Monday, March 17, 2008

Why I Am Not A Progressive Anymore

UPDATE: I've changed my logo to reflect my decision to call myself a liberal. The logo used to say "politics, religion and culture." But the truth is I mostly write about politics. When I started, I had intended to also write about music, art, plays and movies. I did write quite a bit about religion back in 2005. But that's given way to mostly political discourse. So, I needed to update the logo anyway and this seemed like the perfect time. Also, it goes without saying that's it's the blog that has been "proudly liberal since 2005, which is when it started. I've been liberal a lot longer.

To be honest, I didn’t know that I wasn’t one until DLC President, Bruce Reed, outed me as a liberal, and in Slate to boot (emphasis is mine).
Conservative blogger Michael Medved of Townhall offers a long list of reasons why Craig doesn't need to go as urgently as Spitzer did. He finds Craig less hypocritical ("trolling for sex in a men's room, doesn't logically require that you support gay marriage"), much easier to pity, and "pathetic and vulnerable" in a way Spitzer is not. Liberal blogger Anonymous Is a Woman counters that while Craig and Louisiana Sen. David Vitter remain in office, at least Spitzer resigned.
At the same time, a commenter left a question on one of my posts: “What is the difference between a liberal and a progressive?

Good question.

I suspect the commenter was being snarky because he or she believes that liberals use the term progressive as a cover because liberalism is a discredited brand.

Indeed, even some liberals think that. For example, in Pop Matters’ coverage of last June’s “Campaign for America’s Future” conference, in Washington, DC, here’s what the author and some prominent participants said.
Time was when liberals stood proudly behind Franklin Roosevelt’s social-welfare liberalism, John F. Kennedy’s muscular Cold War foreign-policy liberalism and Lyndon B. Johnson’s civil-rights liberalism.

“Conservatives waged a huge assault to discredit the word liberal and liberalism,” Borosage explained. ..

…“I don’t think (progressive) gets you anywhere that liberal doesn’t,” said Massey, a Princeton University professor who wrote “Return of the `L’ Word: A Liberal Vision for the New Century,” available at the conference. “I don’t think you’re fooling anybody. The only way to deal with it is to come up with a strong counter-narrative and say, `Damn right, I’m a liberal, and here’s why and here’s why you should be, too.’ Dodging it just makes you look guilty. Like you’ve got something to hide.”

… Take Steve Robinson, a burly lawyer from Lawrence, Kan., who took a break from the exhibit table for—a movement to draft Gore for president—to smoke a few Marlboros, and who looked fully capable of giving a serious whupping to anyone who’d dare mock the word “liberal” to his face.

“I consciously use the word `liberal’ because I’m so offended by the demonization of the word,” Robinson said. “What we need is a liberal show on CNN or MSNBC where someone uses the word liberal every day in a good way.”
The problem is I think they’re wrong. The two terms – “progressive” and “liberal” – are not exactly synonymous. Both progressives and liberals are on the left of the political spectrum and are natural allies. But there are subtle differences between the two.

David Sirota caused a stir last year when he wrote this essay on Huffington Post to define the two (emphasis mine).
The answer, in my opinion, is no - there is a fundamental difference when it comes to core economic issues. It seems to me that traditional "liberals" in our current parlance are those who focus on using taxpayer money to help better society. A "progressive" are those who focus on using government power to make large institutions play by a set of rules.

To put it in more concrete terms - a liberal solution to some of our current problems with high energy costs would be to increase funding for programs like the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). A more "progressive" solution would be to increase LIHEAP but also crack down on price gouging and pass laws better-regulating the oil industry's profiteering and market manipulation tactics. A liberal policy towards prescription drugs is one that would throw a lot of taxpayer cash at the pharmaceutical industry to get them to provide medicine to the poor; A progressive prescription drug policy would be one that centered around price regulations and bulk purchasing in order to force down the actual cost of medicine in America (much of which was originally developed with taxpayer R&D money).
Here’s another example he gives.
Let's be clear - most progressives are also liberals, and liberal goals in better funding America's social safety net are noble and critical. It's the other direction that's the problem. Many of today's liberals are not fully comfortable with progressivism as defined in these terms. Many of today's Democratic politicians, for instance, are simply not comfortable taking a more confrontational posture towards large economic institutions (many of whom fund their campaigns) - institutions that regularly take a confrontational posture towards America's middle-class.

