The Difference Between Liberal and Progressive

Liberal and Progressive are Different

Pundits use the words liberal and progressive interchangeably. As a self-ascribed Progressive, the practice annoys me. A lot. Those two words are not synonyms. They do not mean the same thing. And people should stop using them as stand-ins for one another.

Liberal and Progressive do NOT Describe the Same Things.

Liberal” technically refers to having trust in the free market to yield the best results, in most or all industries. But that’s not how it’s used in a modern context.

The word liberal usually describes two lines of thinking in modern US Politics. People often times describe themselves as “social liberals”. Sometimes they’ll say, “I’m socially liberal but fiscally conservative”. Social Liberals believe in balancing liberty with social justice. They tend to support gay marriage, legalizing marijuana, protecting the environment and improving equality. They allow certain liberties to be sacrificed (like not allowing landlords to refuse someone based on their race).  Alternatively, Liberal can also be used (usually negatively) to describe someone who believes that the government can and should use tax dollars to play an active role in improving communities and promoting the general welfare of the country. In short, the government should collect taxes and spend it to improve communities.

While I generally ascribe to both principles, neither description accurately describes what it means to be a Progressive. And Progressive is how I define my political ideology.

What Makes Progressive Different From Liberal

Progressives recognize problems and try to define and address the systemic rules, laws and traditions that enable and empower the problems in the first place. Additionally, Progressives share a general belief in the interconnections of individuals and the philosophy that “when you hurt, I hurt”.

The Most Important Issue is Money in Politics

The most important issue in most Progressives circles is money in politics – though the climate crisis, social justice and income inequality are pervasive as well. Because money in politics is so influential on our candidates and elected officials, Progressives collectively recognize that our broken campaign finance system affects all issues. Literally, almost no issue goes unaffected by money in politics. Private prisons, gun control, education funding, the climate crisis, the military industrial complex, the over-prescription of pain killers, etc. Very few issues escape the grasp of our oligarchic campaign finance system.

Examples of Differences Between Liberal and Progressive Views

Liberals will pay for body cameras on Police. Progressives may like that idea, but they also want to address the  training the cops receive that necessitate the need for the cameras.

Liberals will vote for a stimulus package. Progressives might too, but they’ll also plead for an investigation into why it’s needed, how it will be spent, and if the system will allow for the same problem to happen again.

Liberals will raise millions to beat Republicans despite Republicans having more big donors. Progressives think large donations fundamentally corrupts politics.

Liberals will promote after school programs for inner city youth. Progressives might too, but will also address the minimum wage, lack of jobs, historical housing discrimination and the over-arresting of black youth across the country.

Liberals will raise taxes to pay for our social programs. Progressives will increase tax revenue by closing the tax loopholes that allow corporations to pay little to no income tax.

Liberals might watch MSNBC. Progressives generally agree that the mainstream media is a part of the problem. Including MSNBC. Check out my post on alternative media options for progressives.

Ryan Black is a content creator, marketing professional, and political consultant who writes about Progressive Politics.

13 Comments

  • Thank you for sharing your personal philosophy, but these two terms do (as you partially acknowledge) have both practical and ideological histories. Those histories do not support your definitions.

    In effect, you have defined Social Liberalism and Progressivism as being synonyms for “amelioration” and “amelioration plus structural change.” This is inaccurate on both counts.

    Social Liberalism is that school of liberalism that adds to the basic ideology of inalienable rights, liberty, and reason a particular concern that those rights be actionable and not just formal—for instance, that social and economic inequality bar many people from a realistic chance of availing themselves of their rights and liberties. It has no objection to systemic solutions to expand effective liberty.

    Political progressivism is the belief that law, regulation, and policy should be reformed in light of advances in human knowledge. In the U.S. it has generally (but not exclusively) meant support for reforms that increase economic equality and opportunity.

