Because we throw around the terms “Liberal” and “Progressive” so often in our discussions and debates here on Planet POV, and prompted by both KQuark’s Gallup Poll chart and by Mighty’s quiz, I thought I’d add my two cents. Below are definitions of what it means to be a Progressive and what it means to be a Liberal. Since niether of these are political parties, they have no platform I can turn to for validation. Theya re just a couple of definitions I found on the web. See if you agree with them.
“You are a contentious person….and probably a Liberal,” started a recent response to an article I published on abortion rights.
Seems these days Conservatives have convinced themselves, and some of the American public, that being a Liberal is akin to being a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. While this may be a great smear tactic for an election year, to believe such a notion proves that the believer is uneducated in the fundamentals of the American political system. Our nation was founded on Liberalism. Embodied in the Declaration of Independence are its three tenets: “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The very term, itself, is taken from the same root as the second of these precepts. To be a Liberal is to defend the freedom – the Liberty – of all people who make up our great nation. To be a Liberal is to trust individuals and families to run their own lives as they see fit. To be a Liberal is to create a nation where anyone can excel if they are willing to do the work.
In order to understand the true nature of Liberalism, and to dispel the misconceptions fomented by those whose agenda is counter to our freedom, I will detail the tenets of Liberal thought and dispel the misconceptions so often put forth by Conservative rhetoric.
Liberalism is “Life.” It is freedom from physical dangers that can kill or disable us. The Liberal believes it is a nation’s job to protect its citizens from physical harm, whether from external sources, such as hostile nations, or internal ones, like crime, disease, or hunger. Without the solid ground of physical wellbeing, our nation and its citizens cannot enjoy the benefits of being free. Liberals believe in a strong military, well suited to defend the nation. Liberals believe in good laws, hard-working police, and a just legal system to protect its citizens from crime. Liberals believe in affordable health care for everyone, to keep our people strong. And Liberals believe in the availability of food and shelter for its needy, not as a hand out but as a reasonable step in moving all Americans toward self-reliance and the freedom that comes with it.
Liberalism is “Liberty.” It is the freedom to do as your conscience dictates without impeding another’s rights. Fleeing oppression in mother Europe, our founders established a nation where personal belief and self-determination are protected, not persecuted, where hard work is rewarded, not demanded, and where each person is bestowed with the ability to better his or her life because of citizenship, not class. Liberals believe in freedom of speech to protect us from political oppression. Liberals believe in sound regulations to protect us from economic oppression. Liberals believe in just laws to protect us from social oppression. And Liberals believe in quality education to protect us from the oppression of ignorance.
Liberalism is “The Pursuit of Happiness.” It is the freedom to create an environment where the individual can excel. What is freedom if it cannot be used to better our lives? A truly free society must be one where its members can rise above their limitations and expand their futures. We call it “The American Dream,” and it’s alive and well in the heart of the Liberal. Liberals believe in equal opportunities for all to rise above our means. Liberals believe in equal opportunities to rise above our education levels. Liberals believe in equal opportunities to rise above our social status. And Liberals believe each and every family should have an equal opportunity to make this world better for their children.
Based on these tenets, we can see that Liberalism is not the monster it’s made out to be by the opposition. It is pro individual and pro family. It is pro community and pro country. Liberalism is, by its very definition, the heart and soul of what it means to be an American. It stands against tyranny of any kind, whether international or domestic. It works to remove abuse and fight crime. And it strives to eliminate the idea of a wasted life by not wasting resources and opportunities.
By this time someone might ask, “if that is a Liberal, then what is a Conservative?”
Liberals and Conservatives received their names for good reasons. Just as Liberals get their label by standing for Liberty, Conservatives get their label from the desire to “conserve” a style of living. They, too, claim they are fighting to conserve our personal rights and our economic opportunities, but they do it with a different ideal than the Liberal. The term they use for the difference is “values.” Values are norms or codes by which people live their lives. While most Americans share some common values, such as the right to own property and the right to protect our families, we also have many divergent values with which we raise our children. So if we try to impose values into the political framework of the nation, we are forced to ask, “whose values?” And in the search for such absolutes, we must also ask, “which generation’s values?”
