The Difference Between Liberal and Progressive

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What do words like "progressive" and "liberal" really mean, and who can claim them? John McWhorter attempts, in The New York Times, to pick the matter apart. While Hillary Clinton, in her presidential campaign, tried to re-brand as a "progressive," given the right's demonization of the term "liberal," McWhorter argues that the two words are not, and should not be, interchangeable. "Only one in four liberals would go by the label 'progressive,'" he notes, and "7 percent of conservatives [in a poll] considered themselves 'progressives.'"

Going back to the meanings of the words, McWhorter points out that progressive really means one who goes forward--and in that case, it's "inaccurate and even disrespectful" to "deny" the term "progressive" to those on the right; "conservatives do not typically see their views as urging us backward." Meanwhile, the term "liberal," which started out being associated with "'liberty under the law,'" and individualism has irreversibly drifted towards an association with "big government" and certain "social values."

Should "progressive" be defined by its earlier meaning but "liberal" by its later one? McWhorter thinks this has to be the case, merely out of practicality: the term "liberal" is changed forever, whether liberals like it or not. That leads him to the following suggestion: "instead of messing around with rebranding, the political left would be best advised to stick with 'liberal'--and to hunker down and defend the positions to which the word now refers."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.