    “Fiscal Liberalism” is not really thing. The non-violent left in the last century is an alliance of three separate intellectual traditions:
    • Social Liberalism, which (as above) focuses on equal opportunity and empowerment.
    • Social Democracy, which focuses on limiting economic inequality and its social impact.
    • Democratic Socialism, which seeks the gradual, consensual replacement of capitalism with a new socialist society.

    Social Democracy is the most recent of these traditions and emerged as a mix of the other two in the post-war period. American Liberalism is generally regarded by in Political Science as a label stretching over Social Liberalism with Social Democracy. (Democratic Socialism remained both marginal and aloof in the U.S.)

    It is tempting to suggest that your Progressivism orange (that is, your personal definition of it), is just one of these three apples—Social Democracy—by another name. But I’m not sure that fits precisely since your philosophy seems to include an oppositional impulse as part of its definition.

    • Thank you for the comment. When I speak to “fiscal liberalism”, it generally entails the other traditions. Recognition of economic inequality and opportunity inequality requires a recognition that – generally speaking – money needs to be spent to create more just environments. That’s how regular voters see the idea of “liberalism” in my opinion. To them, it is the idea that the government should step in when things are unbalanced (and that costs money). Thanks again!

      • This makes no sense..To start if voters can define terms than voters can redefine them or opponents can make straw mans if their propaganda is strong enough.

        Liberals throw money at it… well if money needs to be thrown at it than that liberal. If money needs to be thrown at it it’s not liberal it’s what needs to happen, just correct. If money doesn’t need to be thrown at it than that’s not anti liberal… it’s correct…

        Liberal. Progressive… it’s all the same … or at least it ought to be… what had happen is… liberals got their asses beat by this republican era and now we are trying to rebrand ourselves…

        In fact liberals believe in progress no different than progressives are liberal… It’s the same shit…

        We better stop with the labels and get shit done …

        ~DM

    • CORMAC FLYNN, you are wrong and stupid.

      first, fiscal liberal comes from Adam Smith, you stupid moron.

      second, Social Liberalism means social justice, labour unions, tax the rich to give to the poor, and sick. it also means supporting things like marriage, gun control, so that it make you feel all good inside.

      • In the real world… you make no sense… in a world where a group of people want to divide another group, it makes perfectly good sense…So called progressives just got scammed to separate themselves from “liberals”…

        If you look into this carfully… you’ll realize that nobody really gives a good answer… it’s because they both belong to the same damn group..

        ~SM

      • In the real world… you make no sense… in a world where a group of people want to divide another group, it makes perfectly good sense…So called progressives just got scammed to separate themselves from “liberals”…

        If you look into this carfully… you’ll realize that nobody really gives a good answer… it’s because they both belong to the same damn group..

        ~DM

      • Why are there adjectives in front of liberal… Liberal ought to mean something relating to everything… The fact is labels divide people… the root of liberal means something…

    • I just found my way here and read this comment. You might be correct historically, but your completely wrong actually and currently. Perhaps you should spend some time listening to actual Progressives. You might then see how your assertions are incorrect, not regarding history (?) but absolutely about Progressives today.

  • Liberal: I don’t agree with what you have to say, but I’ll fight for you’re right to say it.

    Progressive: I don’t agree with what you have to say and I’ll fight to take away you’re right to say it.

  • Thank you Ryan Black for your thoughts. I consider myself a progressive, and I also see how much Liberals have in common with progressives. Thank you for telling me how they are different, I was really curious about that.

  • The shorter the better. Philosophical descriptions are somewhat confusing. So less is more at least for the majority of us who do not have time or inclination to pursue political science. But it is very clear that most are confused including Cormac Flynn.

  • The average person doesn’t study political science or prescribe to those definitions. To the average joe, its quite simple:

    Liberal: The Status Quo. Corporate, Talking loud for year but nothing changed. Let the GOP walk all over them. Willing to negotiate with terrorist and keeps getting screwed as a result.

    Progressive: F*ck the Status Quo. Fight back against GOP BS. Take action. Make change happen. Dont negotiate with terrorist.

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