not my *&(&ing problem, it’s your laziness.Report

              • Avatar Damon in reply to zic says:

                That’s a laugh. I live in one of the bluest states, machine run. There is no hope of changing that. It it democracy? Perhaps you call it that. I call it “nanny state mob rule”.

                Participation in the process? Why? I’ve got Republicans tell me I should vote for them because they voted FOR a tax increase because it brought a road improvement. When the “opposition” is just as hard core statist you’re screwed.Report

    • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to Damon says:

      I’m just intrigued by the notion of Fascism painted by the negative relief.Report

  2. Avatar DRS says:

    Not to harsh on Conor but this is precisely the thing I hate most about this site: the finicky nitpicking over labels that aren’t even accurate labels in the US let alone outside it. The attitude-copping rather than the discussion of specifics.

    Progressives existed in a certain time and in a few places, and the changes they wrought in political activity over the long run outweighed many of the specific policies they promoted. It wasn’t a team jersey thing.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to DRS says:

      It’s always seemed to me that a certain group of people started calling themselves “progressive” to distinguish themselves from “liberals” after about January 20, 2001. Part of this, I assume, had to do with the negative connotations the word “liberal” had taken on in the American political discourse in the 80s and 90s, but I assume it was also meant to distinguish themselves from ordinary ‘liberals” who were responsible for whatever was wrong with the Democratic Party (in their view).Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Chris says:

        My view is similar. The contemporary use of the word by living, breathing progressives is divorced from the earlier Dewey meaning. It was chosen largely in response right-wing demonization of the word “librul”, an attack so powerful that even Democrats shied away from using it to describe themselves. I think it was also used to distinguish a type of reasoning within liberalism: that policy could be proactive rather than reactive.Report

        • Avatar Chris in reply to Stillwater says:

          The proactive vs. reactive thing seems like a really good characterization, to me. In that sense, it really is like the old Progressives.Report

          • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Chris says:

            Yes, I think that’s right. I just caught it myself. But I think the overlap is very narrow (or, so it seems to me) as it applies to primarily, or even only, environmental issues. Of course, now the cat is outa the bag!Report

        • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:

          Ahh, that last part is confusing: the type of proactive policy I’m thinking of here is largely environmental policy, which I think gave rise (a little bit, anyway) to the current use of the term.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Chris says:

        Progressive also led to folks like Tester. I think Progressive is also a way of saying “I’m open to people who aren’t as lefty as I am”Report

    • Avatar Will H. in reply to DRS says:

      I’m no expert on the matter, but I’ve done a little bit of study.
      It looks to me like there were two progressive movements in the 20th cent.
      The first was in the early part and lasted through Dewey; mid-40’s or so.
      The second began in the 60’s with the Port Huron Statement.
      But they’re really not very similar at all.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Will H. says:

        I’m not sure it makes sense to call any challenge from the left to the American political mainstream “progressive.” if the SDS and the Progressives of the fist few decades of the last century can both be classified as “progressive,” then I think that’s all that “progressive” can mean.Report

        • Avatar Will H. in reply to Chris says:

          But that’s just it.
          SDS wasn’t a challenge to the political mainstream.
          It was a challenge to the political Left.Report

          • Avatar Chris in reply to Will H. says:

            It was a challenge to the Democratic Party, particularly in the midst of the tug of war within that party between the Dixiecrats and the northern liberals. The Democratic Party is one half of the American political mainstream, pretty much by definition.Report

    • Avatar Dave in reply to DRS says:

      Call me crazy but I thought I saw a post taking about why this sort of thing is unproductive. I don’t mind the original post but some comments have a déjà vu quality to them. It’s all too reminiscent of what I used to see in guitar discussion groups when people of various levels of technical ability would misrepresent each other at least twice a day.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Dave says:

        So Yngwie Mglamstien can do his scales. REALLY FAST.

