The very word “progress” is embedded in the term “progressive,” a label that has become ubiquitous in recent years as many on the left embrace it over its predecessor, “liberal.”
But a backlash has been brewing. Some thinkers on the left question whether embracing “progressive” implies a certain level of comfort with the idea that history is guided by a hidden hand and somehow moves in a way that makes each year better than the last.
The word came up in 2016 during a town-hall-format debate between Hillary Clinton, who would go on to become the Democratic nominee that year, and Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who describes himself as a “democratic socialist.”
Clinton said she was “a progressive who likes to get things done” — a sideswipe at Sanders, who was known in the Senate as someone who tended to prefer ideological purity over pragmatic compromise. She went on to say that she was “amused” that Sanders had “set himself up as the gatekeeper of who gets to be a progressive.” The discussion prompted a wave of coverage asking what, exactly, a progressive is.
Now, the term is everywhere. Last year, Danielle Kurtzleben of NPR found that more Democrats were embracing the label “progressive,” to the point where its use had nearly caught up to that of “liberal.” In 2018, when two scholars at the Brookings Institution tracked the number of challengers to establishment Democratic politicians, they found that the number of candidates identifying themselves as “progressive” was on the rise.
Along the way, the term’s meaning has become diluted. Candidates of all stripes on the left have begun using it, while news outlets have sometimes failed to be rigorous about how to apply it in their political coverage.
Michael Kazin, a historian at Georgetown University who recently published a book on the history of the Democratic Party, said the term was “spongy.”
Teddy Roosevelt — nobody’s idea of a leftist — identified as a progressive. During the Cold War, American communists often identified themselves as progressives “to obscure their actual politics,” Kazin said.
There was even a Progressive Party at the turn of the last century. Kazin noted that three vastly different candidates had run for president for the party: Roosevelt, Robert La Follette and Henry A. Wallace.
That sponginess might help explain the backlash. But for some on the left, there’s a deeper, more philosophical rationale.
The case against ‘progress’
Christopher Lasch, the historian and social critic, posed a banger of a question in his 1991 book, “The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics.”
“How does it happen,” Lasch asked, “that serious people continue to believe in progress, in the face of massive evidence that might have been expected to refute the idea of progress once and for all?”
How indeed. Lasch, a complicated, nuanced thinker who, before his death in 1994, influenced people as divergent as Barack Obama and Steve Bannon, was taking issue with a certain technocratic view of progress. A review in The New York Times Book Review by William Julius Wilson, a professor at Harvard, was titled: “Where Has Progress Got Us?”
Essentially, Lasch was attacking the notion, fashionable as Americans basked in their seeming victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, that history had a direction — and that one would be wise to stay on the “right side” of it.
Francis Fukuyama expressed a version of this triumphalist idea in his famous 1992 book, “The End of History and the Last Man,” in which he celebrated the notion that History with a capital “H,” in the sense of a battle between competing ideas, was ending with communism left to smolder on Ronald Reagan’s famous ash heap.
One of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most frequently quoted lines speaks to a similar thought, albeit in a different context: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Though he had read Lasch, Obama quoted that line often, just as he liked to say that so-and-so would be “on the wrong side of history” if they didn’t live up to his ideals — whether the issue was same-sex marriage, health policy or the Russian occupation of Crimea.
So, does history have a direction? This one seems pretty easy to debunk. Remember the Dark Ages? Before the Renaissance, European and Mediterranean societies went from being dominated by centralized, relatively advanced civilizations like the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans to one of squabbling feudal warlords.
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And every technological advance comes bundled with downsides. The Industrial Revolution gave us interchangeable parts, electricity and mass-produced cars, but it also midwifed weapons and ideologies that were responsible for some of the worst carnage in world history.
“Is the story of the 20th century about the defeat of the Soviet Union, or was it about two world wars and a Holocaust?” asked Matthew Sitman, the co-host of the “Know Your Enemy” podcast, which recently hosted a discussion on Lasch and the fascination many conservatives have with his ideas. “It really depends on how you look at it.”
So what’s the difference between a progressive and a liberal?
To vastly oversimplify matters, liberal usually refers to someone on the center-left on a two-dimensional political spectrum, while progressive refers to someone further left.
But “liberal” has taken a beating in recent decades — from both left and right.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, Republicans successfully demonized the word “liberal,” to the point where many Democrats shied away from it in favor of labels like “conservative Democrat” or, more recently, “progressive.”
In the 1988 presidential race, George H.W. Bush wielded “Massachusetts liberal” as a cudgel against Michael Dukakis; his son, George W., employed an identical attack line against John Kerry 16 years later. Obviously, the tactic resonated.
None of this was an accident. In 1996, Representative Newt Gingrich of Georgia circulated a now-famous memo called “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control.”
Distributed under the auspices of GOPAC, the political action committee that powered Gingrich’s rise from conservative backbencher to speaker of the House, the memo discusses the cassette tapes the group regularly shared with members coaching them on how to be more effective politicians, ostensibly in Gingrich’s mold.
“As the tapes have been used in training sessions across the country and mailed to candidates we have heard a plaintive plea: ‘I wish I could speak like Newt,’” the anonymous authors wrote.
“That takes years of practice,” they continued. “But, we believe that you could have a significant impact on your campaign and the way you communicate if we help a little.”
The memo goes on to list two sets of words: “Optimistic Positive Governing Words” and “Contrasting Words,” which carried negative connotations. One of the latter group was the word “liberal,” sandwiched between “intolerant” and “lie.”
The authors urged their readers: “The words and phrases are powerful. Read them. Memorize as many as possible.”
Republicans subsequently had a great deal of success in associating the term “liberal” with other words and phrases voters found uncongenial: wasteful spending, high rates of taxation and libertinism that repelled socially conservative voters.
Many on the left began identifying themselves as “progressive” — which had the added benefit of harking back to movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that fought against corruption, opposed corporate monopolies, pushed for good-government reforms and food safety and labor laws and established women’s right to vote.
Allies of Bill Clinton founded the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank associated with so-called Blue Dog Democrats from the South. At the time, it was a way to avoid the stigma of “liberal.” Now, scrambling the terminology, groups like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee agitate on behalf of proudly left-wing candidates, while the Progressive Caucus in the House of Representatives, led by Pramila Jayapal of Washington, try to push Democrats toward embracing more left-leaning policies.
Other critiques have come from the right over the years.
In 2014, Charles Murray, the polarizing conservative scholar, urged readers of The Wall Street Journal’s staunchly right-wing editorial section to “start using ‘liberal’ to designate the good guys on the left, reserving ‘progressive’ for those who are enthusiastic about an unrestrained regulatory state.”
Last year, Michael Shellenberger, a gadfly activist who ran for governor of California as an independent, wrote an essay called “Why I Am Not a Progressive.” In it, he argued that the New Left that rose to prominence in the 1960s had instilled “a victim ideology characterized by safetyism, learned helplessness and disempowerment” within the Democratic Party.
As Sanders and acolytes like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York have gained prominence over the last few election cycles, many on the left-wing end of the spectrum have begun proudly applying other labels to themselves, such as “democratic socialist.”
To little avail so far, Kazin, the Georgetown historian, has been urging them to call themselves “social democrats” instead — as many mainstream parties do in Europe.
“It’s not a good way to win elections in this country, to call yourself a socialist,” he said.
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