Democrats and similar left affiliations used to be known universally as liberals. In recent years, I've heard them referred to as progressives.

  • Why the change?
  • Are liberals and progressives basically the same thing, or different?
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    In the whole world except the USA "liberal" means "right". You should specify that you are referring to the USA meaning.
    – Anixx
    Apr 27, 2013 at 7:16
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    @Anixx could you clarify? I've seen the term 'liberal' used in party names on the right, but it seems to still be a predominantly leftist term even in Europe.
    – user1530
    Apr 27, 2013 at 18:57
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    @DA. “Liberal” isn't leftist in the UK or in Germany (which have three main historical parties: conservatives, liberals, social-democrats), not in France where “liberals” and conservatives are both part of “the right”. Apr 9, 2014 at 1:08
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    @Bregalad Nope, USA democrats are considered left-wing.
    – user3165
    Apr 7, 2015 at 23:44
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    Any time a word becomes an epitaph, even in a limited sense, people create alternate labels that mean the same thing. See "moron," "idiot," "retarded," - which all originally had specific scientific meanings and connotations. Also, the progression of terms that were considered a polite or accepted way of referring to race, but came to be considered insulting or degrading. May 19, 2017 at 15:34

8 Answers 8


Prior to 1920, the United States had a labour movement through the combination of the more radical unions (WMF, IWW) and the Socialist Parties. The first red scare changed this by seriously damaging union organising and by making the Socialist Parties irrelevant. The result was a regroupment in the early 1930s around a number of positions:

  • Left wingers inside the US Democratic party, who identified with the Wisconsin "Progressive" movement. Prior to the 1960s, both major US parties had progressive, liberal and conservative factions.
  • The US Communist Party, but more importantly, its periphery. The smashing of the socialist parties left a hole in the political ecosystem that the CPUSA filled. The CPUSA then hegemonised a major discourse within the left and socially-liberal climate. The CPUSA began talking about its immediate programme as "progressive," and encouraged its periphery to consider themselves as "progressive."
  • The wildcats and CIO sit-ins. These are not relevant to progressivism as such.

From these roots, progressivism has been used in US politics to express something more radical than social liberalism. Progressivism usually occupies the position that "labourism" occupies in Australian, New Zealand or UK politics; but lacks a parliamentary party of any note.

Generally, using a Marxist approach to "left-right" issues, Progressives ought to be considered as a spectrum from centre-left to centre-right—the purpose of the envisaged humane capitalism is somewhere between preserving capitalism from its faults through vigorous and fundamental reform (centre right), through to the fundamental empowerment of the working class in capitalism but only within capitalism (centre left).

Within US political discourse, "Progressive" currently means, "Liberal—only more so."


American liberalism, the dominant Ideology of the Democratic Party, was formed from two strands:

  1. Classical liberalism, the philosophy formed in the Enlightenment by thinkers like John Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau, and providing the driving force for both the American Revolution and the French Revolution, which states that the autonomy of the individual should be maximized, and the individual should be freed from whatever institutions are preventing them from reaching their potential, be it the Church or the State.

  2. Progressivism, a populist reform movement in the early twentieth century, espoused by Presidents like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and grounded in Protestant moralism, which sought to make government both more responsive to the plight of the people, for instance using Constitutional amendments to deal with social problems like alcoholism and using government force to quash monopolies, and at the same time more representative of the will of the electorate, for instance instituting more democracy like the direct election of Senators and ending the corruption of Machine politics in the cities.

These two strands were merged into the ideology we call American liberalism by John Dewey and his followers, who argued that we needed a broader conception of liberty than the one maintained by laissez-faire negative-rights libertarians. The key idea can be summed up in a quote from Anatole France: "In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread." Basically, the idea is that the freedom to starve because you have no food is not a meaningful freedom at all, because it does not maximize your autonomy or allow your to realize your potential, which were important goals in classical liberalism.

