First, for the sake of convenience, let’s agree that liberalism and Progressivism mean essentially the same thing and thus share a common definition. Liberalism in general is a social/political movement for change away from the predominant, existing system or culture in question to something different. Our Founding Fathers would by that definition have been considered liberal by King George and the British aristocracy. President Lincoln would have been considered liberal in his day by most Americans, though the notion of emancipation was around in the time of the Revolution. Any philosophy calling for a significant departure from existing political or social norms could be considered liberal. Like conservatism, descriptions of liberalism depend upon one’s point of view. In a fascist state like North Korea, liberalism could mean a move toward greater liberty. Likewise, in the former Soviet Union, liberals there may well have been more closely aligned with American conservatives than liberals. Ayn Rand’s beliefs would certainly have been considered “liberal” in her native Soviet Union, but here in the United States they are associated with libertarianism and are at odds with liberalism in many respects.
The word “liberal” shares its root libre, (meaning free) with “liberty” and “libertarian”. But as liberty implies freedom with consequences, “liberal” connotes a freedom from consequences. Where the libertarians tend to seek freedom, but accept the consequences of their choices, liberals seek choice, regardless of consequence. There are then, subtle but important differences between liberals and libertarians. Take for instance a person who loves junk food: The Libertarian wants to eat junk food, and if they get fat, so be it. They accept the consequences and so have no one else to blame but themselves if they get fat. The liberal wants to eat junk food, and if they become fat, demand you not notice– or if you do, don’t dare hold a critical opinion of them, for the blame lays with the fast food joint that pushed the food on them.
Liberalism in general can be either a force for good or ill, depending on what political or societal change is being pursued, and what one is moving away from. So what is the problem with American liberalism? When one considers how and why America was founded, the answer becomes clear. The principles on which this country was founded were those of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. They were a direct response to tyranny meant to provide liberty and freedom for its citizens. Any attempts to move away from these principles more often than not point us back in the direction of a centrally controlled economy and serve to restrict those freedoms the Founders fought for.