We can see a good example of this hesitation from Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) in his "health care to hybrids" proposal. As the Detroit News reports, Obama is calling "for using government money to relieve Detroit automakers of some of their staggering health care obligations if they commit to improving fuel economy by 3 percent a year for 15 years."

Here's the thing - we all want to see autoworkers' health care preserved, and we all want to see better fuel efficiency standards for cars. But is this really the road we want to go down as a society? I'd say no. The fact is, the auto industry should be forced to produce more fuel efficient cars through higher government fuel efficiency mandates, without taxpayers having to bail out the industry. It's not like those mandates would be asking the industry to do something that doesn't make good business sense - demand for higher fuel-efficiency cars is skyrocketing

Paying off corporations to do what they already should be doing sets a dangerous precedent - it sends a message to Big Business that they can leverage their irresponsible behavior into government handouts. In this case, the auto industry would be leveraging its refusal to produce more fuel efficient cars and preserve its workers' health care into a giant taxpayer-funded subsidy.
By Sirota's definition and his examples, Obama is a liberal rather than a progressive and what makes him so is that he would persuade corporations to do the right thing by using financial incentives rather than by using the raw power of the state to force the change. And Sirota is not happy about it. He calls it a "bribe to economic bullies." I would disagree about that.

Sirota is right, though, that liberals and progressives want the same outcome, a cleaner environment and the continuation of health insurance coverage for autoworkers, but they differ on the method they would use to achieve that outcome. And contrary to popular thought, the liberals are the centrists who would use a financial incentive to persuade rather than the raw power of the government to coerce change.

If you apply this to health care reform, the same principle could be seen at play. Progressives would favor a single payer system set up and funded directly by the government. Neither progressives nor liberals want socialized medicine, which would be government run clinics. But a liberal would want to use taxes to subsidize the public’s choices so that they could purchase their own health insurance on the free market, while progressives would take the money and put it directly into funding health care.

Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama favor the more moderate approach. And Hillary, ironically, is the more progressive – or more leftist. She would mandate that everybody purchase health insurance, a use of the government power to coerce the public. Obama would favor financial incentives to persuade the public to buy insurance by making it more affordable.

I don’t want to overstate my case by making this delineation too sharp. Neither liberals nor progressives share the blind faith of the libertarians and conservatives that the market can solve all social, economic and political problems. Progressives and liberals do, after all, believe there is a role for an activist government to improve the lives of its citizens.

They realize that the government has a role to play in solving health care problems, stopping global warming and promoting economic justice. Both liberals and progressives are pro-union, favor a minimum wage, desire limits to outsourcing, and favor health and safety regulations for workers and consumers. Liberals and progressives share core values but differ over how to achieve them. The difference between them lies in whether they favor direct government action or financial incentive to get there.

In this fight, the liberals are the more moderate. And it was not conservatives who destroyed their brand, though they certainly jumped on that bandwagon and helped. It was actually the progressives and those even further on the left, the radicals of the sixties, who really trashed the brand. As Geoffrey Nunberg points out in Progress to a Fault.
At the heart of that attitude was a sense of superiority to all those middle-class liberals whose wan political commitments were tempered by self-interest. You think of Phil Ochs' 1965 song, "Love Me, I'm a Liberal," a sarcastic catalogue of the hypocrisies of middle-class liberals:

I go to all the Pete Seeger concerts
He sure gets me singing those songs,
I'll send all the money you ask for,
But don't ask me to come on along.
So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal.
In his monologue introducing the song, Ochs would define liberals as “ten degrees to the left of center in good times, ten degrees to the right of center when it affects them personally.”

It was that suspicion, on the left, that liberals were wishy-washy that destroyed the brand.

That and the fact that wishy-washy liberals then proved the point by running from the label in droves. They called themselves, moderates, progressives, and centrists, whatever they could get away with. But all those labels mean difference things.

I think it’s time to stop running and start telling the truth. I personally do not believe in using the levers of power to coerce people into doing the right thing. I believe, instead, in using a combination of taxes, tax breaks, and other incentives to persuade them to do it. But I also believe there is a role for an activist government in addressing social and economic injustice because there is a populist streak to my liberalism. That, however, is a topic for another day.

Meanwhile, it turns out that Bruce Reed is mostly right. I am a liberal. And I am not timid about it.


Terry Carter said...

"I suspect the commenter was being snarky because he or she believes that liberals use the term progressive as a cover because liberalism is a discredited brand."

