I don’t like doing these type of posts, so I am going to approach this differently than most people might. Before I start, I have to present some basic definitions, because I will be working with words that people will attach meaning to which I do not intend.
First of all, I will be primarily using the term “progressive,” rather than liberal. There’s a few reasons for this, the first is that the post by Heathen Republican which inspired my decision to write this primarily uses the terminology “progressive,” except in its title. I can’t speak for why HR decided upon this change between the title and the bulk of his piece, but the fact that he titles one section “Progressive or Liberal Principles” would indicate to me that he equates them. Also, I think “progressive” carries ever-so-slightly less prejudice from the right and a fair bit less preference from the left. Finally, I just like the terminology, and why I like it will become evident in a moment.
Next, I will also be dropping the use of the term “conservative,” in favor of “traditionalist.” Again, I think “conservative” evokes far too many preconceived notions.
Now, those definitions:
Progressive: (adjective) a quality of seeking change for the sake of progress
Traditionalist: (adjective) a quality of preventing change for the sake of stability
Note: as you will see in a moment, not all change is progressive, nor is opposition to change always traditionalist.
While the post that inspired me to write this uses lists, I don’t think analyzing these two ideologies is best done through lists. I think comparing a list of principles supposedly espoused by each side would present false dichotomies that would only serve to expose my own prejudice for one side or the other. I also think it’s silly to imagine progressive and traditionalist ideology as being based on principles, but more on that later.
This is simply one of those times where the fullness of the issue can only be expressed (even partially) if they are examined in some depth, rather than in superficial bullet points. This is a shame, because I love making lists, but comparison of this kind would not do either side justice.
Which is a good place to start: justice. Each view believes in justice, but each view emphasizes very different aspects. The traditionalist view tends to focus on existing crime, while the progressive view often seeks to alter the idea of what constitutes a crime. As a result, someone supporting tradition often argues in favor of enforcing existing laws, while someone supporting progress seeks to add or eliminate existing laws.
It’s important to point out one unmentioned trait of traditionalism, which is the idea that some wish to “rollback” change. In this way, a supporter of tradition may seek to change what is currently the norm (the current “tradition”) to a previous one (an older or original tradition), and it is progressives who take the defensive and protect what has been established. In this instance, it is not “change” that is the true measure of whether a stance is progressive or traditionalist, but the intent and originality of the policy.
Getting back to justice… there is a component of justice which is quite useful for comparing traditionalist and progressive views: fairness. What a great and horrible word, “fair.” We’ve all been told, “Life isn’t fair,” and yet I suspect every one of us has taken some steps in our lives to make things more fair, not just for ourselves, but also for others.
Indeed, life isn’t fair, but we all dedicate ourselves in some way towards trying to make it more so. And why not? It’s not as though “fair” is aiming too high. Hell, if I had a meal at a restaurant, and I only thought it was “fair,” I probably wouldn’t even go back, so I think “fair” is a fair goal. Plus, rather than creating a dichotomy of whether a view is “fair or unfair,” one can easily see how two views are both fair, even if one is more fair than the other (which often depends upon priorities).
My goal here is not to say, “See, progressive and traditionalist ideologies are really working towards the same aim.” True, both of these sides think that what they do is “fair,” but each defines what is fair differently, then goes about achieving what they see to be fair in different ways. I never liked categorizing people, or really any attempt to encapsulate individuals into convenient little stereotypes (except as it pertains to humor), and yet here I am seemingly emphasizing a dichotomy of only two views.
There is a huge disparity between thought and people. This is why I defined and have only used “progressive” and “traditionalist” as adjectives, not nouns. I cannot point to a progressive or a traditionalist anymore than I can point to God or the Easter Bunny. Well… I can point to all four, but if I do, the finger is only pointing directly at my brain. They exist only in our minds.
It is infinitely important to remember that people are not defined by a label. I would go so far as to say a group of people can be defined, based on their actions, but as soon as you take an individual out of that group, that label will cease to mean as much. Why? Because individuals fail time after time at being neatly organized, categorized, and simplified. They don’t fall into perfect categories, nor do they follow strict, no exceptions principles.
Ultimately, this is why I don’t view principles as all that important for this discussion, because people don’t make decisions based on principles. People’s views are defined by what they found attractive, and to say that our minds are logical machines that are attracted to reason is a laughable proposition. Our politics are based on principles like who we love is based on an empirical analysis of a person.
