Pinker and progress
For two hundred years after the mid-eighteenth century onset of the Enlightenment, political orientations have been characterized as “reactionary,” “conservative,” and “progressive.” Reactionaries wanted to turn back the clock to a timeless, pristine Arcadia of their own imagining in which all was right with the world. Conservatives sought to defend the present—the “status quo”—as the best of all possible worlds. “Progressives” (in France, “progressistes”) were, as the term suggests, the party of progress and hence of the future. “Liberal” fit less easily into this past/present/future trichotomy. The term has also been something of a “floating signifier,” as it has meant rather different things in different settings. In the more statist European context, capital-L “Liberals” argued for less state and more freedom from its heavy hand; in the more traditionally anti-statist American milieu, in contrast, “liberal” came to mean “statist” in regard to dealing with social problems—almost...
Thanks to David Abraham and David Swartz for comments on an earlier version of this essay.