Liberal, Neoliberal and Progressive: What Words Mean

Much of our current political discourse suffers because so many people are using words without fully appreciating what they mean. For example, some use progressive and liberal as synonyms, although they really aren’t (although there’s a lot of overlap). There’s also confusion about the difference between liberal and neoliberal. And there’s tons of confusion about socialist.

Note that what follows are standard definitions; I am not making these up. However, this is just a brief overview. I don’t have time to write a book. So if I’ve left out a detail you think is important please just add it to comments.

Liberal. The meaning of liberal as a political term has changed over time, and in the United States it came to have a slightly different meaning from how it is used elsewhere.  But let’s review:

Classical liberalism, which originated in 18th century Europe, emphasized civil liberties — the old Rights of Man — and political freedom. Classical liberals were also the original free market capitalists.  Adam Smith and his Invisible Hand were classical liberals.

Social liberalism, which evolved later, is classical liberalism with the added belief that government really needs to address poverty and joblessness and that sort of thing rather than wait around for the Invisible Hand to fix it. This is basically the European view of social liberalism.

FDR took American liberalism in a different direction, basically injecting a whole lot of American progressivism into it (see discussion of progressive below). I recommend this essay by Eric Alterman, “How Classical Liberalism Morphed Into New Deal Liberalism.”

European liberalism is essentially a centrist political philosophy, but under FDR it was pulled leftward, putting it somewhere between social liberalism and European socialism as it existed at the time. And, of course, FDR pretty much kicked the free-market, laissez-faire aspects of classical liberalism to the curb. By steering a course between pure European liberalism and pure socialism, FDR found a way to maintain capitalism without allowing it to become oppressive and exploitative of the people. Well, of a lot of people.  FDR liberalism was very much about making robust use of government to give working people a hand up so they could make a better quality of life for themselves, with the acknowledgment that nonwhites were left out of much of this, to appease southern politicians.

In the 1960s, liberalism took up the cause of equal rights for all people, and in doing so sometimes worked against New Deal liberalism. Much of the New Left was against unions, for example, because of racial discrimination by unions, and New Deal liberalism was very pro-union.  Although some of the leftie-leftie fringe of the New Left was Marxist, most new leftie liberal 1960s-era hippies weren’t that tuned into economic issues, as I remember it.  Equal rights and civil liberty, yes; Vietnam, no.  And marijuana. That’s about it.

Until Vietnam there had been nothing intrinsically anti-war about liberalism, note. FDR certainly hadn’t been anti-war.  Indeed, a lot of Cold War liberals were on the hawkish side, promoting a robust military buildup to fighting the threat of global communist takeover. Democratic party insiders were opposed to nominating the anti-war McGovern in 1972, and when he lost big– partly because he got little help from his party — the lesson Democrats took from that was that pacifism is for losers.

But one of the ghosts of the Vietnam era a lot of us still have clanking about in our heads is that liberalism is pacifistic and conservatism is militaristic, and while that might be true most of the time these days, that’s a relatively recent development. And a ghost clanking around in the heads of many American conservatives is that liberalism is communism, which is nonsense on steroids.

Neoliberal. Neoliberalism is a reactionary sort of liberalism that repudiates social liberalism and tries to go back to something like classical liberalism. As Europeans use the word neoliberalism, Ronald Reagan was a neoliberal. See especially this essay by George Monbiot, “Neoliberalism — the Ideology at the Root of All Our Problems.”

American neoliberals tend to be social liberals but economic conservatives. They’re fine with equal rights and civil liberties for individuals, but they lean toward conservative and libertarian ideas about economies and markets.  It is argued that a neoliberal’s commitment to civil liberty is entirely for the individual and ignores social reality. Basically, neoliberals are people who champion your right to live your life as you wish while they favor trade policies that will devastate your community and ship  your job to China.

Another way to put this is that neoliberals are liberal but not necessarily progressive. So let’s look at progressivism.

Progressive. Progressive as an American political term was born in the late 19th century. The original progressive reform movement focused on three foundational positions:

  1. Getting the corruption of money out of politics, especially in regard to political machines and bosses.
  2. Getting more people directly involved in politics; making political processes more transparent. For example, the direct election of senators (17th Amendment, ratified 1914) was a progressive accomplishment.
  3. Using government regulation to protect the people; for example, enacting child labor laws and providing for safety regulations for food and drugs.

Progressivism in America from the start tended to go hand in hand with social liberalism. Women’s suffrage was a progressive cause. The Great Migration was encouraged by progressivism. But while white progressive reformers called for putting a stop to lynching, I’m not aware they did much to address segregation or racism generally. Maybe they did, and I missed it.

Teddy Roosevelt, one of the original patriarchs of American progressivism.


Teddy Roosevelt was both a product and a patriarch of the original Progressive Movement. Teddy worked to get the corruption of money out of government, you’ll recall, and he also worked to protect the environment and was opposed to the business monopolies that he saw as blood-sucking parasites. A lot of Teddy’s ideas were folded into FDR’s liberalism. Those Roosevelt boys did a lot of good for America.

But while, in America, progressivism and liberalism tend to run in the same circles, they aren’t exactly the same thing. In America, traditionally, liberalism is mostly about equal rights and civil liberties, while progressivism is mostly about social and government reform and economic justice. As we see with the neoliberals especially, a person can be all in favor of your rights to an abortion or the right to get a cake made for your same-sex wedding, but still not be particularly progressive.

Socialism. While we’re at it, I might as well bring up the “s” word.  The word socialism refers to a whole range of political-economic ideas; I don’t think there is any one form of “socialism.” There are, instead, a bunch of different socialisms.

American right-wingers will never get beyond the abecedarian (yeah, that’s a word; look it up) notion that socialism is the same thing as communism, and of course all communism is Marxism. This is right up there with saying dogs are mammals, so all mammals are dogs. Tell that to a wingnut, and he’ll assume you mean all mammals are dogs. But I digress.

Because of right-wing idiocy we haven’t been allowed to have a sensible conversation about socialist views and policies since about, well, ever. The Big Lie we’ve been taught is that socialism is all about central control of the economy, which of course is the road to totalitarianism, per the Austrian School economists. But most socialisms don’t advocate central control of the economy. And most socialists are fine with democratic representative government and with civil liberties and personal freedom and all that. But, as I said, there are many socialisms.

Even if you pull out the “democratic socialists” from the rest of the “socialists,” there’s still a continuum. While Bernie Sanders calls himself a democratic socialist, some political scientist types says he’s really not, but more of an FDR-era Democrat Party liberal. See “What Does Sanders Mean by ‘Democratic Socialism?'” and “Bernie Is Not Socialist and America Is Not Capitalist.” So there’s that. But at least he’s helping to take the stigma out of the “s” word so that we can have conversations about it.

I’m bringing this up because I keep seeing people use these words very sloppily. In particular the conflation of liberalism and progressivism covers a lot of sins, since it’s very possible for a politician to score high by standard liberalism measures while being weak on progressivism. This is basically where we are with the mostly neoliberal Hillary Clinton. Sanders is both liberal and progressive. Trump is neither. So let’s try to keep this straight.