The word "progressives" has always confused me. It's sort of like an antonym to "conservatives", but the difference is that "conservative" is a neutral word. It tells us that you want to "conserve" something, but that something may be both good or bad or irrelevant, so the word doesn't imply anything about the moral implications of being a conservative.

But the word "progressives" derives from "progress" which is an inherently positive word, referring to a transition from a bad state to a good state. Hence the word "progressives" is not a neutral word.

And yet, it is a commonly used word by everyone across the entire political spectrum. Why? Why would those that would not characterize themselves as progressives accept the use of this term and its obvious propagandaic potential? I mean, after all, who wants to openly admit they are anti-progress?

There's been some pushback against this and I've seen people use the word "regressives", but it still surprises me when I watch, say, a right-wing politician describing their political opponents by using the word "progressives". Why would you willingly praise them like that? Even if that's not your intent, that's certainly the connotations that many people will make.


8 Answers 8


Almost every term can be appropriated to gain a positive or negative connotation.

Even the term "Fascist" used to have a positive connotation once. It was derived from the Italian word "fascio", a bundle of rods. The symbolic meaning was "strength in unity". Who wants to openly admit they are anti-unity? That was before the Nazis murdered a couple million people and conquered most of Europe in the name of Fascism. Now "Fascist" is pretty much the worst insult you can use in a political context.

Another such term is "Globalist" which once had a positive connotation but was recently malapropriated by the alt-right as a negative label to put on their opponents.

So if you associate a positive term like "Progressive" with negative effects often enough, the term itself gains a negative connotation.

It is of course also possible to do the opposite and appropriate a negative term and turn it into a neutral or even positive term. A good example is the term "gay". It once was a slur used to discriminate homosexuals. But nowadays no politician is ashamed to claim to "defend gay rights".

Now regarding the question: Why invest all the work to give a negative connotation to the self-description of your political opponents instead of using your own term which is already negative? Because it allows you to turn your opponent's reputation against them. When you convince people that "Progressive" is a negative term, then any situation where your opponents call themselves "progressive" can be used against them. The term becomes a "dog whistle". Your opponents think they are describing themselves positively by calling themselves progressive, but your followers perceive it as them admitting their malicious intentions.


In your question you cite convervatism as being a neutral term. But then I could reverse your question like so:

"conservative" is a neutral word. It tells us that you want to "conserve" something, but that something may be both good or bad or irrelevant, so the word doesn't imply anything about the moral implications of being a conservative. So why do those on the Left appropriate a neutral term and use it to denigrate their political opponents? Won't it undermine their attempted slur when people don't fall for it?

Conservatism, in the modern political discourse, is anything but neutral. "Conservative" and "Progressive" et. al. aren't just descriptors, they're membership cards: they mark someone as one of us/those people we hate. Sides have been chosen.

Words carry any semantic burden we agree that they do. But by the logic of your question a group could choose an undeserved positive label and run with it: as long as enough people accept their self-bestowed label it makes more sense from the opposition perspective to shift the semantic via the tribal mechanism than to try to kill a wide-spread meme (the label itself).

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    Note the terms used for the two sides of the abortion debate: "pro-life" and "pro-choice". Let's face it, no reasonable person would be likely to call themselves "anti-life" or "anti-choice".
    – RDFozz
    Commented Dec 3, 2018 at 22:12
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    @RDFozz perfect example of what I'm talking about, thank you. Commented Dec 3, 2018 at 22:14
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    @RDFozz That's an interesting contrast though, because I frequently see the pro-choice side use "anti-choice" to describe their opponents (and while I don't recall ever seeing "anti-life" specifically, I have often seen things such as "pro-murder" from the pro-life side). Such things don't seem to be quite as common in the general political stage. Commented Dec 3, 2018 at 22:25
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    @JohnMontgomery: "Anti-choice" is fairly extreme, but mainstream media will often use the neutral "anti-abortion". And mainstream-but-right-wing politicians will often use "Democrat" rather than "Democratic". So I think you can find lots of examples where a group's own branding isn't entirely honored by other groups, even mainstream ones.
    – ruakh
    Commented Dec 3, 2018 at 23:23
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    @JohnMontgomery The problem with trying to label people as "anti-choice" instead of "anti-abortion" is that even the sort of campaigner who might try using it are forced to admit that there are people out there whose choice is "no abortion". This way they can tar all their foes with the same brush, to mix the careful-debaters in with the frothing-fanatics. "Pro-life" activists have less of an issue regarding the "anti-life" label, since their argument typically is that abortion is murder and thus anti-life. (And, again, lets them bunch sensible and fanatic opponents in one group) Commented Dec 6, 2018 at 13:21

The American right is quite diverse, but there are reasons why people of various philosophical and political bents wouldn't mind labeling their opponents progressives.

Classical liberals

This group is made up of people who love the American founding and the ideas of life, liberty and property that shaped early American political thought. For many years the American left was known as liberals. To have classical liberalism associated with big government paternalism in the modern left really aggravates these people. For Example:

Here I make a plea, addressed to conservatives and libertarians, regarding the word liberal: please do not describe leftists, progressives, social democrats, or Democrats as “liberal.” I do not ask that you describe yourself as “liberal.” Continue to call yourself “conservative” or “libertarian.” I propose only a single step: don’t call leftists “liberal.” By this single step, we can make great strides.

Many on the right want to take back the term liberal and use it to describe the negative rights loving liberals of the 1700s. They think liberal is a misnomer when it comes to today's left. But then what should they call modern Democrats? Progressive is a term already used. Silly notions of "the right side of history" and progress are much less a concern to classical liberals than taking back the word liberal from the left.

Radical Libertarians

Radical libertarians actually do care about progress. They want to change the world into one that is free of the coercive hand of government. They, of anyone on the American right should care about this misuse of the term "progressive." Actually, not so much. The term progressive in American politics is a loaded one. It dates back to the progressive movement in the early 20th century. However only a few sentences into the Wikipedia article on the progressive era we run into the line:

Many progressives supported prohibition of alcoholic beverages, ostensibly to destroy the political power of local bosses based in saloons, but others out of a religious motivation.

This line taints the progressive movement's legacy irrevocably for radical libertarians. In their eyes, prohibition is a classic failure of government action; it's the worst kind of meddling in non-violent free action. Radical libertarians would love to label their opponents as progressive. The failures (in their eyes) of the progressive movement in the 1920s are exactly what radical libertarians would love people to think about when modern progressives ban straws to try to tax soda.

Philosophical Conservatives

Finally, philosophical conservatives have no problem with labeling their opponents as progressive, because they fundamentally believe that it is better to conserve than to progress. Conservatives are quick to look at the failures of utopian revolutions as the result of an obsession of progress instead of an emphasis on conserving the good with prudent reforms. Michael Oakeshott's definition puts it succinctly:

To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown,to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to Utopian bliss.

A conservative doesn't hate progress, but to him, an overemphasis on progress is unhealthy and dangerous. Conservatives are happy to let their political opponents be defined by an obsession with progress. They often point to movements obsessed with progress like France in 1789 or Russia in 1918 that quickly turned to poverty and bloodshed.

This answer doesn't, however, explain why populist nationalists like Donald Trump would be okay with labeling their opponents as progressive. Anecdotaly, I have noticed that Trump seems to use the term liberal more than progressive to describe his enemies on the left.

  • I'd argue that regular Libertarians also care about progress. We want equality across the board. We want the country to stop militarily interfering in other countries that haven't attacked us. We want smaller government. We want lower taxes. We want free market concepts applied more generally. --- Are those things "radical" or are you speaking of another type of Libertarian that (in today's political vernacular) promotes violence to achieve their goals?
    – CramerTV
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 0:13
  • @CramerTV I didn't mean radical in the sense of using violence, I meant radical in the sense that they are willing to make big changes to society and radically change the scope of government quickly. I used that term as a way of saying even the most ardent or extreme libertarians would be okay with calling leftists progressives. I also don't think any of my groups are exclusive categories; one can be a conservative libertarian, someone who thinks liberty is a good end unto itself, but is wary of too many libertarian reforms too quickly.
    – lazarusL
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 2:39
  • "Radical" seems to be a judgement of the ideology as opposed to a descriptor of the desired change.
    – CramerTV
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 3:07
  • @CramerTV that's not how I intended it. Sorry for the confusion!
    – lazarusL
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 3:20
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    This should be the answer. Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 8:12

As someone who's a right leaning libertarian, I can answer anecdotally:

because it's a branding that is concise and understandable by most people (because "everyone" else uses it).

That's it, no more no less. I used to call them "liberals" when that label worked (proof: my earlier answers on Politics.SE). Then it stopped being accurate or widely understood by either side, so I switched to "progressives". For all I care in 5 years I'll call them "Dilwunians" if that will be the most effective method of communicating the concept at the moment.

I would use "regressive" only when my audience is such that will understand it (all 1000 of them in the continental United States who listens to Dave Rubin) - not really for propagandist purposes but more for "I'm one of you" kind of social in-group-speak purposes.

Additionally, the reason this is happening in the broader society is probably because the hegemonic power over language is, effectively, left of center - a predominant majority of journalists, entertainment figures, portals (e.g. see Google Doole politics) and less importantly college professors and teachers are politically left (yes, there are polls and surveys backing that up for people who like to call that fact of life "conspiracy theory"). As such, in full accordance with Gramsci's theories (whatever one thinks of his economic views, he was devastatingly accurate on his sociolinguistic ones), popular language usage patterns are "more friendly" towards the Left, with many many examples beyond just "progressive/liberal vs conservative".

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    Problem is, I still don't really understand what you mean by "them" (not the DV FWIW). I can't in any logical way relate liberalism and progressive-ism other than to posit an alliance against a common enemy (e.g. you, based on self-description). Is that what you're getting at? Commented Dec 3, 2018 at 22:17
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    @JaredSmith - "them"==people who are now popularly called "progressives". That's the whole point I was trying to make - "Liberals" was a convinient popularly understood label for left/progressive wing of US politics, having (IMHO) actually very little to do in my opinion with philosophy of liberalism semantically by the end of 20th century. And yes, I have elsewhere on the site defined "Right wing" as "people who are against left wing", so this sorta kinda very well works as well.
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 3, 2018 at 22:21

Here's the dictionary definition for conservative:

holding to traditional attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation, typically in relation to politics or religion.

In this case Progressive is very clearly the opposite, progressives are less cautious about change and innovation (in relation to politics and religion at least).

Perhaps you shouldn't be so hasty in calling all progress inherently "good"--the balance is important.

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    "...the balance is important." Sometimes the right balance can be quite extreme. I try to be conservative regarding the the protection of Earth and progressive regarding the tax system and I think this is a good balance. Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 9:36

Pardon me, no references handy, so just a drive-by.

Thomas Sowell describes the difference between conservatives and progressives as rooted in the essential vision of human nature. Progressives believe that humanity can be perfected through the efforts of enlightened leadership to forge an enlightened society. They wish to PROGRESS away from that which is bad, toward a more enlightened alternative. Conservatives believe that society should be organized to accept the limitations of humanity, which cannot be perfected, through the wisdom of those who came before, encoded in our culture and traditions, often invisible to even the most enlightened. They wish to CONSERVE that which is good, preserving it from capricious social engineering.

These map fairly neatly to large government and small government points of view, "take care of X, only government can solve it", vs "leave X be, government will only mess it up".

This is a shoddy paraphrase, but I hope that it illustrates why many conservatives embrace the label "progressive" for the left. It also helps to avoid the term "liberal" which has become muddled over time and between polities.

In the absence of a citation (other than to mention Sowell's book "A Conflict of Visions", later re-worked as "The Vision of the Anointed"), allow me to lean upon personal experience: I am a conservative and I think that labels connected to principles underlying positions, such as Progressive and Conservative, are useful for their honest descriptive power.


All change is not progress. Conservatives take change slowly and ideally in accordance with a fairly strict adherence to The Constitution. Progressives seem to not really care much about The Constitutionality of the change they want.

One example is the DACA executive order that President Obama signed into law. We have pretty well defined immigration laws (laws created by The Congress) and Obama swiped them away in an un-Constitution move. The order will likely get struck down when it hits the Supreme Court as the President doesn't have this power.

An example of doing things the right way (i.e. by the Constitution) is where President Trump looked at long standing (and failing) requirements on criminal sentencing. These sentencing problems were created by the Clinton Crime bill in 1994. After seeing that the experiment had negative consequences he has negotiated with Congress to remove some of the hard requirements on sentencing and return to allowing judges to have more leeway in making sentencing decisions.

So, the conservative idea is to think things through (I know we're talking about politicians here and thinking is not always involved) then implement and then evaluate and adjust.

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    This would benefit from a few examples of strict adherences and careless changes.
    – agc
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 17:33
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    I'm not so sure about "in an un-Constitution move. " I believe that it hasn't been determined either way in the courts. Even then, from a purely reasonable reference point, unconstitutional changes can be progress. Even so, this answer doesn't address the question. Seems to be an example of what the question was describing.
    – David S
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 20:24
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    @HisDivineShadow Even so, it remains possible to make unconstitutional changes and still be progress. Lincoln suspended Habeas corpus and ignored a supreme court order. Either way, I'm not really seeing how this answer applies to Republicans acceptance of the word "progressive" as a pejorative, but I would like to see a few edits to help bring that out.
    – David S
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 23:12
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    @DavidS Republicans see it as a pejorative because taking un-Constitutional actions are disruptive and usually not well thought out. Disrupting a system of governance that has proven very successful is not a well thought out move in the eyes of Republicans. The framers created this system in part so that change would be slow so that things wouldn't go off the rail before corrections could be made. In Lincoln's case the country was falling apart, I would say drastic measures needed to be taken but those actions are not really something that were done as a permanent change to our system. Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 23:24
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    Anti-abortion activists don't seem to mind the constitutionality of their restriction laws.
    – djechlin
    Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 0:22

Edit to provide clarity to the answer. The question, as asked, requires a deeper level of understanding of what the context of the situation is. Here you are right to assume that the words themselves are innocuous. They are, as defined, neutral or positive.

However, the words are not being used as defined. In political context, they are labels, names, or identifiers. Conservatives disagree with the "progressives" opinion of what is considered real progress. So the label means completely different things from each side of the coin talking about it.

It is, in a simplified manner, the same as a novice footballer claiming to be able to win the World Cup alone from the perspective of a conservative. Their version of "progress" is utter nonsense. So, since they self-identify as "progressive" it is used pejoratively from the "conservative" side.

You can see the the exact same thing happen with the word "fascist" when you look back at it.

It is political rhetoric. Pure and simple.

The political climate of the United States has never been friendly. From the founding of the country it has been vicious.

"The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism." - George Washington 1796 farewell address

Quote from here.

Basically, you're asking a question that was warned against doing since we started doing it hundreds of years ago. It is not unique to any side.

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    You're restating the question, not answering it.
    – djechlin
    Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 0:19

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