Pamela Paul on the problem with “progressives”

November 20, 2023 • 12:30 pm

I hate writing the word “progressives” when I refer to people like AOC and her squad, and especially to people like Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, whom I see as regressives, hoping for some form of Islamism to infect America. But the “progressives” are also regressive in not adopting the values of classical liberalism, including freedom of speech, unity instead of divisiveness, and the rejection of identitarian politics.  “Progressives” favor a form of gender activism that abrogates certain rights of women and, more important, are liable to engage in “cancel culture”. They are self-righteous, authoritarian, and not prone to compromise.

But the latest identifying marks of “progressivists” are their embrace of Hamas and the Palestinian cause, an animus towards Israel, and, as evidenced in calls for a cease-fire and an approval of BSD, an apparent indifference about whether Israel should even exist.

So no, I’m not a progressive but a diehard liberal, and, as Bill Maher says, I never moved to the right: the Democrats simply shifted way leftward.

This NYT op-ed by Pamela Paul, the former Sunday book-review editor for the paper, shows her credentials as a liberal, which in the NYT’s op-ed section, puts her almost on the Right.  Click on the headline; I also found it archived free here.

According to Paul, self-described liberals are increasing in number (17% of Americans in 1992 to 25% in 2021), though “still lower than the proportions of those who said they were ‘conservatives’ or ‘moderates’.” Progressives are less numerous, constituting constitute 6-8% of the population, but they are LOUD. And their ranks will grow as younger college students grow up and regurgitate the political pabulum they were fed in college.

Here’s how Paul distinguishes progressives from “normal” liberals:

In an increasingly prominent version of the progressive vision, capitalism isn’t something to be regulated or balanced, but is itself the problem. White supremacy doesn’t describe an extremist fringe of racists and antisemites, but is instead the inherent character of the nation.

Some aspects of contemporary progressivism look less like actual progress and more like a step in reverse. Whereas liberals hold to a vision of racial integration, progressives have increasingly supported forms of racial distinction and separation, and demanded equity in outcome rather than equality of opportunity. Whereas most liberals want to advance equality between the sexes, many progressives seem fixated on reframing gender stereotypes as “gender identity” and denying sex differences wherever they confer rights or protections expressly for women. And whereas liberals tend to aspire toward a universalist ideal, in which diverse people come together across shared interests, progressives seem increasingly wedded to an identitarian approach that emphasizes tribalism over the attainment of common ground.

More reactionary still is the repressive nature of progressive ideals around civil liberties. It is progressives — not liberals — who argue that “speech is violence” and that words cause harm. These values are the driving force behind progressive efforts to shut down public discourse, disrupt speeches, tear down posterscensor students and deplatform those with whom they disagree.

Divisions became sharper after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, when many progressives did not just express support for the Palestinian cause but, in some cases, even defended the attacks as a response to colonialism, and opposed retaliation as a form of genocide. (One might argue that it is similarly illiberal for universities to suspend or cut funding to student groups that support Palestinian rights, as several have done, though those actions often came after chants by the groups that administrators considered threatening toward Jews.)

All this stands in marked contrast to the liberal stance that more speech is better speech, allowing for the free exchange of ideas. As David Frum, not generally considered a liberal himself, wrote recently in The Atlantic, “how is a society ever to settle its most important questions if it follows the rule ‘The more important a question, the more strictly its discussion is forbidden’?”\

And, of course, the cancel culture:

. . . .This brings us to the most troubling characteristic of contemporary progressivism. Whereas liberals tend to pride themselves on acceptance, many progressives have applied various purity tests to others on the left, and according to one recent study on the schism between progressives and liberals, are more likely than liberals to apply public censure to divergent views. This intolerance manifests as a professed preference for avoiding others with different values, a stance entirely antithetical to liberal values.

What a strange paradox that at the very moment the word “liberal” is enjoying a renaissance, liberalism itself feels on the wane. Many liberals find themselves feeling lonelier than ever.

It only feels on the wane because progressives are so damn loud. Liberalism is increasing, but perhaps not fast enough to keep Trump from being reelected.  Here are the latest poll numbers from FiveThirtyEight; and they’re are damn depressing (click to enlarge)

As for the Presidential polls of Trump vs. Biden, Trump can’t lose for trying. Yes, this is within the margin of error, I think, but it’s way too close for me.


11 thoughts on “Pamela Paul on the problem with “progressives”

  1. We used to think of a continuum from Progressive, to Liberal, to Moderate, to Conservative—as if all were on the same line. But a significant fraction of today’s “progressives” are not on that line. It is no longer a continuum. Maybe Bernie Sanders progressives are still on the continuum, but there are others calling themselves progressives who, as Jerry writes, “are self-righteous, authoritarian, and not prone to compromise.” Perhaps we should call them something else.

    1. And a significant fraction of today’s “conservatives” are not on that line either. The further the edges get, the closer they become, and both edges have dangerous views. Though I am less afraid of a “woke” world than a “MAGA” world.

