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.

23 thoughts on “Liberal, Neoliberal and Progressive: What Words Mean

  1. maha,

    You liberal/progressive/socialist/:commie whore, we others of your ilk, thank you!

  2. Barbara, you have been the most coherent, thoughtful and thorough commentator on our current political environment and deserve a much wider readership. I have shared your commentary often and will continue to do so. Kudos for your sharp and incisive perspective, keep ’em coming.

  3. I’m with Tom and Cund, once in a while we have to “step back and see where we are,” as the old Firesign Theatre line said. We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with “hidden persuaders,” although so many of them are no longer hidden. It’s easy to lose your bearings and get carried along with the current or lose them by opposing the current with thinking. Once in a while, it helps to define our terms and take some account of history. Thanks for doing that.

  4. That should be “by opposing the current WITHOUT thinking.” I am traveling and using my ancient iPad. I’m obviously not very good at it.

  5. Brings to my mind a passage by Simone Weil:

    “The glossy surface of our civilization hides a real intellectual decadence. There is no area in our minds reserved for superstition, such as the Greeks had in their mythology; and superstition, under cover of an abstract vocabulary, has revenged itself by invading the entire realm of thought. Our science is like a store filled with the most subtle intellectual devices for solving the most complex problems, and yet we are almost incapable of applying the elementary principles of rational thought. In every sphere, we seem to have lost the very elements of intelligence: the idea of limit, measure, degree, proportion, relation, comparison, contingency, interdependence, interrelation of means and ends. To keep to the social level, our political universe is peopled exclusively by myths and monsters; all it contains is absolutes and abstract entities. This is illustrated by all the words of our political and social vocabulary: nation, security, capitalism, communism, fascism, order, authority, property, democracy. We never use them in phrases such as: There is democracy to the extent that… or: There is capitalism in so far as… The use of expressions like ‘to the extent that’ is beyond our intellectual capacity. Each of these words seems to represent for us an absolute reality, unaffected by conditions, or an absolute objective, independent of methods of action, or an absolute evil; and at the same time we make all these words mean, successively or simultaneously, anything whatsoever. Our lives are lived, in actual fact, among changing, varying realities, subject to the casual play of external necessities, and modifying themselves according to specific conditions within specific limits; and yet we act and strive and sacrifice ourselves and others by reference to fixed and isolated abstractions which cannot possibly be related either to one another or to any concrete facts…”

  6. Yinshi,
    Thanks a lot!

    Now I’m going to have to read some Simone Weil!

    And here I thought I could get away from reading anything more comples than murder mystries!

  7. Fantastic thread without a doubt. At times I think that many misunderstandings and miscommunications are due to sloppy if not downright inaccurate word usage. The result for me of your excellent review of these terms is that I will probably be hesitant to use any of them. For sure if I use any of them, I will try to elaborate a bit on how I am using the term. Neoliberal, Social Liberal. Classic Liberal, New Deal Liberal, and Progressive, for the few I can talk with about such matters, none if these terms have little if any distinction. More likely, if used locally, liberal is heard as a solitary word, in a derogatory tone usually in combination with you people. I am not sure how it is defined, but one can be sure by the tone, it is considered as severe as a cross between child molestation and cancer.

    This gets to the other problem I tend to see more of lately. The use of nonsense talk or outright contradictions as acceptable ways of attempting to communicate. Sarah Palin is a master of the former. Trump more of the later.

    Charles Blow in a May 16 New York Times article observed: “You see, part of the problem here is that some people believe, improbably, that virtue can be cloaked in vice, that what he says and what he means are fundamentally different, that the former is acting as a Trojan horse for the latter. One of Trump’s greatest pros is that he has convinced his supporters, all evidence to the contrary, that they are not being conned.”

    This tendency should concern us also, maybe more than mushy definitions. When a person can contradict himself, sometimes within a single paragraph ,and not be seen as unacceptable what chance does one have? To the hard core zealots, none I am sure. Properly defined terms, accuracy of facts, and logical consistency of discussion need be valued by enough, or conned will become the new normal.

  8. I’m not so sure that TR would have ranked too high on the social liberal scale. He held fairly conventional racist attitudes for the time, say. And he was sure a vigorous advocate of the Monroe Doctrine abroad.

    How about a definition of “neoconservative”? One of the odder things I see on other blogs is Hillary Clinton being described as both a neoliberal and a neocon. With all due respect, if she’s both, then the meanings of those terms are rather abased.

    • //With all due respect, if she’s both, then the meanings of those terms are rather abased.//

      Not really, considering that both the free-market, small-government type conservatives and today’s neoliberals are both more or less coming out of the old classical liberalism. Remember, the classical liberals are the same folks who let more than a million Irish starve to death rather than inconvenience the markets.

      And this brings us back to the point of the post, which is that words evolve and don’t always have the absolute, fixed meanings we want them to have. Today, we associate “neoconservatives” with the Right and with Republicans. But if you go back to the original neoconservatism of the 1960s and 1970s, most of the original guys were New Deal liberals and Democrats; a few were socialists and Trotskyites. Yes, really. Look it up. The neoconservative movement formed on the old left originally as a pushback against the New Left, which at the time was trashing the New Deal coalition and getting associated with Marxism.

