Blog #81c – From Clinton Liberal to Sanders Progressive Responses

 Blog #81c – From Clinton  Liberal to Sanders Progressive Responses

Hillary Clinton’s over-all approach could be seen as a major example of the liberal approach  to inequality, (see Blog #81b), and  Bernie Sanders’ could then be seen  is well on what might be called  the progressive side of liberal, although  stopping short of something more radical (see Blog #81d, forthcoming.). The Liberal and the Progressive share most of the same values, but differ in their political approaches, which I believe leads also to differences in the analysis used to undergird them. The Clinton Liberal approach aims at forming a broad coalition that would move towards consensus by minimizing areas of disagreement and conflict, seeking a practical majoritarian compromise on the liberal side of key disputes. The Sanders progressive approach is more confrontational, seeking a more populist base, and accepts the necessity to confront sharp clashes of interest in achieving its objectives.

Strategically, the Clinton liberal position hopes to avoid direct and painful confrontation with the prevailing structures of power, and hopes to redress unjust inequalities in the system through progressively oriented accommodation with those in power; on the radical side of progressive, the Sanders position is willing to attack the holders of power directly in moving towards the goal of reducing inequality. The liberal view focuses on lifting the lower 99%; seeing redistribution from the top 1% as a simply a means to that end; the progressive view also addresses the disparity between the 1% and the 99%, but sees it as per se unjust and needing redress at both ends. Higher taxes on the rich are seen as a means to help the poor, in the liberal view; in the progressive view, they are also seen as a way of remedying a fundamental unjust inequality. Whether the difference in political strategy leads to a difference in in analysis, or vice versa, in not an easily resolvable or particularly useful debate.

The Progressive response thus accepts the liberal proposals but goes further. It sees gross economic inequality, measured in terms of wealth and income, as being per se unjust. It agrees that poverty should be addressed, but sees poverty as requiring redistribution from the rich to the poor. Higher taxes on the rich are needed not only to keep the middle class safely in the middle and the poor above harmful poverty, but they are also needed  because the extreme wealth of the rich is itself unjust, unjustly acquired by inheritance or exploitation or oppression or pure luck, and it is socially just to reduce it. The quantitatively measured  inequality that we see today is wrong not only because it means the poverty of the poor at the bottom but also because it is linked to the immoral power of the rich, with the top 1% now controlling more wealth than all the bottom households (the bottom 50% or more; the figures vary) taken together. The wealth of the 1% needs to be used to achieve a just and sustainable equality.

Revolution is called for by some progressives, including Sanders, but on the political side as reforms to the electoral processes, and in the end the called-for measures on the two sides differ more in language and in extent than in basic values. A higher minimum wage is supported by both, although both implicitly agree that it can not be so high as to interfere with a reasonable profitability for businesses or entrepreneurship. Abolition of the wage relationship is not suggested by either, nor a recasting of the governmental role in the economy. Public regulation is seen on the liberal side as basically an undesirable necessity to be limited as far as possible; on the progressive side, it is accepted as inevitably needed and an extension of democracy. Redistribution is centrally involved in both; higher taxes are the conventional means to that end. Exploitation is inevitable, but can be moderated. Non-economic unjust inequality is wrong, but a large part of that inequality will disappear if economic inequality is addressed. Everyone in society will not agree to that solution; the rich will object to supporting the poor at their expense. Liberals believe it can and should be reasonably compromised; progressives see consensus as thus not likely, unanimity not achievable; conflict as inevitable

To generalize, the liberal response seeks to address quantitatively measured inequality at the distribution end, after it has been created in the economy, and sees such change as feasible through the existing political processes. The progressive response to quantitatively measured inequality is to address its unjust production in the economy, but within the basic structures of the existing economy, and sees political revolution as the necessary path to undermine that unjustly created inequality.

A radical response would go even further, and seek fundamental changes in existing economic structures. Since such changes do not seem to be imminent in most of the world today, a transformative approach might be a realistic way forward today (See #blog81 d and e , forthcoming).


This blog is one of a set of five dealing with Unjust Inequality:

Blog #81a: What’s the Problem? Not Just Inequality

Blog #81b: Inequality: What’s the Answer? Economic or Racial? Conservative or Liberal-Clinton?

Blog #81c – From Clinton Liberal to Sanders Progressive Responses

Blog #81d – Inequality: A Radical Response

Blog #81e. – Towards Transformative Approaches to Unjust Inequality.

4 thoughts on “Blog #81c – From Clinton Liberal to Sanders Progressive Responses

  1. Your distinction between “liberal” and “progressive” is important to make as is the distinction between what you call “progressive” and more “radical” approaches. Different people may use different terms (for instance, I would prefer the term “centrist” to “liberal” and the term “leftist” to “radical” (which can refer to rightists as well), but that’s semantic. What I am unclear on is what you refer to as a “transformative approach” in the last paragraph which seems to be somewhere between “progressive” and “radical” (or “leftist”). Hopefully the term will be clarified in your forthcoming piece.

    1. Right. The terms you suggest are substantively equivalent; mayne the passage of time will see which is more widely used.
      I hope the discussion on Blog 81e clarifies the “transformative” idea…


  2. This is an analytically sophisticated, succinct, well-argued summary of the forces involved in the issues that preoccupy anyone who is concerned with political issues. Thank you, Peter.

    A lucid account like this makes writing look easy, but it isn’t.

    Christopher Leo

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