I’ve recently heard it said and many blindly accept that people who call themselves “progressive” do so because they have become afraid of the term “liberal” ever since conservatives led a “liberal” smear campaign.
This claim implies that:
- people who call themselves “liberal” and people who call themselves “progressive” are fundamentally the same, hold about the same values, and seek very similar policy reforms. The only difference, according to this claim, is that…
- progressives are afraid of owning the word “liberal” or, more to the point, that people who call themselves “progressive” are afraid, which in turn implies that people who call themselves “liberal” are courageous.
First, it should be pointed out that the term “progressive” historically precedes “liberal” as these words are currently used in America. When West Wing’s Matt Santos says that it was liberals who have always fought on the right side of history, he is being anachronistic: the term liberal was not applied in that way at many of his historic examples; indeed, it was progressives who fought for policies that changed the face of America. The Progressive Era (1890s–1920s) helped enact many standards of our nation today—the 40-hour work week, the weekend, that child labor is illegal and considered wrong, and so on. And progressives laid the groundwork for now-integral programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
The government programs and regulations that have kept America from degrading into a brutal, inhumane, and depraved society have come into being through the actions of people who proudly called themselves “progressive.”
And yet people still claim that liberals and progressives are fundamentally the same. This claim is difficult to disprove simply because there is not one, universally accepted definition for either term, though you can find several articles online attempting to parse the difference. David Sirota argues that today’s liberals want to help people through government subsidies but are unwilling to impose impactful government regulations or create game-changing programs; instead, liberals want to throw tax-payer money at a problem to temporarily ease the discomfort, whereas progressives want to solve the problem at its root.
The Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) is one example of liberal vs. progressive approaches. The ACA’s original proposed legislation was a hybrid of liberal and progressive solutions to the problem of the dysfunctional US healthcare system that leaves millions unable to access affordable care. In addition to the reforms and programs we are all familiar with, including Medicaid subsidies, the original bill also included strong government regulation of insurer premiums as well as a government-run insurer that would compete with the private insurers (the public option) and, likely, bring private rates down as a result.
But insurance company lobbyists had a talk with the liberals who run our Democratic Party, and the progressive elements of the legislation were the first to be scrapped. We were sold the promise that Medicaid with subsidies, along with toothless and spotty regulation, would be enough to create universal healthcare for all Americans.
The liberal vision for creating universal health coverage in the United States, divorced from progressive oversight, regulation, and policy, has failed.
And when we compare the positions and policy proposals of self-proclaimed progressives to those of self-proclaimed liberals, the difference that emerges is indeed one of courage—but not on the part of liberals.
Progressives are fighting to make our national minimum wage a living wage to pull millions of people out of poverty—and, incidentally, off of government-assistance programs, which would mean saving billions of tax-payer dollars every year, money that is now essentially subsidizing the labor costs of very profitable corporations.
Liberals, however, have meekly and reluctantly been pulled and pressured to state that they would support—not propose or fight for—a $12 minimum wage, which would help people in some areas of the United States but would still leave many, many others struggling to survive below the poverty line.
And while both progressives and liberals accept the science of climate change, it is progressives who are fighting hard to do something about it—seeking to aggressively transform our energy system (which, incidentally, would also make energy cheaper and more accessible to everyday people as well as create millions of jobs that cannot be shipped overseas), halt the increasingly dangerous extraction and transport of fossil fuels, and help those communities that will be impacted the most by the oncoming devastation of climate change.
Liberals, meanwhile, make a few symbolic and largely surface protections and regulations but are unwilling to meaningfully take on the entrenched fossil fuel corporate interests.
In fact, when Native Americans stood their ground (literally, they stood on THEIR ground—the land is theirs, and it is sacred) to stop the construction of an oil pipeline from being run through their water supply—and, by the way, the water supply of 17 million other Americans—progressives fought alongside them. It was progressives who took a moral stand and stated clearly and unequivocally that it is WRONG to support corporate oil interests over the rights of Native Americans and despite our critical need to start aggressively addressing climate change and protecting our world for future generations.
And during the months-long Dakota Access Pipeline standoff, liberal Democrats and, in particular, Hillary Clinton—then the Democratic nominee for president and the person liberals proudly hold up as their standard-bearer—stayed silent. They equivocated and said “no comment” amid pleas from the water protectors that they take a moral stand, that they do what they had previously said they would do: protect Native American rights and act to address climate change. But instead, Clinton and other liberals were morally spineless.
And it is here, when we compare progressives with liberals, that we see the myth break down.
No, progressives and liberals are not the same.
No, progressives are not afraid.
We are not afraid to call out, clearly and emphatically, what is right and what is wrong. We are not afraid to be put in conservatives’ rhetorical crosshairs.
We are not afraid to be radical—because that is not only who we are; it is what we do.
The word “radical” means to “get to the roots.” Progressives seek to solve our society’s greatest problems and challenges not through moral equivocation, not through back-room corporate compromise, not by clipping gingerly at the edges, but by diving in, getting our hands dirty, and fixing what’s broken.
We seek intelligent, meaningful change. Progressives truly fight for people, for our world, for our future.
That is the difference between progressives and liberals.
 The living wage varies by geographic location. You can find your area’s living wage here. Although it is the general progressive position that the national minimum wage should be changed to a flat $15/hour, I disagree with this approach. I believe we should create legislation that mandates that the minimum wage be tied to the living wage, to be determined by a handful of independent agencies, and it should vary by locality. This not only would help ensure that the living wage is appropriate for each local economy but would also incentivize local businesses and chambers of commerce to look more closely at their fellow businesses’ practices—and how those practices may inflate an area’s living wage in a way that benefits only themselves while hurting the greater community.