Image of a factory worker.
Image of a factory worker.

Progressive liberalism is a strain of thinking that has influenced social and economic policy in the United States. Although the terms "progressive" and "liberalism" are often used synonymously, the historical origins of these ideologies suggest that they are different but related. Progressive liberalism is a form of liberalism that focuses on generating social change, often through regulating the private market.

History of Progressivism

Progressive liberalism has its roots in the early 20th century Progressive Movement, which spanned both major American political parties. Republican presidents like Theodore Roosevelt joined Democrats like Woodrow Wilson in believing that government could help ease social distress. This resulted in major policies such as the Pure Food and Drug Act, the Meat Inspection Act, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and laws to protect workers. All of these laws used government authority to actively regulate the free market to correct problems perceived to be social ills. Even during the Progressive Era itself, Benjamin Parker DeWitt's 1913 book, "The Progressive Era," defined progressivism along these terms, saying it was tied to a belief that government could relieve "social and economic distress."

Definition of Liberalism

Liberalism shares with progressivism a belief that government can actively correct social problems. According to David Sirota, liberalism focuses more generally on using government money to solve social problems. For example, liberals would create a program that provides government money to college students as college tuition prices rise, and programs like these include federally subsidized student loans and federal grants. Liberalism tends to work in tandem with a free-market society, rather than regulate the existing society to create change. Compared to the early Progressive Era of the 20th century, the later New Deal Era -- which created large, expensive government programs -- was rooted more in liberal ideology than progressivism, according to liberal website Daily Kos.

Progressive Approach to Liberalism

Progressivism liberalism is a subset of liberal ideology that supports regulating private entities to solve social problems. Like liberalism, progressivism believes that government spending on social programs can generate social good. In the case of high college tuition, for example, progressives would support funding government programs such as federal student loans and grants. In addition, however, progressives would support regulating private loans to college students to bring lending prices down. This aspect of progressivism -- support for regulation of private industry -- is what distinguishes the ideology from mainstream liberalism, according to David Sirota.

Capitalism and Progressive Liberalism

Though progressivism and liberalism are often synonymous in colloquial political speech, progressivism was historically more skeptical of capitalism than traditional liberalism, according to Erich Rauchway of "The New Republic." Progressives of the early 20th century, for example, championed experimental policies that were meant to usher in a new economic order distinct from both capitalism and socialism that was sometimes called "welfare capitalism." Progressives focused -- and continue to focus -- on redistributing income to encourage social equality, and on limiting the power of money in politics. Non-progressive liberalism, on the other hand, thinks within the bounds of capitalism, and often supports policies that work in tandem with the capitalist market, such as increased military spending or financial stimulus programs.