Opinion: The liberal-progressive paradox

File photo/Stefani Reynolds/The New York Times / The U.S. Capitol in Washington is see on Oct. 17, 2021. The divide on the left is getting wider, NYT columnist Pamela Paul writes.
File photo/Stefani Reynolds/The New York Times / The U.S. Capitol in Washington is see on Oct. 17, 2021. The divide on the left is getting wider, NYT columnist Pamela Paul writes.

Remember when "liberal" was a dirty word? In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan, who often prefaced it with a damning "tax and spend," may have been the most effective of bashers. But the most blatant attack was in the early 90s, after Newt Gingrich's political organization GOPAC sent out a memo, "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control," urging fellow Republicans to use the word as a slur.

It worked. Even Democrats began avoiding the dread label.

Now the word is back. But the way "liberal" is being used now is more confounding than ever. Never-Trump conservatives tout their bona fides as liberals in the classical, 19th-century sense of the word, in part to distinguish themselves from hard-right Trumpists. Others use "liberal" and "progressive" interchangeably, even as what progressivism means in practice today is often anything but liberal — or even progressive, for that matter.

For those of us who never abandoned the term, liberal values, many of them products of the Enlightenment, include individual liberty, freedom of speech, scientific inquiry, separation of church and state, due process, racial equality, women's rights, human rights and democracy.

Unlike "classical liberals" (i.e., usually conservatives), liberals do not see government as the problem, but rather as a means to help the people it serves. Liberals fiercely defend Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, the Voting Rights Act and the National Labor Relations Act. They believe government has a duty to regulate commerce for the benefit of its citizens. They tend to be suspicious of large corporations and their tendency to thwart the interests of workers and consumers.

As recently as the 2000s, the difference between liberals and progressives was often a matter of degree — Obamacare versus Medicare for All, or increasing the top marginal tax rate versus imposing a wealth tax. But while liberalism's most strenuous threat comes from the Trumpian right, a split over basic principles and the purpose of the left has been widening.

In an increasingly prominent version of the progressive vision, capitalism isn't something to be regulated or balanced but is itself the problem. White supremacy doesn't describe an extremist fringe of racists and antisemites but is instead the inherent character of the nation.

Whereas liberals hold to a vision of racial integration, progressives have increasingly supported forms of racial distinction and separation and demanded equity in outcome rather than equality of opportunity.

More reactionary still is the repressive nature of progressive ideals around civil liberties. It is progressives — not liberals — who argue that "speech is violence" and that words cause harm.

Divisions became sharper after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, when many progressives did not just express support for the Palestinian cause but, in some cases, even defended the attacks as a response to colonialism and opposed retaliation as a form of genocide.

All this stands in marked contrast to the liberal stance that more speech is better speech, allowing for the free exchange of ideas.

While progressives are not a large group (between 6% and 8% of the voting population, according to recent studies), they are likely to be the loudest on the left and the most likely to shut out their would-be liberal allies. As Jonathan Haidt has noted, they also dominate the political conversation on social media.

This brings us to the most troubling characteristic of contemporary progressivism. Whereas liberals tend to pride themselves on acceptance, many progressives have applied various purity tests to others on the left and, according to one recent study on the schism between progressives and liberals, are more likely than liberals to apply public censure to divergent views.

What a strange paradox that at the very moment the word "liberal" is enjoying a renaissance, liberalism itself feels on the wane. Many liberals find themselves feeling lonelier than ever.

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