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"Liberal" or "Progressive"?

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During the Democrats’ 7/23 “You Tube” debate, a young male questioner from Orange County, CA, asked Hillary Clinton if she were a “liberal.”  As he finished the question, he smirked, as if he were asking her to confess to some embarrassing predilection, like binge-drinking or compulsive internet shopping. She replied that she thought of herself as a “progressive,” dropping an allusion to Teddy Roosevelt.

This brief exchange raises a host of issues.

Although liberal icons like FDR and JFK endure untarnished, in the past two decades, the Right has successfully demonized the word “liberal,” causing politicians like Clinton and Kerry to shrink from the label. But unless you are an anti-capitalist or a royalist, “liberal” is a defensible term. The Latin root of the word is liber, which means “free.” The familiar expression “a liberal education” means one suitable for a free man and a gentleman, rather than a slave. The “liberal arts” are those that make demands on the imagination and intellect, as opposed to the supposedly mechanical training of artisans and workers. “Liberal” is also associated with economic theory, as in the expression “free trade.”

Classical (17th- and 18th -century) liberals advocated unregulated markets as well as individual and civil liberties. Indeed, they understood civilization, commerce, and liberty to be interrelated. Yet contemporary liberal and conservative politicians seem equally ignorant of the historical bond between liberalism and free-market capitalism.

Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservative thought, used “liberal” as a term of praise. In Reflections on the Revolution in France, he refers to “wise and liberal speculations,” “a liberal and benevolent mind,” and “liberal virtues.” The word acquired a new referent when, in early 19th-century British politics, Liberal and Conservative replaced Whig and Tory as party appellations.

In the United States, liberals are associated with a “loose construction” of the Constitution, conservatives with a “strict construction.” Contrary to historical stereotypes, however, it was Thomas Jefferson who was the first strict constructionist, declaring, “To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specifically drawn around the powers of Congress is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition.” In a longer and more rigorous response, Alexander Hamilton argued for a loose construction, stating that the language of the constitution was designed “to give a liberal latitude to the exercise of the specified powers.”

So was Senator Clinton accurate when she claimed to be a progressive rather than a liberal and referred to Teddy Roosevelt? TR, a Republican, became president when McKinley was assassinated in 1901. In many respects he was indeed a progressive. He supported the vote for women, child labor laws, a version of Social Security, and “trust-busting.” Re-elected in 1904, he served his eight years and then ran in 1912 as the candidate of what was first called the National Republican Progressive League. The League, whose name seems startlingly oxymoronic today, was founded by Robert La Follette.

La Follette served as a congressman and senator from Wisconsin, as well as the state’s governor. He founded the magazine now known as The Progressive, which is still published in Madison.

To pundits on the Right, the political spectrum from Adlai Stevenson to Lenin is apparently a blur. Bill O’Reilly seems unable to distinguish the beliefs of Cindy Sheehan, Ralph Nader, and Ben and Jerry from those of Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, and Che Guevara. They’re all “the far left.”

This is, of course, ludicrous. When Marx declared that the specter of communism was haunting Europe, he wasn’t referring to ice cream magnates, however enlightened.

To grasp the vast extent of the territory to the left of Hillary Clinton, Fox News anchors need only glance at the European political scene, with its Liberal Democrats, Labor parties, Socialists, Communists, and Greens.

A new tactic, however, may be in play. Rightwing pundits may be attaching adjectives like “far” and “radical” to words like “left” and “feminism” in order to strike fear into the hearts of their audience. Just recently a guest on "Hardball" referred to Hillary Clinton as a "radical feminist."

Most contemporary progressives regard Clinton as a centrist, like her husband. As John Edwards pointed out in Chicago, Fortune magazine has put her on its cover. She’s no Emma Goldman. Progressives admire Dennis Kucinich and Russ Feingold rather than Hillary Clinton and Harry Reid.

To many activists today, “progressive” marks off a range of the political spectrum to the left of liberal. Goals and principles like those posted online by the Vermont Progressive Party distinguish contemporary progressives from their Roosevelt/La Follette predecessors.

Thomas Carlyle, a conservative whose ideas were admired by British socialists, distinguished two political impulses —Innovation and Conservation. His contemporaries, Benjamin Disraeli and John Stuart Mill, agreed with him. According to them, conservatives are the party of order, hierarchy, and the status quo, while liberals are the party of civil liberties, equality, and reform.

The difference between a liberal and a progressive may therefore be historical, rather than essential. Just as postmodernist art and literature are offshoots or byproducts of modernism, progressivism is an offshoot of liberalism—a political movement that arises from liberalism whenever it fails to challenge the status quo. This is one of those times.
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Carol V. Hamilton Social Media Pages: Facebook page url on login Profile not filled in       Twitter page url on login Profile not filled in       Linkedin page url on login Profile not filled in       Instagram page url on login Profile not filled in

Carol V. Hamilton has a Ph.D. in English from Berkeley and teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. She also writes for History News Network ( and
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