As the nation ages and new generations take over leadership, the values of its population change. Where once a woman was valued for how well she cooked, cleaned and entertained, today’s women are gaining recognition that they offer as much, if not more, to the work force than men. Where once African Americans were forced to live as second-class citizens, now they have a legal status equal to that of whites, even if we still have a ways to go in actual practice. Changing values brings confusing times for many – especially for those who believe that America was better with an older set of values. These people want to “conserve” a style of American living they believe once existed, what they call, “traditional family values.” They want to conserve the system that they believe made America wealthy and strong. Unfortunately that also means they want to force all of us to live according to their values.
Conservatives don’t really fight for our rights – they fight for what they think our rights should be – putting limits on our freedom of speech in order to “conserve” an older, more traditional norm of what should be said. Conservatives don’t really fight for our family values – they fight for what they believe our family values should be – putting limits on our behavior, even behavior between consenting adults, in order to “conserve” an older, more traditional view of acceptable personal activity. Conservatives don’t really fight for our income – they fight for little or no regulations – putting limits on our ability to be treated fairly by large companies, who if left without restriction, can form monopolies that choke out competition and drive down wages.
Conservatives are willing to curb our freedom of speech if it clashes with their interpretation of “traditional” values, values from an older time where woman were in domestic servitude to men, where child abuse, sexual abuse, wife abuse, and homosexuality were all kept locked in closets, where minorities were second-class citizens and discrimination was free from incrimination, and where the inability to plan a family’s growth meant an explosion of mouths to feed – a population explosion that today threatens to bankrupt our nation’s retirement funds. The Conservative position, therefore, is inherently contradictory. You cannot be for legislating away freedom in the name of “family values” and also claim you are protecting individual and family rights.
As new generations have placed their own values into the laws that govern our land, Conservatives have sought to fight back by limiting the size and power of the government. Conservatives are willing to give away the very power needed to protect our liberties in the work place. Their idea of a smaller, less-intrusive government means a return to the days where business decisions and profits were more important than clean air and clean water, where a business could abuse its employees without incrimination, and where minorities and women could be passed over for jobs or paid less then white males for the same jobs. Again the Conservative position is at odds with itself. You cannot claim you are fighting for families at the same time that you allow the family bread winner to be overworked and underpaid and allow neighborhoods to be overrun by non-regulated big business. The Conservative would effectively shift power away from the people, who can elect public officials to fight for their rights, and into the hands of private businesses, who need not answer to the public when making decisions that affect us all.
Because Liberals fight to protect every citizen from having other people’s values imposed on them, Conservatives like to label Liberals as being evil. The following list shows what Conservatives like to say against Liberals, and then goes on to show why such assertions are false:
- Conservatives say that Liberals are anti-family.
- However . . .
- Conservatives want to define what your family should be
- Whereas . . .
- Liberals put you in charge of your family
- Liberals support your right to define what your family will be
- Liberals fight for your family’s rights against economic and political oppression
- Conservatives say that Liberals are anti-business.
- However . . .
- Conservatives are pro-money, but that often translates into monopolies, which hurt small business and competition, which hurts us all
- Whereas . . .
- Liberals protect small businesses by regulating the larger ones and by breaking up monopolies
- Liberals protect workers in order to create a healthy workforce that will help businesses grow
- Conservatives say that Liberals are anti-religion.
- However . . .
- Conservatives are often for one dominant religion, and are, therefore, against others
- Whereas . . .
- Liberals support complete freedom of religion and from religion so that all citizen are free to choose the manner in which faith is a part of their lives
- Liberals strive to keep government completely out of a family’s religious choices
- Conservatives say that Liberals are anti-freedom.
- However . . .
- Conservatives want to stop homosexuals, stop abortions, stop the women’s movement, and stop freedom of expression through the use of censorship
- Whereas . . .
