“Progressive” and “Liberal” are Distinct. One is better.

The New York Times published a Greg Weiner op-ed titled “When Liberals Become Progressives, Much is Lost“, that elucidates the difference between the ideologies of progressives and liberals.

Historical progressivism is an ideology whose American avatars, like Woodrow Wilson, saw progress as the inevitable outcome of human affairs. 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.

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.


The op-ed argues that liberalism is thus better, for a simple reason:

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.

The Progressive, so defined, is unable to compromise.

I’m not sure I accept the argument’s thesis. I’ll grant that this is a danger of progressive ideology pursued without question. Maybe that warning is Weiner’s sole point. If so, fine.

But it is also possible — and I think more typical in practice than Weiner gives Progressives credit for — to take a more nuanced view than either pole on the Conservative-Progressive axis: Sometimes there’s wisdom in our traditions, and sometimes there clearly is not. Sometimes new ideas are best. Generally speaking, should new ideas win, or old ideas? What a silly question! Pick one as your principle for political decision-making, and you should expect to be wrong some of the time. It’s a false choice.

Rather, consider issues on their merits and pursue the greatest good as a polity.

… I guess that’s what Weiner calls Liberalism. Okay, good point Weiner.

Accept the argument or not, the Progressive/Liberal distinction also lends insight into how the left can seem pretensious:

This is one reason progressives have alienated moderate voters who turned to Donald Trump in 2016. The ideology of progress tends to regard the traditions that have customarily bound communities and which mattered to Trump voters alarmed by the rapid transformation of society, as a fatuous rejection of progress. Trump supporters’ denunciation of “political correctness” is just as often a reaction to progressive condescension as it is to identity politics.