      As I said in the post, Cold War liberals often were a hawkish crew who favored military intervention, often more than they should have (see, for example, the Truman Doctrine, which wasn’t necessarily wrong). Before World War II, conservatives tended to be isolationists and liberals were more likely to want to intervene to help Britain and France and other countries being overrun by Nazis. That got scrambled after World War II because of the Red Scare, when right-wingers wanted to nuke China. But liberals, especially after being accused of “losing China” by the Right, were hardly pacifistic.

      Like most Cold War-era liberals before Vietnam, the original neocons were not at all averse to using military intervention to fight Communism or anything that sorta kinda looked like it. But after Vietnam, that view was more welcome in the Republican Party than in the Democratic Party. So they evolved into right wingers who favor limited government and bombing the Middle East to save Israel. While they do pay lip service to right-wing social conservative issues, one gets the impression they aren’t that committed to them and are just going along to be team players.

      Especially after the Nixon and Kissinger years we have tended to associate hawkishness with conservatism, but as I wrote, that’s a relatively new development and possibly a temporary one.

      So it isn’t that impossible to hold views that are both neoliberal and neoconservative. To somewhat different degrees both “neos” like free trade and free markets, and both “neos” are quick to favor hard-line military solutions for foreign problems. Neocons often talk up individual liberty as well, although they are not likely to go up against the Republican mainstream on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion.

      Update: I want to add that Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whom we remember as a New Deal liberal associated with the Kennedy Administration, is considered a founder of neoconservatism as well. Comparing Moynihan and Clinton might be a useful exercise now, but I don’t have time to do it myself.

    • I want to add also that Teddy Roosevelt was very much a social liberal *for his time.* There wasn’t any movement toward giving nonwhites equal rights in those days, I don’t think. The “social liberal scale” is not a rigid, fixed thing but changes over time, and it wasn’t very enlightened in that regard in TR’s day. But I have said before that Teddy’s New Nationalism speech of 1910 laid the foundation for all 20th century American liberalism, and I stand by that.

  9. @Joel Dan Walls

    Clinton is a neoliberal (oligarchic grifter) economically and a neocon (warmongering useful idiot for the rightwing crazies) on foreign policy. She manages to combine the least appetizing features of a profoundly corrupt elite with remarkable ease.

    One of the more pointed ironies of this primary has been the spectacle of the internet “liberals” who were calling Clinton a corrupt racist in 2008 suddenly discovering that the real racist in the Democratic caucus all along was … Bernie Sanders! As for the vile things that they are saying about Sanders’ wife.. well, let’s just say that they sure don’t look like any sort of advertisement for feminism. I never thought I could feel such intense disgust and contempt for the Democratic party, but I am done with them for good.

  10. Thanks for the Quote from Simone Weil. (She and Maha would make a great team!)

    I am just waking, so my mind is even fuzzier than it is normally. Two things popped into my head. “The Allegory of Love,” by C. S. Lewis treats the subject of the decline of myth into allegory, that, some reading of European history after the Roman Empire and some glimpses into the nature of the “Medieval” mind are really beautifully encapsulated in the quote.

    The other thing is that as a child and adolescent, I was far more inclined to view the world in terms of absolutes. (I assume that most children have the same limitation.) Some of us grow out of that stage to one degree or another. We find a comfortable place along the way from a world of abstractions and absolutes, to a world of mixtures and shapeshifters. The world in flux and its complexity is very challenging, so even the most determined among us simplify it. Most of us, settle in somewhere and rise occasionally to pick away at the illusion. “That’s the way life is on this bitch of an earth.”

    I’ll shut up now. I think I need another coffee. Obviously.

    As I have said before, it is very possible to be intelligent, logical and simple minded. That’s how Randians were born.

  11. I just checked Wikipedia regarding Simone Weil. I was completely ignorant of her work and fascinating life. Sometimes the world gives us a gift.

  12. My brain feels refreshed, and thank you, Yinshi, for the quotation. I renew my complaint that there is no “like” button here, as the one on FB is not enough.

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  14. Spent 2 days in the Adirondack mountains. Teddy R did a lot to preserve the beauty and majesty.
    We were just talking about him and his wild ride to get to Buffalo.
    Great article.

  15. I’ll be saving this one. For some reason a phrase I once read came to mind: “Bias is a strategy for conserving cognitive resources” – wonder where that one came from… ;). Too much fat, drunk and stupid out there. I blame McDonalds. And the Faux news.

    But more seriously, I’m curious about what motivated Teddy to move in his direction. I have many rational reasons why I moved towards liberal. But the emotional driver seems most central and that one involved a personal trauma which conservatism had far fewer answers for. But maybe that’s just how my own mind operates. I’m curious about what happened to Teddy that made him so “Bully!” I can see how the will to live a strenuous life can lead to an integrity which one may wish to see in others. But what led to that?

    • Bill — Teddy Roosevelt is a genuinely fascinating character. I read a biography of him that I think was the Nathan Miller one; not swearing to it. Fascinating guy; a lot about him to be admired. He had his blind spots too, of course, as we all do.

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