If this is true it means Democrats really need to go back to PR 101. The word liberal by definition means open minded and free from bigotry. The fact that people act as though that is a bad thing is pretty much testament to their ignorance.

Also, congrats on getting mentioned in Slate. :)

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

Thanks Terry. And you are absolutely right about it meaning open minded and free of bigotry.

That's why I now proudly declare myself a liberal :)

Terry Carter said...

I really don't understand the difference between the two myself. I consider myself both a liberal and a progressive.

Dan said...

Count me among the ranks of the liberals please. The term progressive became hugely fashionable as wimpy liberals cowered in the face of right wingers' attempts to demonize the term. Rather than dig in their heels and stand up to the bullies, too many cravenly adopted the new label.

I had the pleasure to grow up around tough as nails liberals who came home from beating the fascists and proceeded to weigh in to the life of their community according to the principles they had just risked everything to defend. They would never have backed down from their beliefs or so easily been intimidated by bullies of any type.

I think Sirota and others are manufacturing distinctions. What is needed is not proper labeling. What is needed is backbone.

Terry Carter said...

"Count me among the ranks of the liberals please. The term progressive became hugely fashionable as wimpy liberals cowered in the face of right wingers' attempts to demonize the term. Rather than dig in their heels and stand up to the bullies, too many cravenly adopted the new label."

I partially agree with you, Dan. I agree that some (not all) liberals switched to labelling themselves as "progressive" because of the Republican attack machine but left wingers calling themselves progressives is not really a new thing.

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

I think liberals were too easily intimidated, not by the right, but by the radical left. The Phil Ochs indictment of their supposed hypocrisy probably embarrassed them more than the rightwing did.

But then, on top of that, the right also piled on. The term "liberal" became an epithet, synonymous with all manner of 1960s style counter cultural baggage.

There's still a schizophrenia in this country about that era. On the one hand, Americans remain fascinated by the Woodstock generation. And a lot of positive things came out of that era. Certainly, the music, the commitment to egalitarianism and the repudiation of racism and sexism.

But for a lot of people, for example, the so-called Reagan Democrats, it also was a time that was synonymous with "drugs, sex and rock 'n roll" in a way that challenged middle class moral values, etc.

Politically, liberalism and progessivism don't have much to do with that type of cultural rebellion today. Very few of the liberals and progressives that I know are sitting around in tie dyed tee shirts, with bongs, listening to the Grateful Dead anymore.

The real political difference, from what I've seen, is that liberals are more committed to trying solutions that include the markets and corporations by providing subsidies and tax breaks as incentives to them to provide health care, a clean environment, and benefits for workers.

Progressives are more apt to want to pass a law to compel corporations to do this.

But thing like price controls, which David Sirota mentioned favorably, have a bad reputation because they are associated with the failed economic policies of both Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. Price controls contributed to the stagflation of the 1970s.

On the other hand, both liberals and progressives know that a pro-active government has a substantive role to play in solving problems.

Unlike conservatives and libertarians, we'd never support stupid things like this folly

Libertarians and doctrinaire conservatives are hellbent on privatizing every inch of America. They are even scaring fellow conservatives like Congressman John Mica, from Florida, who used to be one of the most conservative members of Congress.

Isophorone said...

Then there are the "classically liberal" but you don't want to go there. LOL

Anonymous said...

To me is like the difference that decades ago comedians had between the words, "comic" and "comedian."

Hugo Estrada

Silence Dogood said...

Not like my opinion is any more valid than anyone else's, but I think Sirota's assertion ("that traditional "liberals" in our current parlance are those who focus on using taxpayer money to help better society. A "progressive" are those [sic] who focus on using government power to make large institutions play by a set of rules") is not only grammatically incorrect but completely made-up. It's a self-interested argument grounded in two principles which to Sirota are immutable simply because he wants them to be true: first, that Sirota himself wants to be the one who gets to self-identify as a progressive instead of a liberal, and second, that he disagrees with Barack Obama about something, so Obama's political outlook can't be progressive, too. Since his argument seems more inclined towards framing the relationship between himself and Obama on the political spectrum instead of examining in broader terms why some people self-identify as liberals and some self-ID as progressives, I find the veracity and usefulness of said argument doubtful.

Having read both pieces, I've decided that it's Sirota who should be quoting you, and not the other way around.

Peter said...

