Come out of the closet, liberals. Stop using the fashionable
euphemism "progressive" and relaunch the old, tarnished L-word.
By Michael Lind
Nov. 21, 2008
If the conservative era is over, can liberals come out of their
defensive crouch and call themselves liberals again, instead of progressives?
In the last two decades, Democratic politicians, including Barack
Obama, have abandoned the term "liberal" for "progressive." The
theory was that Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush --
and Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Pat Buchanan -- had succeeded in
equating "liberal" in the public mind with weakness on defense,
softness on crime, and "redistribution" of Joe the Plumber's
hard-earned money to the collective bogey evoked by a former Texas
rock band's clever name: Teenage Immigrant Welfare Mothers on Dope.
I've always been uncomfortable with this rather soulless and
manipulative exercise in rebranding, for a number of reasons.
Objection No. 1. Futility. It's not the name of the center-left that
the right objects to, but the policies and values. Suppose the
defeated Republican minority decided that it needed to rebrand itself
by replacing "conservatism" with "traditionalism." Would anybody on
the left or center be fooled, if traditionalism was defined by
exactly the same synthesis of free-market radicalism, anti-Darwinism
and support for a neoconservative foreign policy?
The center-left is going to be trashed by the right, whether the
right adopts one term or another. If conservatives continue to call
the new progressives "liberals," then the right wins, by implying,
correctly, that progressives are liberals who are ashamed to admit
what they really are. If, on the other hand, "liberal" becomes as
extinct as "Whig" and conservatives agree to use the term
"progressive," then what has the center-left gained? Nothing. The
same conservatives who formerly denounced liberals as tax-and-spend
appeasers would now denounce progressives as tax-and-spend appeasers.
What then? Would wimpy progressives then abandon progressivism and
hope to avoid the wrath of Limbaugh by disguising themselves with a
new alias -- reformists, or pragmatists? Your enemies will caricature
you, no matter what you call yourself.
Objection No. 2. Progressivism as neoliberalism. Some have sought to
distinguish progressivism from liberalism in content. This was the
project of the disproportionately Southern "neoliberals" like Bill
Clinton and Al Gore and Dave McCurdy and the Democratic Leadership
Council and Progressive Policy Institute in the 1980s and 1990s.
Instead of using the obvious term, "moderate" or "centrist," they
sought to co-opt the term "progressive," even though they weren't
very. In their analysis, liberalism was too identified in the public
mind with organized labor and big-city machine bosses like the first
Mayor Daley. They struggled and largely succeeded in creating a new
Democratic Party based among upscale suburban whites and financed by
the Industry Formerly Known as Wall Street rather than private-sector
Fine by me. While the New Democrats were too conservative for my
taste in some ways, a majority party has multiple factions or wings,
and in the late 20th century the only way that the Democratic Party
could grow was by appealing to centrists as well as liberals. If the
DLC had been granted exclusive franchising rights for the term
"progressive," then it would have meant simply the pro-corporate
right wing of the Democratic Party, whose left wing was pro-labor and
populist. We would then be speaking of conflict and also
collaboration within the Democratic coalition between liberals on the
left and progressives on the right.
Unfortunately, Democrats on the left insisted on calling themselves
progressive too. Instead of meaning a moderate Democrat, progressive
came to refer to any Democrat. So by the 1990s anti-labor, pro-NAFTA
progressives were battling pro-labor, anti-NAFTA progressives. Fiscal
conservatives who wanted to invade Iraq were progressives -- and so
were democratic socialists. The left, center and right of the
Democratic Party simultaneously gave up the name of the tradition of
FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson and Humphrey, all because Ronald Reagan
and Rush Limbaugh denounced liberals.
Objection No. 3. Progressivism as the radical left. What made all of
this even more confusing was the fact that the term "progressive,"
which center-right Democrats like Will Marshall of the Progressive
Policy Institute sought to capture, had been identified with Marxists
and other groups on the extreme left during the previous
half-century. If you were a progressive in the '30s and '40s, like
many supporters of Henry Wallace's Progressive Party, you were likely
to find redeeming qualities in the Soviet Union's social experiment
and to think that FDR was a pawn of the capitalists. If you were a
progressive in the '60s and '70s, you were likely to think that
Truman and Johnson were warmongering "corporate liberals" under the
control of the "military-industrial complex" and that the Democrats
and Republicans were indistinguishable. For the moderate and
conservative Democrats of the DLC to call themselves the new
progressives was the equivalent of moderate, secular Republicans
calling themselves the new fundamentalists.
