Sunday, February 13, 2011


In his comment on my post on party insiders and outsiders, Greg Koger suggests that a better term for party "outsiders" might be "Progressives," in the early 20th century sense of the term. And yes, Greg's right, in that these party outsiders tend to embrace populism while bashing corporations, just as the original Progressives did. But this just reminds me how much I hate what's happened to the term "progressive" in recent years.

It's now very hard to find a Democratic politician who calls him or herself a liberal. When pressed, most will say they prefer the term "progressive." But there are two problems with this. First is that "progressive" already has a meaning in American politics. It refers to an early 20th century movement and party that was responsible for reining in corporations, extending the franchise to women, establishing direct democracy, creating a tiered federal income tax, etc. They also didn't like immigrants or the existing political parties of the time and creatinged some rather silly laws to address both. At any rate, it's a definable movement that still has relevance today. Schwarzenegger often refers to Progressive leaders like Gov. Hiram Johnson in his speeches, and proponents of things like term limits and campaign finance reform are basically adopting Progressive arguments in their advocacy.

Now, I recognize that languages and words evolve over time. "Federalist" doesn't mean today what it did 200 years ago, for example. But in this case, there's no real value in referring to those on the left as progressives. That's the second problem -- "progressive" in the modern definition conveys no information that "liberal" doesn't convey. Liberal politicians just want to be called progressive because the word liberal has become unpopular. I suppose in a few years, when "progressive" has become unpopular, some left-leaning politician will asked to be called a mugwump or something. But a) it won't contain any additional information, and b) it won't be true.


Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

The substance of the term "progressive" has definitely been re-defined.

One of the big elements of the progressive movement which has been entirely disavowed by the modern left was prohibition. Hostility to political parties in general and friendliness towards direct democracy were some other key components with enduring legacies particularly at the state and local level.

I think that modern progressives identify with the notion it is possible to secure social change through policies that amount to "social engineering" and the anti-corporate elements of the progressive movement in particular. Likewise, I think that progressives are trying to distance themselves, as much as anything from old ideas as the term "liberal" has developed a brand association with old ideas like the means tested programs of the LBJ era.

But, I given that Nate Silver is trying to capture populism (by his own account), I don't think it is too helpful to identify the axis he notes with early 20th century progressives. Progressives were technocrats. They believed in the power of "scientific" and "elite" ideas and policies to change people, rather than looking to the desires of the mob, without much regard to their substantive merit.

Rick said...

I pretty much agree that 'progressive' in contemporary use is a lame euphemism for 'liberal.' But just to muddy things up, wasn't 'progressive' used in the cold war era as a euphemism for hardline left?

And to REALLY muddy things up, my impression is that in most of the world 'liberal' does not mean center-left.

Anonymous said...

I gotta disagree with you here, Seth, though not sure I have the whatzit at this random moment of checking in on your blog to sensibly articulate why right now. I think we have to get outside the politics-as-party-organizations frame, though, to drill toward what is a genuine distinction. First shot goes something like:

1. As Andrew said, progressive today does refer to at least part of an historical tradition that resisted leaving questions of social good up to the so-called free market and wanted to design "smart" forms of government intervention to restrain corporate dominance and foster things like a great public education system (so, Dewey, et al). And, yes, it had some bizarre populist excesses, and it got coopted, technocratic, etc.

2. Progressive today is also a rhetorical and conceptual way of signaling "left of those spineless liberals in our own so-called party who say they believe in something like universal health care but won't in fact stand up for it when they're thinking about the next campaign." Progressive = not every goal can be bargained through concessions with the GOP and sometimes you have to be willing to take a stronger stand, like, I don't know, maybe in Wisconsin right now? (Or maybe not, don't know enough about the WI situation yet.)

2. Progressive also, in the MoveOn or Green or LGBT/Queer movement, say, is a way of sponsoring and signaling _extra-electoral_ social movement activity that aims to hold officeholders' feet to the fire on something.

3. I really believe someone like Rachel Maddow (herself a serious player in public rhetoric battles right now) is a progressive and not a liberal when it comes down to it. So, trying to think what factors designate that difference, but I think it has something to do with 1 and 2 above, and also with consistently "calling out" the behind-the-scenes marriages between politicians and corporate money, military strategy and ideology, racists and "patriotism," etc. You cannot do that in the same way within the electoral system.

4. "Progressive" can be to liberal Democrats as Tea Party can be to centrist Republicans?

All I got for now. Back to grading.

-Nancy Wadsworth

Seth Masket said...

Nancy, I still don't see any actual ideological distinction between progressives and liberals. From your description, it just sounds like "liberals" are simply people on the left who are insufficiently aggressive in pursuing their policy objectives, while "progressives" are more willing to follow through. So liberals and progressives believe the same things; progressives just have more spine.

Am I reading that right? If so, once again, there's no real distinction. Liberal just became a bad name, so no one wants to identify with it. People on the left today just say, "I'm not a liberal. Those guys were weenies. I'm a progressive!" But if the term liberal hadn't ever been debased, they'd still be calling themselves liberals.

On the other hand, are you saying that progressives are further to the left than liberals? If so, where do they disagree? Not on tactics or attitude, but actual policies?