The definitions of the terms “liberal” and “conservative” have been the subjects of much debate in contemporary American politics. But it has become increasingly clear that the term “progressive” is equally ambiguous, and is associated with at least two relatively distinct philosophical traditions. Although these two “progressivisms” share common ground on many (probably most) issues, they are at loggerheads on some others, as has perhaps become more apparent since the election of President Obama.
The first type of progressivism has its philosophical underpinnings in 18th Century, Enlightement-era thought. It believes that politics is a battle of ideas. It further believes that through the use of reason and the exchange of ideas, human society will tend to improve itself through scientific and technological innovation. Hence, it believes in progress, and for this reason lays claim to the term “progressive”. Because of its belief and optimism in the faculties of human reason, I refer to this philosophy as rational progressivism.