Thus Dewey argued that we should recognize positive liberty as well as negative liberty, meaning that e.g. just as we ought to recognize a right to live without someone killing you, we similarly ought to recognize a right to live without dying due to lack of food. Thus American liberalism advocates that the government should play some role in the economy in order to give people autonomy and enable them to pursue their own happiness, along the lines of the "responsiveness" part of the Progressive philosophy. Thus Americans liberals still try to achieve the goals of classical liberalism, but they sometimes do it through Progressive means. (This is akin to how, as I discuss here, American conservatism tries to achieve the goals of traditionalism, but often through libertarian means.)

There's one other way that American liberalism differs from classical liberalism: classical liberals took a deontological perspective on liberty, viewing personal autonomy and the pursuit of happiness as things that are inherently worthy of being promoted, regardless of what they lead to. American liberalism, on the other hand, because it emerged partly from Progressivism, tends to take a more utilitarian perspective on such things, viewing autonomy merely as a means to an end, the end being increasing the happiness of as many people as possible. The liberal understanding of utilitarianism is perhaps best understood through the work of John Rawls, who proposed a thought experiment along roughly these lines: suppose that you're a soul waiting to be born, but you don't know which body you're going to be born into and what experiences that body is going to have. But before you're born, you have the opportunity to design how society and government should be. How should you design it in order to maximize your chances of having a good life? Well, you don't know what desires you're going to have, but whatever they are, you're probably going to want them fulfilled, so you would want a society that as much as possible allows people to pursue their own happiness. And you may end up being born in utter poverty that may prevent you from being happy, or you may start off being wealthy but then you may suffer calamities like disease and natural disasters, so assuming you're risk averse (as humans tend to be in most circumstances), you'd want the government to have a safety net to shelter you from such risks. So that's where the basic contours of the liberal position emerge.

Finally, let me mention something about foreign policy. The Progressive presidents advocated a very interventionist foreign policy, since they were motivated by the desire to help people as much as possible, even people abroad. Liberals still share some of this impulse, and are willing to support limited American military intervention in circumstances of extreme humanitarian crisis. But mostly their foreign policy views were taken from classical liberalism, so they they're antiwar for the most part.

In any case, when contemporary liberals call themselves progressive, they're hearkening back to their intellectual predecessors.

(I discuss the underpinnings of American conservatism here if you're interested.)

EDIT: Yuval Levin has just written a book which argues that the positive rights vision of liberalism originated not with Dewey in the early twentieth century as I suggested, but rather in the late 1700's with Thomas Paine, one of America's founding fathers. Levin argues that the modern American left-right divide originated in the debate in America and England over the French Revolution. Paine was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution, because he thought that government is an institution deliberately created by people to sageguard their individual liberty, and so it could be overthrown whenever the people thought it wasn't doing a good job. On the other hand, Edmund Burke, a predecessor to modern conservatism, saw government as an institution that grew organically as a tradition, and that we should be suspicious of making changes to it just because individuals in the current generation happen to object to it. In any case, Paine's philosophy of individualism led him to believe that an individual can only realize his full potential if he's not constrained by material want, so he believed in the government providing basic necessities to everyone. Thus, Levin argues, the early twentieth century Progressive movement was merely reinventing the wheel.


I was 16 when Ronald Reagan was elected president of the USA. So this comes from my personal experience. We were under terrible economic conditions when Carter was president in the late 70s. Reagan used this to his advantage when he ran for president, and he let it rip on liberals for our economic woes. He used this to such a great advantage, that Democrats shied away from the "liberal" label. I was young, and I thought for sure we would never have another Democrat as president again. The next elected Democrat as president was Clinton. And he ran towards the center, advocating for middle-class tax cuts. Democrats started using the term "progressive" instead of "liberal" because of the taint Reagan was able to put on it. And to this day, people still shy away from the term "liberal", even if they don't know the history behind it. Just my perspective based on personal observations during that time.