        What I like about Slash is that he plays the guitar emotionally.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Dave says:

        You’re crazy. No one would have written such a post!Report

        • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Chris says:

          Well, if someone were to write that post, I’m sure he’d be so blinded by his overly-internalized ideological commitments he’d fail to see the value and accuracy of ideologically based generalizations.Report

        • Avatar Dave in reply to Chris says:

          That sort of name calling is not tolerated here!!!! Oh wait, you were telling the truth. My bad. 😉Report

          • Avatar Chris in reply to Dave says:

            Dave, my response to you was flippant, in keeping with the mood of the day’s posts, but I feel a bit bad about that, so I will say something a bit more substantive.

            I think it’s a valid use of labels, in this context, when we’re trying to place ideas, and even people, in an historical context. So, when we talk about Dewey or Wilson or Roosevelt (sorta) in the context of the Progressive movement, or when we try to situate 60s near radicalism (SDS), or even when we’re comparing a cluster of political ideas that are out there today to ideas of the past (like contemporary self-described “progressives” vs early 20th century Progressives). It’s also not unreasonable to look at where labels began (like the contemporary use of the progressive label), in order to deconstruct and disarm them a bit, as some people were doing here. Where labels harm discourse rather than contributing to it is when we start dealing with individuals in the present, particularly those who are engaged in a discourse (and this need not be those present in the discussion of the moment, but could include people in the broader political discourse, say), because we end up focusing on the labels and the (essentialist) baggage they carry with them, instead of engaging the ideas and the individuals who are offering them.

            Anyway, I hope that is clear. I didn’t mean to just dismiss your concern earlier. I’m sorry if it came off that way.Report

  3. Avatar Jaybird says:

    The number one thing that bugs me about modern progressives is that they not only haven’t read Marx, they haven’t read much of anything. Say what you will about the Progressives in the 80’s and 90’s, at least they were willing to compare and contrast what West Germany and East Germany were accomplishing in comparison to each other and how West Germany was technically a lot more Marxist qua Marxist and how East Germany was a living demonstration of how crony capitalism fails *IN PRACTICE*.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

      I know that most of the self-described progressives I know have never read any of the old progressives. Dewey? What, it’s kind of moist in the morning?Report

    • Avatar zic in reply to Jaybird says:

      Most self-describe progressives are liberals who heard ‘liberal’ being used as a dirty word by GOP KongressKritters™ so often that they needed a new name, quick. Progressive it was, and they didn’t bother about the history of ‘progressive,’ it just sounded good and seemed to reflect ongoing changes in the Democratic/Liberal wing of American Politics.

      Whatever progressive philosophy there was does not have anything to do with today’s progressives; they’re green, they believe in recycling, and the recycled a name that fit their need to be something positive, and being liberal was decidedly not positive.Report

      • Avatar Will H. in reply to zic says:

        I don’t see any negative connotation in the term ‘liberal.’
        I think that working from Rawls is overly broad to be useful in a practical sense.
        Kennedy was definitely a liberal. Clinton was a liberal.

        Interesting though that the most progressive member of the Senate (Feingold) came from the same state as (arguably) the most radical Rightist of the House (Ryan).Report

        • Avatar zic in reply to Will H. says:

          Some day, I’ll see if I can put together news clips of things that were said by members of Congress between 2000 and 2006; the word liberal was used as a derogatory term by a standing member of Congress on such a consistant basis that it became ‘normal.’Report

        • Avatar zic in reply to Will H. says:

          Perhaps if you think of it in terms of ‘elite liberal media,’ you’ll get some of what I’m saying; that’s the holdover that’s still commonly bandied about.Report

          • Avatar Will H. in reply to zic says:

            I remember talking with an old retired newspaper man about that years ago.
            He said that he thought there was some liberal slant in traditional media, but that it was mostly a product of self-selection in choosing a major.
            Everyone writes with a viewpoint.

            I get what you’re saying, but I don’t think the term is applied so much as it’s taken.
            I don’t think it’s an effective criticism on their part either.Report

            • Avatar zic in reply to Will H. says:

              I am definitely a liberal. I reported on business, particularly business as it related to the conflicts in Iraq/Afghanistan and the military for several years.

