How to Talk About Ourselves

From blue states, we often hear the question, “Is it better to call yourself a liberal or a progressive?” From red states we’re asked, “Is it bad politics to call yourself a progressive when the jurisdiction seems conservative?” The answer to both is—say progressive.

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A poll by the Pew Research Center compared common ideological terms. It demonstrates that progressive is the most positive political label in America. Conservative is the second most popular political brand. Liberal is substantially less popular, probably because Americans think that a liberal favors the poor over the middle class.

In recent years, a number of political organizations have embraced the term progressive. In addition to Progressive Majority (our sister group), there’s Progressive Democrats of America, Progressive States Network and Progressive Change Campaign Committee. The slogan of the Center for American Progress is “Progressive Ideas for a Strong, Just and Free America.” And of course, there is no Liberal Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives—it’s called the Progressive Caucus.

 A few years ago, Lake Research Partners looked more deeply into voters’ feelings about the term progressive. They found that Democrats, Republicans and persuadable voters all like a progressive candidate better than a liberal one. The big advantage in the progressive label comes not so much from the Democratic base, but from conservatives and persuadable voters. In a race where both candidates are otherwise unknown, the progressive begins with an edge over the conservative, while in a similar race the conservative begins with an advantage over the liberal.

Even Republican pollster Frank Luntz has said to his opponents:

Don’t call yourself a ‘liberal.’ Call yourself a ‘progressive.’ It’s a smart move. In polling we did following the 2004 election, a generic Republican beat a generic liberal by fifteen points. But a generic progressive beat a generic Republican by two points. Same ideology. Different label. Different result.

And yet, progressive is not yet the ideal political label because most voters don’t really know what it means. Saying progressive doesn’t win the battle, but it makes voters substantially more willing to listen as you explain what you propose to do.

All of this makes sense. Progressive sounds positive because it comes from the word progress.  It gives the impression that progressives want to move forward, promote innovation and focus on the future—all popular ideas. Also, when progressive is compared side-by-side with conservative, we have an advantage because it sounds like pro versus con. On the other hand, the term liberal no longer benefits from the fact that it derives from the same Latin root as liberty and previously referred to laissez-faire policies. These days, nobody hears liberal and thinks of liberty—the word has lost its emotional center.

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .

Liberal 

Progressive

Why . . .

Liberal is polarizing. Too many negative stereotypes are connected to the term. If we call ourselves progressive, persuadable voters are more likely to keep an open mind and listen to what we say. Besides, we should be happy to be asked the question, “What is a progressive, anyway?” That gives us the chance to talk about our progressive values: freedom, opportunity and security for all.

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