Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Liberal vs. progressive

Something else that bothered me from Monday night's debate was when Hillary Clinton pulled out this "I'm a progressive, not a liberal" deal. I don't know if this is new for her, but I don't like it.

Being a liberal means something -- it implies a set of values and a political philosophy going back to the Enlightenment. Saying you're a progressive, from what I've seen on campus and among progressive commentators, basically means you're willing to go along with whatever the left is into at the moment.

On Michigan's campus, at least, that's my main problem with the progressive movement: It seems to demand a kind of lock-step, uncritical way of thinking. People who call themselves progressives give the impression that they're part of a team, and they generally won't criticize the other members of their team, even if what they're saying doesn't make much sense or is actually objectionable.

Maybe I'm just sensitive to this because I've been a follower of campus politics for a few years, and I've seen how illiberal progressives on campus can be. The classic example is the United Coalition Against Racism, which pressured administrators into adopting hate-speech codes in the late '80s. Courts quickly struck down those policies, but the attitude behind them -- that in fighting racism, it's OK to ignore things like civil liberties and academic freedom -- is still pretty widespread on the campus left. And the tendency for demanding loyalty to the "movement" and discouraging self-criticism is one of the defining characteristics of the progressive blogosphere.

Is any of that relevant to Hillary Clinton? I don't know. More likely, she just thinks not calling herself "liberal" will play well in the general election. (Although, as a friend noted, this points to one of Hillary's annoying qualities: her tendency to accept conservative narratives -- in this case, "liberal = supporter of big, expensive, intrusive government" -- and use them to position herself as a moderate.) Either way, I'd prefer if we could just call ourselves liberals -- it's easier to keep ourselves honest that way.


Lauren said...

Good post, I didn't think of it that way. I'll try to go back to telling people I'm liberal :)

Stuart Blair said...

Donn, I felt very similar when I heard it. I looked at Hillary the "moderate" as she called herself progressive, and it just pissed me off.

Chet said...

Interesting point about the difference between liberals and progressives - especially the part about demanding adherence to the party line. The "netroots" - coming from a more academic background to start, certainly has carried with it much of the authoritarian nature and theory of their academic peers.

I think its probably a better distinction to suggest its between libertarian liberals and their inverse.