What’s a progressive, anyway?
The term has a long and unruly history, which I’ll be getting to. But the common-sense meaning of “progressive” is someone who is pretty darn liberal. In fact, you might even say that it signifies politics that are distinctly to the left of liberal. That, at least, has been the contemporary connotation of the word for as long as I’ve been following politics. Increasingly these days, the term is being dumbed down into utter meaninglessness.
Take, for instance, Thad Williamson’s curious and confusing In These Times piece, which praised Hillary Clinton’s selection of Sen. Tim Kaine as her running mate. In his article, Williamson minimizes the importance of ideology as a criterion for judging political candidates. Ideological considerations, he says, amount to little more than litmus tests that are “useless in making more complex judgments” about candidate quality. Yet at the same time, he refers to Kaine as “progressive” (a term he doesn’t define) and plays up Kaine’s record as supposedly “the most progressive governor in Virginia’s history.” Arguing that: a) ideology doesn’t matter much, but b) Tim Kaine’s “progressive” record is one of the reasons he’s such a swell candidate makes no sense.
Williamson is not alone; plenty of other liberals are twisting themselves into pretzels to declare Tim Kaine a progressive as well. But if we look at Kaine’s politics on a right/left spectrum, it’s clear that he is one of the more conservative members of the Democratic Party. His roll call votes for the 113th Congress (the most recent figures available) rank him as the 41st most liberal senator (out of 57 who caucus with the Democrats). And then there are his positions on a wide range of core progressive issues: Kaine has close ties to the financial industry and has supported policies such as anti-labor right-to-work laws, “free trade” measures like NAFTA and fast-tracking the TPP, destructive environmental practices such as fracking, and abortion restrictions like the Hyde Amendment and parental notification laws. (Since being pegged as Clinton’s VP, he has reversed course on right-to-work and the TPP.) That’s a picture that should raise alarm bells for those of us who actually are progressives.
So why are so many liberal writers so anxious to persuade us that, deep in his heart of hearts, Tim Kaine is, too, a progressive? Probably there’s a desire to exaggerate Kaine’s progressivism because Hillary’s own progressive bona fides are questionable. But mostly it seems that today, the progressive label has become little more than a marketing tool, a signifier deployed to distract us from that the actual content of the signified. How did we arrive at this sad state of affairs?
A little history is order. Like “liberal” and “conservative,” “progressive” has long been a contested term. The capital‑P Progressive movement, which emerged in the 1890s and flowered in the early 20th century, embraced science, modernity and the use of government to solve social problems. The Progressives supported a wide range of political causes, including antitrust laws, women’s suffrage, food and safety regulations, educational reform, the federal income tax and measures aimed at rooting out political corruption. But in addition to its left-wing social justice orientation, Progressivism also had a darker side. Some leading Progressives — such as Theodore Roosevelt, who unsuccessfully ran for president on the Progressive Party ticket in 1912 — supported ugly political projects like eugenics and imperialism.
Under different incarnations of the Progressive Party, the agrarian populist Robert La Follette and Henry Wallace also ran as third-party presidential candidates, in 1924 and 1948, respectively. By the time of Wallace’s candidacy, however, the Progressive Movement as such had died out, having been superseded by the New Deal liberalism of the 1930s and 1940s. But the association of Wallace and his supporters with the term progressive may have led to a shift in the word’s connotation. Wallace’s Progressive Party was at the leftmost flank of the American political spectrum. The party emerged as an alternative to the anti-communist Cold War liberalism that had taken hold in the aftermath of World War II. Unions, the government and other institutions were busy purging and blacklisting reds and fellow travelers; Wallace’s Progressives welcomed them. The party’s platform supported labor rights, attacked Jim Crow and accused Republicans as well as Democrats of being “the champions of Big Business.”
It seems that after 1948, progressive signified a politics that is leftier than merely liberal. Historian Beverly Gage has noted that around this time, progressive suggested something “more radical … to be a progressive was suddenly to be a ‘fellow traveler’.” The association of “progressive” with politics that are firmly to the left lingered for decades — that’s certainly how I remember the term being used in the 1990s. Think The Progressive (“peace and social justice since 1909”), a magazine with politics very similar to those of In These Times. There’s also the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Founded in 1991, the organization comprises only the most liberal members of Congress: over 70 House members and just one senator (who happens to be — you guessed it — Bernie Sanders).
But while the sense persists that progressive suggests a hard left politics that falls somewhere between liberalism and outright communism, the word has also been used to convey something more moderate. As early as the 1970s, liberalism was in bad odor, and some liberal politicians were adopting “progressive” as their preferred euphemism. Writer Rob Hager notes that Rick Perlstein’s book The Invisible Bridge recounts an early example of this strategy: when he ran for president in 1976, Rep. Mo Udall called himself a progressive, not a liberal. As reported in the Milwaukee Sentinel, Udall openly admitted that “progressive means the same thing as liberal,” but said he was dropping the liberal label “because it evokes unfavorable connotations on social issues and wasteful spending.”
Unlike Udall, the business-friendly Democrats who rose to power in the 1980s and 1990s had few ties to traditional liberalism. But they faced a similar problem: what should they call themselves? Many were allergic to identifying themselves with any political orientation at all. When he ran for president in 1988, Michael Dukakis claimed, “This election isn’t about ideology; it’s about competence” (and look where that got him). Clearly, these Democrats were centrists, but apparently no centrist ever likes to call himself one. How could they spice up their bland blancmange of an ideology by associating it with something cool? Initially, some of them accurately defined themselves neoliberals, but that label was quickly abandoned. “New Democrats” and “The Third Way” worked for a while. But slowly, “progressive” was becoming their preferred descriptor. Their adoption of the term reeked of bad faith, but it served a purpose: It’s a happy-talk kind of word that can help launder some really nasty politics. An early example of the co-opting of the term occurred in 1989, when the Democratic Leadership Council had the brass to name its think tank the Progressive Policy Institute.
So far as I can determine, Barack Obama was the first modern-day Democratic presidential nominee to identify as a progressive. Interestingly, he did so when left-wing activists criticized his rightward shift during the 2008 election campaign. Progressive must poll really well, because after Obama came the great stampede. Political figures such as Andrew Cuomo and Rahm Emanuel, not exactly the guys you’d invite to a meeting of your local Democratic Socialists of America chapter, have sworn up and down that they are progressives. Then there’s Hillary Clinton, who’s been running around describing herself as “a progressive who gets things done.” Note the condescension implicit in the phrase: so the rest of us are hapless pie-in-the-sky types who don’t get things done?
Clearly, Clinton’s self-characterization was meant, at least in part, as a diss aimed at Bernie Sanders. During primary season, Sanders and Clinton debated the question of who and what qualifies as progressive. When reporters asked Bernie whether Hillary is a “true progressive,” he replied, “I think, frankly, it is hard to be a real progressive and to take on the establishment in a way that I think has to be taken on, when you come as dependent as she has through her super PAC and in other ways on Wall Street and drug-company money.”
At a Democratic debate a few days later, Clinton was asked to respond. “I am a progressive who gets things done. And the root of that word, progressive, is progress,” she said. “A progressive is someone who makes progress.” Well, okay then.
Clinton’s tautological definition suggests that progressive has become a meaningless term devoid of ideological content; a signifier that signifies nothing in particular. In that sense, perhaps it is an apt descriptor after all for triangulating politicians like Tim Kaine and Hillary Clinton.