- Liberals leave it up to the parents to teach such values to their children
- Liberals believe each person or family should be free to choose how to behave as long as it does not interfere with another’s rights
- Conservatives say that Liberals are anti-morality.
- However . . .
- Conservatives are for one specific kind of morality
- Whereas . . .
- Liberals are for the morality of free choice, where each person or family decides their own values
- Liberals want the government to protect our freedom to choose what is important to us rather than to impose the laws and codes of another’s morality
- Conservatives say that Liberals are anti-military.
- However . . .
- Conservatives see the military as a means to impose their values and standards on others
- Whereas . . .
- Liberals see the military as a vital protection of our freedoms and our liberties, giving us a space in which to pursue happiness
Liberalism’s Stance on Specific Issues
With the desire to promote Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness as the central motivation, the Liberal always defends these tenets when deciding how to stand on a particular issue. The following will show why Liberals often take the stance they do:
Abortion/Contraception – Liberty means the freedom to control your body, your reproductive system, and your future.
Affirmative Action – Liberty means having fair opportunities for those in society who are discriminated against.
Education – Liberty means the freedom to learn in order to build a better future for yourself, your family, your community, and your country.
Environment – Liberty means the fair use of our nation’s natural resources for all citizens. Where possible, without unreasonable restriction to private enterprise, the government should strive to protect our natural environment so all can enjoy its bounty.
Gun Control – Liberty means the freedom to protect yourself, your family, and your property, with deadly force if necessary. People have a right to keep guns for such a purpose. People also have a right to use guns in sporting activities and in the event that citizens should be called on to form a citizen militia. We do not, however, have a right to own all the latest people-killing technology. The People, through the government, can restrict some of the more deadly weapons being sold today.
Health – Liberty means the freedom to overcome physical limitations in order to better yourself, your family, your community, and your country.
Regulations – Liberty means the freedom to live and work in an environment that best allows individuals and families to grow in the pursuit of happiness. Bad air, bad water, bad living and working conditions only stifle that liberty.
Sexuality – Liberty means the freedom to share mutual intimate affection with the person of your choice, regardless of gender.
Substance Abuse – Liberty means the freedom to decide what you put in your body. Unless the use of a substance is a danger to unwilling victims, its use should be kept legal. In situations where use of a substance may or may not effect bystanders, regulations – such as in the case with tobacco – should be enacted to protect the bystander without denying the individual’s choice to use the substance. Smoking and non-smoking areas in public places are a prime example of this.
Taxation – Liberty is found within a system. That system does not happen by itself. It is created and supported by us, the People, and it is funded by our labors. The money we pay in taxes is what allows us to thrive in Liberty and work in fairness. Reasonable taxation is necessary because without it, many of us would find it difficult to get paid even a fraction of what we are paid now. And those who benefit more from the system should expect to pay more to help support it.
Women’s/Minority Rights – Liberty means the freedom to be valued and judged on talent and work, not on the physical characteristics over which we have no control.
In closing let me state that freedom sometimes brings situations we don’t like. Some people will choose to use their freedom to engage in activities that go against our personal values. It is a great temptation to use our democratic rights to try and enshrine our own personal values – whether they come from religious or humanistic origins – in the laws of the nation. The inherent problem with this is that when Liberty is restrained by any one group’s values, even if that group represents the majority of the population at the time, it can easily be changed from one generation to the next, meaning that you could be forced to live under someone else’s values as easily as you might force someone to live under yours.
The Definition of a Progressive: Are You a Progressive?
In the propaganda wars that surround elections, political labels often become detached from reality. The leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, Barack Obama, has been called a “leftist” by Republican flacks and a “progressive” by some of his supporters. Others see Obama as a moderate Democrat only slightly less friendly to corporate capital and to the military-industrial complex than the Republican John McCain. It would be no surprise, then, if many people were wondering, Just who is a progressive?