  2. I was so glad to see this piece when it appeared recently, I’ve been waiting for more focus on this topic. This distinction is becoming both increasingly conspicuous and very important. Obviously right-wingers have no inclination or incentive to distinguish between liberals and progressives, but I had hoped that the mainstream media might actually take note and start pointing out the distinction. As an “old school” liberal myself, I have gotten progressively, oops make that gradually, more frustrated with its failure to do so.

    As Ms. Paul notes, the terms “liberal” and “progressive” in the past often were used interchangeably, and in my younger days I frequently did so myself when referring to my own political views. No more.

    These terms now represent very different perspectives, differences that are in many cases utterly incompatible. In my view, today progressives are no longer really on the left of the political spectrum. They have moved away and now form their own hybrid niche in the political landscape. While apparently borrowing from certain liberal ideals, they have so badly distorted and subverted them, and infused them with a toxic authoritarian overlay, as to become something else altogether. In fact, as Paul notes, in many ways they now represent virtually the antithesis of liberalism.

  3. Hello Mr. Coyne,

    What do you think of Norman Finkelstein stand on this issue?

    He also had an interesting debate on Comedy Cellar:

    His view that there is an Israeli apartheid on Palestine has been reported on by Amnesty International, among others:

    1. My views on the situation is clear, and Finkelstin is a blithering moron to say that the butchered settlers brought it on themselves. I’ve discussed the apartheid issue before, and think that the Palestinians, not the Israelis, are builty of it. Amnesty International has a long history of being anti-Israel.

      You are clearly trying to bait me here. Here’s what the odious Finkelstein said:

      I could just imagine, speaking for myself, that if I were in a concentration camp like Gaza – and most of these folks, the Hamas militants in their 20s, were raised in that – I’d feel caged. Since Israel implemented the blockade [17 years ago], 99 percent of the people of Gaza have never left the territory. They’ve been trapped in that densely-populated hell hole – five miles wide, 25 miles long. Nobody’s allowed in, nobody’s allowed out. They’ve been trapped there for their whole lives. And as we saw on the weekend, when some of them break out of this hellhole, they see who they view as their incarcerators dancing at a music festival; they’re celebrating a holiday. I can imagine feelings of desperate hatred overwhelming me. I can’t say I wouldn’t be shocked.

      If you agree with him, you’re just as morally off the rails. Either you haven’t read this site or you’re trying to bait me, and I won’t be baited.

  4. What an excellent piece by Pamela Paul: short, simple, to the point. She reminds us of fundamental liberal ideals such as universalism, those things that bind humanity together as opposed to tribalism and identitarianism; and hope with an expectation of progress over time. The liberal mindset expects more speech and positive discussion. Thanks for the link! Like other commenters I grew up in a world where progressives were just to the left of liberals on a continuum. But suddenly, and I think the Bernie bros were a part of this as my wife came home from our state democratic conference a few years ago just distraught over the self-involved, nasty, loud behavior of the Bernie delegates…she was a Hilary delegate. This behavior has now taken a life of its own it seems and coopted the progressive label. In any case, enlightenment optimism and universality remain my guideposts.

    1. I was writing at a coffee shop earlier but am now home to my bookshelf, from which I strongly recommend Susan Neiman’s short book, “Left Is Not Woke” in which she devotes chapters to 1. Universalism & tribalism; 2. Justice & power; 3. Progress & doom.

      1. I read the title of her book as “The True Left Is Not Woke”, but there is no such thing as the True Left. Instead, there are several Leftisms (Socialisms), with the Woke Left being one of them. Its illiberal tendencies don’t make it part of the Right. We have already seen how authoritarian and even totalitarian leftism (socialism/communism) can become.

  5. The meaning of “progressivism” in US history: It was a “political and social-reform movement that brought major changes to American politics and government during the first two decades of the 20th century.
    Progressive reformers made the first comprehensive effort within the American context to address the problems that arose with the emergence of a modern urban and industrial society.…”


    For those who want to learn more about it:
    * Nugent, Walter. Progressivism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    “ABSTRACT: Progressivism: A Very Short Introduction offers an overview of progressivism in America — its origins, guiding principles, major leaders and major accomplishments. Progressivism emerged as a response to the excesses of the Gilded Age, an era that plunged working Americans into poverty while a new class of ostentatious millionaires flaunted their wealth. As capitalism ran unchecked and more and more economic power was concentrated in fewer hands, a sense of social crisis was pervasive. This VSI shows that the progressives — with the glaring exception of race relations — shared a common conviction that society should be fair to all its members and that governments had a responsibility to see that fairness prevailed.”

    1. David, I agree and support your views. Thank you for your articles. Regarding the corrupt Palestinian hierarchy Arafat gets off to easy. Working and living in Norway around the “Oslo accords” time my Norwegian colleagues and friends were almost universal of their disagreement with the Norwegian Governments involvement believing that they were naïve and were adamant that not a single Norwegian Krona should be placed at “ratafats” disposal. This was the common name for him at the time . He certainly was an international terrorist and even now it still amazes me that he got to live out his “retirement “ without it being brought forward!

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