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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Progressives and Liberals

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.

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