They're virtually the same thing. As found in two Princeton WordNet definitions:

a political orientation that favors social progress by reform and by changing laws rather than by revolution

the political orientation of those who favor progress toward better conditions in government and society

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    Nonetheless, enough conservative/right-of-centre parties outside the US use the moniker Liberal; so Progressive has been picked up by the left as a substitute. Nov 18, 2014 at 7:18

I read somewhere that the word "liberal" became associated with communism, which is extremely hated in the US (I have no idea if this is really why it changed, but it's as good a reason as any). Everywhere else in the world, liberals are what Americans call libertarians.

There isn't usually any difference between them when people say them, but some people think of progressives as being farther to the left. Progressives are what Europeans would call social democrats, while liberals are center-left.

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    Could you supply some sources for this? In particular, I really don't think it's true that American libertarian = non-American liberal. May 2, 2013 at 14:31
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    Yes, I had heard somewhere as well that it changed from Liberal to Progressive because Liberal has negative connotations. If this is the case, it shows a lack of foresight on the part of whoever thought it up, as now both terms have the same connotations. I suspect the libertarian aspect is as referred to as "Classical Liberalism"; that is, what Liberal meant in the 18th century.
    – tsilb
    May 10, 2013 at 21:11
  • Liberals and libertarians are not the same thing, in the US or out of it. Jun 11, 2020 at 12:28

Basically, "classical liberalism" promotes freedom and individual rights. The pillars of freedom are the rule of law (contrasted with the rule of men) and private property. Classical liberalism promotes free enterprise (people voluntarily engaging in financial transactions) and a severely limited government. The term "laissez faire," is often used to describe the free-market economics of classical liberalism.

Progressivism is a misnomer, since it is not progressive at all, rather it is another, more palatable, updated name for that tired, destructive failure called socialism. Despite what you have read above, Progressivism is not a spin-off of classical liberalism; it is the antithesis of classical liberalism.

Bottom line: Progressivism promotes the redistribution of wealth. This unattainable objective demands an ever-growing, invasive, ponderous, inefficient centralized government. Progressivism's natural enemies are limited government, free markets, private property, and the rule of law.

And individualism.

Ultimately, Progressivism can be boiled down to "uniformity and conformity." That's why Progressivism/socialism will never work no matter how many times it's tried. People are individuals, not machines. People will always have different dreams, different aspirations, different likes and dislikes, different pursuits, and different levels of motivation. Take away his motivation to pursue his dreams and you extinguish the man.

Progressivism never factors in the human spirit's desire to soar. And, commonly in progressive/socialist societies you will find another truth: "the equalizers never equalize themselves."

See: https://mises.org/library/what-classical-liberalism

Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut


The reason it changed is the term "liberal," suffered too much damage to it's brand, particularly during the years Pres. Reagan was president. When people heard the word liberal, they thought of somebody that didn't have any morals, or gay person--actually pretty accurate. During the Bush Jr. years when the Democratic Party suffered great losses politically it was proposed that Democrats start to use the term "progressive," instead of liberal because it made people think of FDR and Truman, and the days when the Democratic Party actually gave a damn and helped people and its members where moral people, the majority of whom believed in God. Now the terms "progressive," means liberal.

  • Inserting excessive political commentary into an answer may prove to be more of a hindrance than a help to the asker. Consider filtering your answers in the future, or you risk downvotes as a response.
    – Ferus Olin
    Jan 17, 2017 at 23:51

Liberal: using existing laws and government to do good for everyone. Progressive: CHANGING existing laws and government to do good for everyone.

A Liberal might might want to subsidize or tax break a non polluting company to prop it up to eventually take over the polluting company.

A Progressive will create laws limiting the pollution of the polluting company, by making it pay fines or making it add the TRUE cost to its product (factoring in the environmental and health costs from pollution to its final product).

In short, liberals are weak sauce progressives.

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    I don't think that your distinction is quite right. It seems to me as though people who have called themselves liberal have tried to change laws before. Jan 24, 2014 at 21:32

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