Mike Kueber's Blog

May 12, 2013

What is the difference between progressive and liberal?

Filed under: Issues,Philosophy,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 3:19 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

The San Antonio City Council elections are non-partisan affairs.  That means the candidates don’t run as Republicans or Democrats or any other political party.  Rather, they run as individuals.  This unaffiliated status, however, perplexes many voters, who are accustomed to voting for an “R” or a “D.”  Showing typical Yankee ingenuity, the voters have developed a proxy by asking candidates to characterize their political philosophy as conservative or liberal.  Sometimes, the question comes in two parts – fiscal vs. social. 

Earlier this year at the first District 8 candidate forum , we candidates were given the two-part variation of the question.  Rolando Briones said he was a fiscal conservative and a social conservative and I said I was a fiscal conservative and a social liberal.  Ron Nirenberg, however, did not like the choices and instead said he was a fiscal conservative and a social progressive.

My reaction to that liberal vs. progressive distinction was the same as expressed in a column by Huffington Post writer, David Sirota:

  • I often get asked what the difference between a “liberal” and a “progressive” is. The questions from the media on this subject are always something like, “Isn’t ‘progressive’ just another name for ‘liberal’ that people want to use because ‘liberal’ has become a bad word?”

Sirota went on in his column to suggest that there is a fundamental difference between a liberal and a progressive.  In Sirota’s mind, a liberal wants government to redistribute wealth more equitably, but retains a strong preference for the private sector over the public sector.  By contrast, a progressive wants government to impose its power over the private sector by using comprehensive regulations. 

In a similar column five years later, Sirota elaborated:

  • Without progressivism, liberalism turns the Treasury into an unlimited gift card for whichever private interests are being sponsored.  As a progressive, I’m often asked if there is a real difference between progressivism and liberalism, or if progressivism is merely a nicer-sounding term for the less popular L-word. It’s a fair question, considering that Democratic politicians regularly substitute “progressive” for “liberal” in news releases and speeches. Predictably, Republicans call their opponents’ linguistic shift a craven branding maneuver, and frankly, they’re right: Most Democrats make no distinction between the two words.
  • Economic liberalism has typically focused on using the government’s treasury as a means to ends, whether those ends are better healthcare (Medicare/Medicaid), stronger job growth (tax credits) or more robust export businesses (corporate subsidies). The idea is that taxpayer dollars can help individuals afford bare necessities and entice institutions to support the common good.
  • Economic progressivism, by contrast, has historically trumpeted the government fiat as the best instrument of social change — think food safety, minimum wage and labor laws, and also post-Depression financial rules and enforcement agencies. Progressivism’s central theory is that government, as the nation’s supreme authority, can set parameters channeling capitalism’s profit motive into societal priorities — and preventing that profit motive from spinning out of control.   

In reading other on-line postings, I have seen basic agreement with Sirota’s position.  Classic liberalism has historically supported a free market not burdened by excessive regulations, so when Reagan launched an attack on excessive regulations, it was only natural that his opponents attempt to differentiate themselves from classic liberalism and instead adopt a term that reflects their support for excessive regulations.  The term “progressive” eventually gained solid footing during the Clinton/Gingrich times.    

Getting back to the questions posed at my first candidate forum, it’s interesting that all three candidates claimed to be fiscal conservatives.  That reminds me of the Chuck Yeager saying that there are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots – i.e., no candidate in District 8 can survive as a fiscal liberal/progressive.  

In subsequent forums, however, I argued that it was impossible for Ron Nirenberg to be a fiscal conservative and a social progressive because progressives want a bigger government and a redistribution of wealth and both of those are anathema to true fiscal conservatives.  Such an argument might win debating points, but he won the most votes in the election.

p.s., in subsequent debates/forums, I converted from being a social liberal to a social libertarian, and explained that a social liberal suggested too much government involvement in private lives (i.e., the nanny state) and the term libertarian was better focused on keeping the government role as small as possible.



  1. words are to pols as data are to a statistician… shame shame shame


    Comment by q — May 16, 2013 @ 12:44 pm | Reply

  2. I heard you endorsed Ron, I can’t believe I voted for you. The fact that you claim to be small government and now you endorsed that big government socialist means you will forever be the wrong candidate no matter what you run for. I should have voted for Briones the first time. I hope every small government voter realizes you are a lair.

    Comment by Chuck Tom Marconi — May 16, 2013 @ 2:49 pm | Reply

    • Tom, thank you for voting for me. I assure you that I was, by far, the candidate most interested in reducing the size of government, so you voted accurately. And voting for me didn’t cost Briones anything because you will still get the opportunity to choose him over Nirenberg. Although Briones seems to be more fiscally conservative than Nirenberg, I argued at various forums/debates that Briones’s bona fides as a genuine fiscal conservative were doubtful because he appeared to take police/fire and infrastructure spending off the budget-cutting table, and once you do that, there is very little remaining to cut. Yes, Briones would be more likely to cut social and arts spending, but the city does relatively little of that. The big savings can come from the police/fire pension, and I think Nirenberg is more likely to take on those unions than is Briones. And I indicated in my endorsement of Ron Nirenberg, I was too uncomfortable with Rolando’s mindset favorable toward the mixing of private money and public servants. All along, I argued that I was different because of (a) experience, (b) a true fiscal conservative, and (c) insulated from the moneyed special interests. I appreciate that the fiscal-conservative issue drives your vote for Briones, but I am voting for Nirenberg to minimize the influence of special interests.

      Comment by Mike Kueber — May 17, 2013 @ 11:57 pm | Reply

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