Over at MyDD, Chris Bowers gets the new year rolling with a post about the gradual displacement of “liberal” by “progressive” as the key self-identifier of Americans on the left and center-left of our political system. Chris’ history lesson on the subject is basically sound if a bit incomplete. He’s correct in saying that late-nineteenth century Democrats (at least up until the fusion with Populists in 1896) were “liberal” in the European sense of favoring laissez-faire economic policies; there’s a good reason that ur-libertarian Ayn Rand regarded Grover Cleveland as the beau ideal of American political history. But they did not always think of themselves as such, given their espousal of states-rights and constitutional strict-construction doctrines; regular southern Democrats in particular called their party “conservative” through most of the nineteenth century.Likewise, “progressive” was not universally used as the self-identifier of the center-left prior to the New Deal. The term was often used by business interests who thought of advanced capitalism as a historically determined trend. And many Populists, who often argued they were restoring a pre-capitalist Jeffersonian political order, certainly didn’t embrace the label of “progressive,” either. Chris is spot-on in noting that “progressive” became tainted by its association with the pro-communist (or at least anti-anti-communist) Left, especially in 1948. And he’s also right in acknowledging that the revival of the “progressive” self-identification occurred almost simultaneously in two very different parts of the Democratic Party in the 1990s: the anti-war, anti-corporate, anti-establishment Left, and the New Democrat movement in the center-left. I have one quibble with Chris’ suggestion that New Democrats started using the term “progressive” (most notably with the establishment of the Progressive Policy Institute in 1989) “as a means to avoid being labeled as ‘liberal.'” That suggests the terminology was purely cosmetic and non-ideological. In fact, the early New Democrats argued that “liberalism” had become temperamentally reactionary, consumed with defending the dead letter of every single New Deal/Great Society program and policy, while sacrificing the spirit of innovation that made “progressives” progressive. The whole international “Third Way” phenomenon was not designed to produce a moderate middle-point between Left and Right, but instead a reformulation of the progressive mission of the center-left at a time when the Right was successfully battening on popular discontent with outworn social democratic programs. That’s why many of us from the New Dem tradition heartily dislike the “centrist” or “moderate” labels, even though they are hard to escape as a short-hand for intra-party politics. (I could, but won’t, go off into a digression about the unusual nature of the American left, which never even flirted with Marxism, and never really embraced European-style democratic socialism, despite some social-democratic features of the Populist program and the New Deal).As for Chris’ ultimate question about the advisability of “progressive” as a unifying, if not always clarifying, self-identifier for the American left and center-left, I’m certainly comfortable with the P-word as opposed to the L-word. Outside the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom (and perhaps to a very limited extent, Germany), the term “liberal” is invariably associated with the political right, while “progressive” has begun to replace “social democratic” as the preferred general term for the left and center-left (the latter process being hastened by the collapse of communism). A particular irritant in any transnational discussion of political terminology has been the variable meaning of the term “neo-liberal,” which outside the US denotes the Thatcher-Reagan revival of the political right based on dogmatic market capitalism, while here it lingers as the chosen self-identifier for those proto-New Democrats of the 1980s associated with the germinal thinking of the Washington Monthly in those days, which reached its brief zenith in Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential campaign. Even if “progressives” often disagree on a host of issues, the term reminds us of our common moorings in a tradition that is hostile to inherited or state-backed privilege, committed to equal opportunity, cognizant of the ultimate solidarity of all human beings, and determined to both accept and shape the forces of change through collective action. That’s why I’m a progressive, anyway.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
After absorbing a lot of Democratic gloom-and-doom about the midterms, I offered some silver lining at New York:
The 2022 midterms don’t look great for Democrats, who will try to buck history by hanging on to super-slim congressional majorities. Thanks to the particular lay of the land, Democrats have a decent chance of maintaining control of the Senate. But the House? Not so much: The two times since the New Deal when the president’s party won net House seats in a midterm (1998 and 2002), the president in question had sky-high job-approval ratings. Even if you believe Joe Biden’s plunge in popularity has been stemmed or even turned around a bit, he’s not going to have 60 percent-plus approval in November 2022 unless really crazy things happen. There’s just too much partisan polarization for that these days.
Thankfully for Democrats, even if they lose their congressional majorities next year, Biden himself won’t be an underdog for reelection in 2024. After all, the last two Democratic presidents were reelected after historically terrible midterms. Democrats lost 54 U.S. House seats in 1994 and 63 in 2010. Yes, they had bigger majorities going into those elections than Democrats have now. But they lost the national House popular vote by an identical 6.8 percent in both midterms, which is pretty bad, particularly since Democrats suffer from a voter-inefficiency problem in House elections (too many voters concentrated in too few districts).
It’s possible for a president’s party to lose a midterm so badly that bouncing back in the next cycle is all but impossible. Consider the man whose unique comeback accomplishment Donald Trump will be emulating if he runs in 2024, Grover Cleveland. The president Cleveland defeated in an 1892 rematch, Benjamin Harrison, was a Republican whose party lost an incredible 93 House seats in the 1890 midterms. This, mind you, was at a time when the House had only 332 members, which means the GOP lost over half their caucus in one cycle (an even worse percentage than in 1894, when Democrats lost a record 125 House seats during the midterm after Cleveland’s comeback triumph). In this era of polarization, nothing like that is going to happen to Democrats in 2022.
Looking more broadly at the power of incumbency, there have been 13 sitting presidents since World War II who were on the general election ballot. Nine of them won. The four losers all faced special circumstances. Gerald Ford had not previously been elected to anything more than the U.S. House; he ascended to the vice-presidency and then the presidency when disgraced predecessors resigned, and he pardoned the president who appointed him, the especially disgraced Richard Nixon. Jimmy Carter was caught up in a historical realignment that he had held off four years earlier by carrying his native South, which then resumed a massive Republican trend. George H.W. Bush suffered from a terrible economy but then also a party split (third-party candidate Ross Perot won a lot of previously Republican voters). And we all know about Donald J. Trump, who was impeached twice and seemed determined to offend swing voters.
In retrospect, what’s most remarkable is that Ford and Trump very nearly got reelected despite their handicaps, exhibiting not the weakness but the strength of incumbency. And it’s with that perspective that any early handicapping of a potential 2024 rematch should be considered. Trump benefited from incumbency in 2020, as will Biden in 2024. So the idea that the 45th president has some built-in advantage over the 46th — absent the renewed election coup so many of us fear — doesn’t make a lot of sense.