People are jumbled ideological messes, yet when they are presented with a group of issues, most people will tend to fall squarely on one side of the familiar political spectrum. Even in the rare cases where someone has a semi-equal set of views on either side… the ideas themselves are on one particular side. Even “no action” or apathy will inherently favor the status quo (which may be traditionalist or progressive, as mentioned earlier).
I don’t want to spend more than one paragraph on how superficial and oversimplified the political spectrum is, so I want to point out that most people have no problem at all identifying as more left or right, with left being equivalent to more progressive and right more traditionalist. Every “moderate” or “centrist” I ever met actually leans heavily to one side; I assume they claim to be in the middle in order to appear unbiased, because they are embarrassed by their ideological kin, or simply out of ignorance or apathy.
I can’t be sure, but I assume one of two things to be happening. Either people are being formed by the ideological systems around them, or the ideological systems we have to work with are formed around deep-rooted attitudes within us. I can’t even pretend to guess which is the case, but the outcome in either instance is that while these ideologies are not necessarily cohesive in terms of principled stances, they are linked in that they reflect two different outlooks that exist within our society.
Earlier, I mentioned principles. Principles are highly overrated. By and large, a principle is a lofty truism stated when it is convenient to defend one view, and which is ignored when it contradicts another. Hence, traditionalists who are “pro-life” often have no problem with capital punishment or war, and may even cheer the idea of letting someone without health insurance die in a hospital untreated. On the other hand, progressives are “pro-choice” when it comes to abortion, but they think nothing of putting unnecessary barriers up when purchasing things like guns, cigarettes, or fast food kids’ meals with toys.
I think that people not only base their views on what they find to be attractive (in terms of their measure of fairness), but also that people may adopt a position based on being repulsed by another. This may introduce the situation where a person adopts a stance they are not very attached to, because it is the de facto socially-acceptable view in opposition to another, less desired stance.
With what I think are few exceptions, principles are arguments formulated or understood long after a view has been adopted. A principle may explain why a view is right, but unless you can demonstrate that your “principles” span the entirety of your ideology… it is not a principle, it is a justification for one idea. There no dishonor in that, but there is dishonesty in pretending you base your views on principles when you don’t.
There are many ideas I am tempted to say are “progressive” or “traditionalist,” but I don’t think there is any way of determining a definite difference yet. What is conservative in Norway can be very progressive by US standards, and likewise, there are polices that are quite readily accepted by conservatives in the US which would be radically liberal in the Muslim world. Determining time and place is important when discussing these labels, and for obvious reasons, as I proceed, I will be using the standard of America as it is today.
In this context, one of the primary differences in priorities between these two groups is the view of the individual. The progressive stance often aims for “positive liberty,” while the traditionalist stance often aims for “negative liberty.” Positive liberty is the freedom for every individual to have access to the resources necessary to reach their potential (therefore, requiring action), while negative liberty is the freedom from any external interference (generally requiring no action, except to enforce laws preventing individuals from interfering with others). There are exceptions, however, as when a conservative restriction is in place (like a ban on gay marriage). In such a case, when the tradition is restriction, and the progressive stance is to repeal it, then the progressive view is in support of negative liberty. Again, one can see that principles do not apply universally through the ideologies.
I could complicate matters by inventing “positive progressivism” as those ideas that wish to add to legislation, and “negative progressivism” which seeks to repeal legislation… but, no thanks.
Another useful way of looking at this is to consider breaking each ideology into social and economic spheres. There is inevitable overlap in these two, but it’s easy to see how a person may support the economic policies of one side and the social policies of the other, especially when you consider that much of progressive social policy supports negative liberty, as does traditionalist economic policy, and vice versa for traditionalist social policies and progressive economic policies (although it’s rare to find the latter in America, the first example might be considered a standard Libertarian).
Given the criteria I have provided, I hope it would be easy to see whether an idea was progressive or conservative within the system I presented (though I cannot for the life of me figure out why anyone would want to…).
So, I promised not to do a list… in this post. The list is in the works, and will be posted when I am satisfied that it is thorough. Also, this is a great opportunity to post this as is and to take criticism on any gaping holes I missed.