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The Difference Between Liberals and Progressives

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I’m a progressive, not a liberal. No one seems to talk much about the difference, in fact the two are usually treated as being pretty much synonymous. But there are differences, and I believe they’re significant. Not so significant as the differences between liberals and progressives taken together versus conservatives, but significant just the same.

I maintain there are two distinct characteristics of liberalism that explain liberal behavior in a most evident, compelling way. In one characteristic, liberals and progressives are similar. Unlike conservatives, who tend to think only in terms of individuals (themselves) and privilege, liberals and progressives are also concerned with the well-being of society as a whole, and seek to moderate excesses of individual wealth and privilege. Unlike conservatives, who tend to pursue social stability through the exercise of propaganda, police and military power, liberals and progressives seek social cohesion through the establishment of shared benefits and responsibilities.

But what distinguishes liberalism from progressivism is an inherent conflict of interests. People with wealth and privilege might genuinely embrace progressive causes and issues, but so long as they benefit personally from the prevail of conservative policies, their political vigor will naturally be half-hearted. Have the conservatives cut taxes on the wealthy, transferred the burden to the lower classes? Oh well. Have they consolidated the political system so that only the wealthy can effectively participate and exercise meaningful influence? Well oh well.

It’s not that liberals are muddle-headed or weak. They just don’t have a clear and pressing reason to succeed.

Conservatism has its own dichotomy of interests, between the elite and the lower classes. But for conservatism it’s a matter of exploiting fear and stupidity to get the masses of victims to support their own victimization. Stupidity is a worthy topic, but its entanglement with conservative deceit and malice is best left to another discussion.

I don’t claim that liberalism is deliberately deceitful or malevolent, or that people outside the elite are stupid for being liberal. A person of modest means might embrace a liberal ethic due to some personal psychological fixation, or political ambivalence, or insulation from good political information. But that’s an issue of psychology, and education. If we consider the distinctions among clear-thinking liberals and progressives, the factors of psychology and ignorance can be disregarded.

The differences between liberals and progressives, and their common differences from conservatives, are actually quite glaring and clear-cut in practice. A conservative has no problem telling a blatant lie. He might be speaking in front of millions of people and committing an outrageous corruption of truth without so much as a blush. Just think of their recent claim that refusing to continue funding the war would leave our troops in Iraq defenseless. It's a genuine dilemma - what honest argument could they make? In any case, a progressive will confront a conservative for telling a lie, and call it a lie - mainly because, well, it’s a lie. But a liberal would never stoop to such boorish behavior. Not polite. Definitely déclassé. Besides, what would the media say if given a target?

Conservatives will lie because they have to lie to maintain the support of the 49% of voters who suffer from conservative policies, but whose IQs fall somewhere below the 100 threshold. Liberals will tolerate such lies in silence because they can at least sympathize with the obvious dilemma of needing to rally a populace against their own interests. And no one could fail to evoke sympathy from a liberal if they're the parent of a child who goes to the same private school as his own.

A conservative is undisturbed, or oblivious to his own hypocrisy. Fortunately for the conservative, a liberal will be too polite to call a hypocrite a hypocrite. And meanwhile, a liberal will be too sensitive to take a position so forcefully as to appear even remotely hypocritical. Stand up, speak out to defend the Constitution when a President repeatedly violates it? Who is so morally pure that they could, in good liberal conscience, throw verbal stones at others in the same social club?

A conservative will defend a fellow-conservative for just about any conceivable behavior, even treason. Just think of the obvious conspiracy to expose Valery Plame, and collaterally, to blow the cover on the CIA front organization involved with investigating WMDs which she represented, exposing other agents and sources around the world to grave danger, exposing the whole country to the greater danger of another 911. Conservatives are apoplectic that one of their own would be convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice for his involvement in, well, lying and obstruction to protect treasonous co-conspirators. A progressive will confront a conservative for committing treason, or condoning it, and even call it treason – mainly because, well, it’s treason. A liberal would never engage in such extreme behavior, much less deign to dig into the conspiracy. Think of the families in the neighborhood who would suffer if it were to be fully exposed! Think of the children!

A conservative will pursue the impeachment of a liberal President for lying about a BJ with the determination of a raging pitbull, but will protect a conservative President for lying about war, illegal practices, flagrant violations of the Constitution, and apparently just about anything else. Would having sex with a male animal cross the line? Who knows? A progressive will call any of these depraved and call for impeachment for high crimes as a matter of principle, not to mention political necessity. (Beastiality might be distinguished as an incredibly low and apolitical crime.) A liberal will convince himself that other issues are more important, as if important issues won’t be blocked or vetoed so long as a criminal President remains in office. No matter what the issue, moderation is, in liberal circles, synonymous with taste, class and sophistication.

What other rational explanation could there be for the apparent oddities of liberalism?

Liberals are generally well-meaning people with a vision of progress toward a better humanity, but with lots to protect. Progressives are good people with a vision of progress toward a better humanity. We need to empower more of the latter.


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A former visitant of UC Santa Cruz, former union boilermaker, ex-Marine, Vietnam vet, anti-war activist, dilettante in science with an earth-shaking theory on the nature of light (which no one will consider), philosopher in the tradition of Schelling, Hegel, Merleau-Ponty, Marx, and Fromm (sigh, no one listens to me on that either), author of a book on wine clubs (ahem), and cast-off programmer of ancient computer languages. I've recently had two physics articles published in an obscure but earnest Central European journal (European Scientific Journal but my main interests remain politics and philosophy.

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