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Liberal Label Gives Way To Progress(ive)

George Lakoff is a linguist and cognitive scientist at UC Berkeley.
George Lakoff is a linguist and cognitive scientist at UC Berkeley.

George Lakoff is a professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley who has used his skills to help the Democratic Party frame issues to their advantage. I got him on the phone in my attempt to solve one of the day’s great linguistic conundrums.

Liberal Label Gives Way To Progress(ive)
Left-of-center politicos lean toward “progressive” label to cast off liberal baggage.

"Now, you're a liberal, right?” I asked him.

“I'm a progressive," he corrected me.


Political labels are blunt instruments. But we all use them. And there’s been a lot of disagreement about what to call people who are left of center. Are they liberals or progressives?

People who work in journalism shy away from using the labels that politicians and advocates use to describe themselves. The problem is they typically choose words that lend them a righteous glow but are also partly or wholly inaccurate. “Progressive” seems to lend political views a too-positive spin. After all isn’t everyone, including Rush Limbaugh, in favor of progress?

First lets deal with “liberal.”

One problem with the word is what many describe as a successful campaign by conservatives to sully it. Lakoff said the conservative attack on the word goes back to the Nixon campaign for president in 1967, when they coined the phrase "liberal elite."

"And the 'liberal elite' was the idea that the tax-and-spend liberals would take your hard-earned money and waste it on people who didn't deserve it,” he said. “They looked down on working people. They were the sushi-eating liberals."


Lakoff said a progressive, to him, is someone who believes that people should care for each other, and government services should be an expression of that care. Asked whether journalists should avoid use of the word, he said no, because there are no words that can objectively describe political tendencies.

"It's not the case that there's a neutral notion of progress, nor is there a neutral notion of old values. The ordinary non-political words of conserving and progress don't apply," said Lakoff.

But I didn't have to take his word for it.

"If you want to know the history of these things, the best person to ask is right there in San Diego. My brother!"

Sandy Lakoff is professor emeritus of political science at UC San Diego. He said the word progressive, viewed over a hundred-year history, refers to a reform movement embodied by Teddy Roosevelt and the women's suffrage movement.

Liberalism, meanwhile, was not left wing. Far from it. Historically, it's the notion that people should be free from government interference… more like modern libertarianism. But Lakoff said during the 20th century the term evolved to mean that liberals were fans, not of Teddy, but of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

"In this country it meant New-Deal liberalism, if I can put it that way, or the extension of progressivism to include a major role for the state,” said Sandy Lakoff.

George Will is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
George Will is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.

Like his brother, Sandy is a Democrat. The same is not true of columnist George Will. Before I spoke to Will, I expected him to dislike the term progressive as it applies to those left of center.

"Well, I'm certainly not favorable to the progressive viewpoint,” said Will, “but I do think progressive is the preferred label because it's more accurate."

Will does not see "liberal" as a word that was demonized by conservatives. He said so-called liberals themselves undermined it with their wrongheaded policies. Meanwhile, he said "progressive" accurately describes an enduring political movement that binds Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama.

"The point of progressivism was that we were to make progress up from and away from the founders. That's what they defined progress as… getting over the limited government doctrines of the natural rights philosophy of the first two paragraphs of the declaration of independence," said Will.

But doesn't "progressive" make the people on the left sound too good?

"If they really think that because everyone like progress and therefore using the word…,” Will said, trailing off. “I mean that's the sort of thing the George Lakoff considers clever but I don't think it's a very durable advantage!"

Sandy Lakoff adds that the word liberal, despite its baggage, won't be banished from the American language. We may be ambivalent in our understanding of it, but he said our love of liberty should make all Americans liberals.