No one, of course, has the authority to decide who is a progressive and who isn’t. Yet if the label “progressive” has meaning at all, it is only because of some shared criteria we have in mind when we use it. So it might be worthwhile to put these criteria on the table, not to draw boundaries and hand out membership badges, but to spark a conversation about the common ground of ideas and values on which progressives stand, and to underscore the point that the center is not the left.
So who is a progressive? You might be one if
• You think health care is a basic human right, and that single-payer national health insurance is a worthwhile reform on our way toward creating a non-profit national health care service.
• You think that human rights ought always to trump property rights.
• You think U.S. military spending is an obscene waste of resources, and that the only freedom this spending protects is the freedom of economic elites to exploit working people all around the planet.
• You think U.S. troops should be brought home not only from Afghanistan and Iraq, but from all 130 countries in which the U.S. has military bases.
• You think political leaders who engage in “preemptive war” and invasions should be brought to trial for crimes against humanity and judged against the standards of international law established at Nuremberg after World War Two.
• You think public education should be free, not just from kindergarten through high school, but as far as a person is willing and able to go.
• You think that electoral reform should include instant run-off voting, publicly-financed elections, easy ballot access for all parties, and proportional representation.
• You think that electoral democracy is not enough, and that democracy must also be participatory and extend to workplaces.
• You think that strengthening the rights of all workers to unionize and bargain collectively is a useful step toward full economic democracy.
• You think that as a society we have a collective obligation to provide everyone who is willing and able to work with a job that pays a living wage and offers dignity.
• You think that a class system which forces some people to do dirty, dangerous, boring work all the time, while others get to do clean, safe, interesting work all the time, can never deliver social justice.
• You think that regulating big corporations isn’t enough, and that such corporations, if they are allowed to exist at all, must either serve the common good or be put into public receivership.
• You think that the legal doctrine granting corporations the same constitutional rights as natural persons is absurd and must be overturned.
• You think it’s wrong to allow individuals to accumulate wealth without limits, and that the highest incomes should be capped well before they begin to threaten community and democracy.
• You think that wealth, not just income, should be taxed.
• You think it’s crazy to use the Old Testament as a policy guide for the 21st century.
• You believe in celebrating diversity, while also recognizing that having women and people of color proportionately represented among the class of oppressors is not the goal we should be aiming for.
• You think that the state has no right to kill, and that putting people to death to show that killing is wrong will always be a self-defeating policy.
• You think that anyone who desires the reins of power that come with high political office should, by reason of that desire, be seen as unfit for the job.
• You think that instead of more leaders, we need fewer followers.
• You think that national borders, while sometimes establishing territories of safety, more often establish territories of exploitation, much like gang turf.
• You are open to considering how the privileges you enjoy because of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and/or physical ability might come at the expense of others.
• You believe that voting every few years is a weak form of political participation, and that achieving social justice requires concerted effort before, during, and after elections.
• You think that, ideally, no one would have more wealth more than they need until everyone has at least as much as they need to live a safe, happy, decent life.
• You recognize that an economic system which requires continuous expansion, destroys the environment, relies on rapidly-depleting fossil fuels, exacerbates inequality, and leads to war after war is unsustainable and must be replaced. Score a bonus point if you understand that sticking to the existing system is what’s unrealistic.
No doubt some readers will say this list is incomplete. It is. Many policy issues of importance to progressives go unmentioned. Others might say that the list leans too far to the left, or not far enough. It could also be said that some items are vague (what does it mean to say that human rights ought always to trump property rights?). These are all useful responses. If we hope to work together to transform the social world, we need to know what we agree on, what we don’t agree on, and what needs further hashing-out.
In the end, however, it’s not labels and identities and criteria for bestowing them that really matter. Political terms have consequences, but only because of how we use them. Which suggests another item for the list. You might be a progressive if you think that it’s important to take seriously the meaning of political identities, but that what really matters is living out those identities in ways that help to create more peace, justice, and equality.
So, are we really Liberals and Progressives, according to these two fellows? And for the record, I am about a 90% Progressive, according to this definition, but a 100% Liberal, FWIW.