I recommend and second Marty Peretz’ reflections on the replacement of the word “liberal” with the word “progressive” over at The Spine. … At a somewhat different level of abstraction: “progressive” as a concept is tied up with a partly-inchoate philosophy of history that I’d have thought long since discredited. It doesn’t share in Marxism’s rigid determinism; but it does always tell a story in which one’s own side in political disputes happens to be the side of the future and the march of events. That tied together the racist imperialism of the Progressive Era, its anti-constitutionalism, and its technocracy: we enlightened white Americans with university degrees and a sense of good order and planning will drag non-white people, the uneducated, the messy chaos of the economy, and an archaic governing structure based on archaic ideas on the limits of state action into the future. Liberalism as such doesn’t believe it will necessarily win. Liberalism a la Isaiah Berlin and Judith Shklar, and behind them figures like Montesquieu and Tocqueville, is deeply inflected with a sense that freedom might be precarious, and the humane and human accomplishments of liberal politics might be precarious. The liberal sense of history is not necessarily pessimistic, but it shares none of progressivism’s certainty.
Jacob’s jibes about racist imperialism aside (it wouldn’t exactly take much effort to drag up some of the more sordid bits from the history of classical liberalism), his argument seems to me to rest on a false comparison. When Jacob talks about progressivism, he talks about it as a political movement; when he talks about liberalism, he talks about it as a tradition within political theory. This rather predetermines his conclusions; if your political ideals are thoughtfulness, recognition of limits etc, it’s … unsurprising that political theorists are going to come out looking better than politicians and political commentators. If you set up a fairer comparison, say by contrasting whatever tendencies there are towards overweening triumphalism among progressive political commentators with whatever tendencies there are among soi-disant liberal commentators, I suspect you’d arrive at a quite different set of conclusions (there seemed to me to be rather a lot of liberal triumphalism about the march of history and dragging non-white people and archaic governing structures into the future going around a few years ago; I’m not hearing so much of it now for all the obvious reasons).