What’s the difference between a Liberal and a Progressive?

Does the election of Barack Obama and the increasing dominance of the Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate signal a rejuvenation of liberalism?

Yes and no.

It certainly clears the way for a left-leaning agenda with plenty of activist groups looking to advance a variety of liberal causes.

But don't expect a rebirth of the "L" word. "Liberal" has long been considered a pejorative by most of America, the result of decades of successful demonizing by conservatives. Despite the Dems' sweeping victories, the "liberal" label remains a loser. And it ain't coming back.

In a November 18 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Brett Stephens calls for liberals to make "no excuses" in reclaiming the policy mantle, beginning with an unapologetic embrace of the liberal adjective. Yet Stephens notes there is considerable resistance to overcome, citing a recent CNN poll that that found that only 21% of Americans identify themselves as lliberals in 2008, even lower than the 22% identifying themselves as liberals in 2004. (Those identifying themselves as conservatives remained steady at 34%.) 

A Battleground Poll in August 2008 also found far fewer people identifying themselves as liberal than as conservative.

Look for left-minded folks to increasingly adopt the "progressive" label. It's a word that sounds fresh and modern and thoroughly positive. "Progressive" is not by any means a new word but one whose time has certainly come. Mark my words, as Joe Biden might say, mark my words.

Three years ago in the Huffington Post, David Sirota attempted to draw a tortured distinction between liberals ("those who focus on using taxpayer money to make society better") and progressives ("those who focus on using government power to make large institutions play by a set of rules"). But only a dedicated policy wonk looks at the world this way.

More to the point of view of society at large, I'd quote the question in Sirota's opening paragraph and provide my own answer.

Isn't "progressive" just another name for "liberal" that people want to use because "liberal" has become a bad word?

Yes. Exactly.

- Jon Harmon

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