Americans Fuzzy on What “Progressive” Means

Gallup did a poll on the political identity “progressive” and found that most people don’t know a lot about political ideologies:

I only wish the same level of scrutiny were applied to assertions about whether the public is “liberal” or “conservative” where I believe there’s strong circumstantial evidence that many people just don’t understand these terms in the way political and media professionals understand them. For example, when you break these things out by race you find that whites are more “liberal” than blacks, which simply doesn’t describe either voting behavior or views on issues correctly.

At any rate, the release of this study prompted some discussion I saw recently about the merits of the liberal/progressive label switch. I used to hate this move, but lately I think better of it. Or, rather, I think that “liberal” just doesn’t work very well to describe a specific political tendency in the United States. If you look at us in international terms and with the traditional definition, then it’s clear that America is a pretty liberal place, that both the Democratic and Republican parties are pretty liberal, that public opinion in the United States is liberal, and that elite opinion is more liberal. You also see individuals with at least a few illiberal ideas in both the “right” and “left” political coalitions, and you see important disagreements among people with liberal values about public policy questions — the disagreement about whether or not taxpayer financed public schools are a good way of providing an important public good is an important question, but it’s not really a question about liberalism.

In that light, I’m comfortable saying I’m both a liberal and a progressive and the importance of the labels really depends on what it is we’re talking about. The move I want to avoid, however, is the one that posits a sharp dichotomy between “classical” liberalism and 21st century American liberalism or that holds that the policy agenda of the Cato Institute or the Reason Foundation is identical to the “real” liberalism.