              You could go through and read my body of work, and I doubt you’d think I was a liberal, a progressive, or Democrat. The presumption would be that I was a registered Republican and very conservative; one that was often made by my sources. My political ideology may have shaped the kinds of stories I sought to write; the kinds of queries I began shaping a finished piece upon; but it was my job to push against those biases, and to actually report news and facts, not to write an opinion piece. Yes, most reporters tend to be liberals. But most owners of news media tend to be conservative, and they have a huge voice in tone/type of reporting that appears in their publications, on their broadcasts, and websites.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Jaybird says:

      This self-described Progressive has read Marx. And lived long enough in West Germany to know it wasn’t even remotely Marxist. Any nation that has all the trees numbered and has a Forstmeister to keep track of ’em is not Marxist, especially when something like 60 percent of that nation was covered in forest, with nice recesses and access roads for our main battle tanks.Report

  4. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    I think the idea that liberals/progressives are heathen comes from the version of Evangelical Christinanity that sees everybody who isn’t an Evangelical Christian as a heathen because of the emphasis on being born again. Christians who do not fall under this model, Mainstream Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, and Eastern Orthodox Christians are heathen because of this. Non-Christians like me are heathen by definition. Part of the problem is that Evangelical Christians use the generic Christian to identify themselves while other Christians aer more specific usually, referring to themselves as Catholic or Presbyterian or Greek Orthodox or what not. This creates an association between the generic word Christian and the specific Evangelical Christian that really shouldn’t exist.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

      I sometimes joke that Christianity is simultaneously the world’s largest and smallest religion because of this.Report

    • Avatar Barry in reply to LeeEsq says:

      “I think the idea that liberals/progressives are heathen comes from the version of Evangelical Christinanity that sees everybody who isn’t an Evangelical Christian as a heathen because of the emphasis on being born again. Christians who do not fall under this model, Mainstream Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, and Eastern Orthodox Christians are heathen because of this. ”

      Add a strong emphasis by right-wing Evangelicals that being liberal means not being an Evangelical.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Barry says:

        Yes, a lot of Evangelicals place great pressure on being politically conservative and for members of the church to conform to those standards.Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to LeeEsq says:

      The Catholic don’t care that Evangelicals think they’re heathens. The Catholics think the Evangelicals are apostates and heretics. They’re just too polite to say so, nowadays. Invite ’em to an ecumenical council or two.Report

  5. Avatar Shazbot5 says:

    I hate the word “progressive” especially as a synonym for “liberal.”

    If it’s just a synonym, but is meant to have a positive connotation, that is the sort of abuse of language that drives me nuts.

    Moreover, “progressivism” used to (especially in the era of Woodrow Wilson) refer to a political philosophy, rooted in Hegelian political philosophy, that was distinct from what we would think of as “classical liberalism” that is rooted in Locke and Mill (as libertarianism is also rooted). To use “progressivism” as a synonym for “liberalism” fudges over a lot of important political philosophy, even if Hegelian progressives and classical liberals would be allies on a lot of issues.

    And we should all hate obfuscation. So if you’re a liberal, and you don’t know anything about Hegelianism, call yourself a liberal.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Shazbot5 says:

      A lot of people call thesmelves progressive because liberal has kind of been made a dirty word in America since the 1970s by the GOP. Thats the main reason why liberals started calling themselves progressive. I also think that a lot of liberals call themselves progressives because the associate liberal with the Democratic politicians that got us into the Vietnam quagmire and its a way to differentiate themselves.

      Progressives also see liberals as people to weak to stand up and fight for their own ideas and feel that they constantly cower to conservatives.Report

  6. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    You will all be pleased to know I was recently called a Libertarian and a minarchist elsewhere. No kidding. Perhaps I’m not the Progressive I think I am….Report

  7. Avatar Patrick Cahalan says: