we are all interested in the future because that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives
In general, I think the best place to start in this kind of taxonomy is with temperament rather than policy or philosophy. And, if you start there, I think you get somewhere pretty quickly.
Here are, in my view, the two key temperamental distinctions:
- Progressives orient themselves temporally, towards the future. Liberals do not fundamentally orient themselves temporally because their principles are timeless.
- Liberals love to argue about ends and means and whether one can justify the other; an argument between Kant on the one hand and Mill on the other is a quintessential liberal argument. Progressives are inclined to believe that arguments about means are really arguments about ends in disguise.
Put that way, it makes it sound like liberals have principles and progressives don’t. But that’s not what I mean to suggest. If to have principles means to have rules that you apply fairly in order to make decisions then progressives can certainly have principles. "The purpose of power is power" is not a progressive principle. Nor do I mean to suggest that liberals can’t be practical, can’t make compromises, can’t recognize that different circumstances require different actions. If being practical means knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em, knowing when to make a stand on principle and when not to, then they certainly can be practical. What I’m getting at is that liberals and progressives would have different ideas about what one’s principles should be, and what is a good or a bad compromise.
The reason why liberals can re-label themselves progressives today is that we’re talking about the same kinds of people (sociologically speaking) pursuing the same kinds of ends. You don’t, as a practical matter, have a group of progressives trying to improve the race through state-managed eugenics being opposed by liberals who believe in more individual autonomy as such or who think "undesireables" are entitled to equal regard because of their common humanity. But you can see the difference between a progressive and a liberal argument in, say, the abortion debate. A progressive argument for the right to abortion would rest substantially on a defense of the kind of society that the right to abortion makes possible; without a right to abortion, a variety of things about our society that a progressive would deem good (such as an openness to sexual experience, a norm of female self-actualization through work, etc) would be more difficult to achieve, more expensive, more inequitably distributed, or all three. A liberal argument would rest more on a fundamental right to privacy, or one of various feminist critiques (a man can’t understand the situation of a woman carrying an unwanted child and so the law cannot opine; saddling women with the burden of pregnancy is inequitable on its face and the right to abortion restores a more equitable balance; etc). Again, I don’t mean to suggest that feminist arguments are inherently liberal and not progressive. I am suggesting that framing an argument around results, goods and the kind of society we want is a more progressive way of framing it, while framing an argument around rights and obligations is a more liberal way of framing it.
I don’t, by the way, think Ross Douthat is at all correct that progressivism is more utopian than liberalism. Indeed, I would argue that the opposite is true; liberalism is far more utopian because it is more invested in its axioms about human nature and society than is progressivism, and because it is atemporal and hence, in a sense, lives mentally in utopia already, in a world run according to liberal principles that does not actually exist.
What I think is a fairer criticism to level at progressivism is that it does not have a strong conception of the heroic. We all know what a heroic liberal looks like – like the twelfth man who wasn’t angry, and stood his ground against eleven jurors ready to convict in an open and shut murder trial. What’s a heroic progressive? By this I don’t mean to say, name a person who was arguably heroic who was also a self-identified progressive. Not everybody likes old TR, but he is on Mt. Rushmore and he certainly considered himself progressive. What I mean is: I know how to describe a hero in liberal terms – and, for that matter, in conservative terms – but I’m not sure how to describe one in progressive terms. Indeed, it is when you start to think about the heroic that it becomes clearest why both Ross Douthat and Jacob Levy find progressivism kind of scary: a hero in progressive terms must be somebody who can see the future better, and who has the will to push society forward towards that future. And that is not generally the kind of hero that a Republic wants.
In any event, one thing is clear. If "progressive" and "conservative" both poll better among Americans than does "liberal" then we all know who the Republicans need to put up in 2008.