I.F. Stone said to Phil Ochs about the song "Love Me, I'm a Liberal": "It's that kind of thinking that is going to destroy the movement. Some of my best friends are liberals!"

Anonymous said...

Let me try and get this straight here in my mind

Progressives design the policy

Liberals redistribute fiscal resources to execute the policy

I actually think I get this :-)

That is why I think you can be a republican progressive. Stick with me here a second.

I am a progressive because I think a good environment, better healthcare, excellent schools are all good ideas. (By the way thats why most of those surveys have such high approval rates for progressive policy... it's pretty much a no brainer)

The sticky part is how you achieve progressive goals. I am a republican because I think in many cases private industry or enterprise can achieve progressive goals at lower costs and more efficient rates than government can.


AnonymousIsAWoman said...

NMM, then you might be what Isophorone called a "classical liberal" which was the 18th and 19th centuries' laissez-faire capitalist. To put it in a historic context, free markets, little or no government regulation, and a workforce free to change jobs stood in stark contrast to a monarchy and feudalism, where society was strucutred and restricted and ordinary people were tied to the land rather than free to move around.

The beginnings of democracy, the concept of a limited monarchy, and individual liberty were all part of those ideas bubbling up in the 18th century in England and France and were part of the Englightenment. They were very progressive ideas for their day.

Liberalism, today, means something different. I think, after reading the comments here, and thinking more about it, that liberals and progressives are actually very similar. It's difficult to make sharp distinctions about the two terms. Maybe it is impossible to accurately define the differences.

I'm not sure that your definition holds, though. Progressives don't make the policies and liberals don't redistribute resources. It's more this way.

Liberals are more apt to use financial incentives to get private industry into a partnership to do things like clean up the environment, provide health care, etc. They may do this through tax breaks, public-private partnerships, government subsidies.

Progressives are more apt, at least according to Sirota, to just pass a law mandating the outcome.

Silence dogood, first, your opinions are very valid and always welcome here.

I think Sirota believes that both Hillary and Obama favor the same approaches overall. He rates both of them as more liberal than progressive (his definitions)because the two of them prefer the carrot to the stick approach to achieving liberal (or progressive) goals.

For example, neither one of them would support mandating corporations to provide health insurance to their employees. Nor do they want a single payer system. Instead, they both favor encouraging individuals to buy their own health insurance if their companies don't provide it. Then, they both would give financial incentives to make sure it was affordable. Hillary would mandate that individuals buy it while Obama would keep the mandate out of it and concentrate on affordability in the belief that if it was affordable, it would be desirable without forcing people to purchase it.

Peter, I hadn't heard that anecdote about I.F. Stone but, as was usually the case, he turned out to be right!

In the end, it may be that progressive and liberal are just synonyms. Maybe, like Terry, we should be proud liberal progressives and not worry about the label.

Except, of course, for the Republicans reading this, who can be whatever they want to call themselves too :)

silence dogood said...

I'm not sure I agree with classifying liberalism versus progressivism as a matter of carrots versus sticks, and I'm sure there a lot of self-identifying progressives out there who agree with me (especially the ones who are surprised to learn that they're being saddled with a ham-fisted "do it because I said so" approach to economics by association thanks to Sirota's definition).

For one thing, it essentially restricts the discussion to economic matters only, and that, I think, is a mistake. Paul Krugman's delightfully intelligent and sophisticated discussions of economics aside, the Democratic Party is not a macroeconomics glee club. What about matters of foreign policy and diplomatic relations? What about social issues? Surely if we want to treat liberalism and progressivism as separate (but similar) schools of political thought we have to map out progressive v. liberal approaches to these facets of public life, as well.

But of significantly greater importance--to me, anyway--where do we stick the nuanced thinkers who believe in using sticks AND carrots? Because I come from the school of thought that if the only tool you own is a hammer, eventually all of your problems start looking like nails. I'm not comfortable with either label for this reason, and the rest of the liberals and progressives keep looking at me funny when I describe myself as a centrist--more so when they worry that I mean it sincerely.

Anonymous said...

AIAW I agree with your conclusion as well.

Those of us that lean towards the right sucessfully created a negative connotation with the word liberal so the liberals changed to the word progressive. Liberals and progressives are the same thing.

With us at least we keep the conservative part just changing the beginning (fiscal, social, neo, paleo, etc)


AnonymousIsAWoman said...

Ok, Nova, so it's all your fault? I'm going to hunt you down and find you for this :)