Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Difference Between "Liberal" and "Progressive"

Wisconsin Public Radio this morning featured a discussion with David Sirota about a recent article Sirota posted on HuffintonPost concerning the difference between "Liberals" and "Progressives" from an economic policy standpoint. The distinction Sirota was attempting to draw is really independent of the labels used but made a fascinating point about how the federal government uses tax revenue.

A liberal approach to government programs, Sirota says, can best be summed up by the old adage "tax and spend". The example of this thinking that Sirota sites is Illinois Senator Barack Obama's recent Health to Hybrid Initiative, which rewards domestic automakers who agree to sink R&D money into developing hybrid technology by subsidizing their rising health care costs. Both are important goals to achieve and the methodology is sound on its face, but what it essentially amounts to is a government subsidy being paid to a major corporation to help mitigate poor fiscal management.

In Sirota's view, a progressive approach would be to use the regulatory power of the government to force companies like the automakers to enact better fuel economy standards and push towards hybrid technology. This would accomplish the same goal without advancing a taxpayer-funded subsidy as incentive; basically choosing the figurative stick over the carrot. Sirota also points out that such regulatory restrictions would help boost demand for hybrid technology and help create new markets for related industries.

I find it fascinating that Sirota has drawn this sort of distinction between the two terms, though I would argue that, where political rhetoric is concerned, "liberal" and "progressive" are generally interchangeable. I also like the way he demonstrated that the right side of the aisle is just as guilty for "liberally" giving of government largesse; the only difference is that, via legislation such as the Energy Act, the "welfare dollars" are going to major corporations instead of U.S. citizens.

Choosing whether to be a liberal or progressive is like choosing between a single-malt scotch and a fine anejo tequila, though as stated in his article, I think Sirota's conceptualization of progressive economic policy is a good one. It demonstrates one unfortunate similarity between the Democratic and Republican parties: they both tend to rely on corporate donations to fund campaigns. While this continues to be the case, the Democrats are going to be hesitant to introduce legislation that curtails the rights of corporations.

Republicans, of course, are a lost cause where business concerns are involved. They will seek sanctuary in their favorite religious ideology: the Free Market. The basic idea of "The Free Market" is that businesses should be free to act in whatever way is most profitable, free from government interference. Of course, there are, quid pro quo, a few exceptions, such as: government subsidies, tax breaks, protection from liability lawsuits, government bail-outs due to fiscal irresponsibility, mercantile protections for major industries in "red" or "swing" states and so on. "Free Market" rhetoric is, in reality, just another boondoggle, like the "death tax", that Republicans use to get low- and middle-class conservative voters to support legislative initiatives that have nothing to do with them. Sadly, they work only too well.

The final point that Sirota makes on this distinction is its potential to swing conservative voters away from the True Believers of the "Free Market" faith. Americans are almost united in their belief that government does not spend money responsibly and a more regulatory approach to economic policy could help allay those fears. It also begins to loosen the death grip that moneyed interests hold on our political system and begins to hold corporate entities responsible for their role in American society. It's a brilliant new way to frame the debate between the two parties and could be a very effective tactic in reaching a public fatigued by Republican obeisance to corporate interests at the expense of effective governance.

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