At least the far-left progressives were honest. They genuinely
despised the mid-century American liberals, whom they viewed simply
as another species of bourgeois imperialists. This is another one of
the reasons I dislike the term "progressive." Why should I call
myself by the name preferred by deluded radicals who despised the New
Deal and the Great Society liberals I admire? Why share a label with
anyone who romanticized Ho Chi Minh or Fidel Castro?
Objection No. 4. The early 20th century progressives. Now that
"progressive" is widely used as a euphemism for "liberal," there is a
natural tendency to link the progressives of the early 2000s with the
Progressives of the early 1900s, like Woodrow Wilson and John Dewey.
The problem is that while the modern center-left is the child of
mid-century Roosevelt-Truman-Kennedy-Johnson liberalism, it is only
the grandchild -- or perhaps grand-nephew or grand-niece, twice
removed -- of the Progressives of the 1900s.
Hubert Humphrey, liberal, championed integration and federal
enforcement of civil rights. Woodrow Wilson, Progressive,
resegregated Washington, D.C. The Warren Court liberalized abortion
and censorship laws. The early 20th century Progressives campaigned
to outlaw alcohol and outlaw abortion and many of them favored
eugenic sterilization of the "feeble-minded." New Deal liberals
celebrated Americans of immigrant stock. Progressives like Woodrow
Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt were horrified by "hyphenated
Americans." Roosevelt and Truman inherited a disturbing progressive
fondness for executive prerogative but by the 1960s and 1970s civil
libertarianism and a renewed interest in checks on the imperial
presidency became part of the liberal tradition.
Today's center-left Americans can find a usable past in the liberals
of the New Deal and Civil Rights eras. They will search in vain for
philosophical ancestors among the snobbish, nativist, technocratic,
authoritarian, segregationist Progressives of the early 20th century.
Which leads me to:
Objection No. 5. It's too German. The term "progressive" entered
English from 19th century German politics. The first progressive
party in the world was the Deutsche Fortschrittspartei, founded in
Prussia in 1861 ("Fortschritt" means "progress"). The American
Progressives like Woodrow Wilson who translated the term into English
believed that Bismarck's Imperial Germany was superior in many ways
to the United States and Britain. They sought to graft German-style
bureaucracy onto what they considered to be an antiquated political
system crippled by 18th century Enlightenment notions of local
government and civil rights. In other words, they saw statist,
technocratic German progressivism as an advance beyond Anglo-American
The older Anglo-American tradition of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick
Douglass, of the Founders and John Locke, is called "liberal" with
good reason. "Liberal" comes from the Latin word for "free." The
antithesis to liberalism is servility. A liberal society is one in
which everyone is free and nobody is a serf or slave. In the late
19th and 20th centuries, the New Liberals in Britain and the New Deal
liberals in the U.S. saw the need for social insurance and national
regulation of business. But social welfare programs were added to
civil liberties, which are what define liberalism. The radical left
in the old days could excuse Fidel Castro's tyranny because of his
free hospitals, but no genuine American liberal believes in a
tradeoff between civil liberties and social welfare. You can have
universal healthcare and personal liberty, but if you have to choose,
personal liberty is more important. On that point, liberals of the
left, who don't think you have to choose, agree with libertarians.
In his book "Freedom's Power," Paul Starr says that he prefers the
term "liberal" to "progressive" because modern liberals are the
heirs, not just of 20th century welfare state liberalism, but of
centuries of Anglo-American liberalism, going back before the
American Founding to Britain's Glorious Revolution of 1689. He is
right, I think, to insist that the history of evolving personal and
political freedom should not be ceded to libertarians, who represent
the extreme right wing of liberalism. American liberals, it might be
said, are Lockean libertarians who recognize the need for social
insurance and regulation; they have never had anything
philosophically in common with Marxists or post-Marxist social
democrats in Europe, support for universal healthcare and various
public services notwithstanding.
Objection No. 6. "Progressive" implies progress. Like "conservative,"
"progressive" is a term associated with a particular view of history.
The conservative wants to stand still or go back; the progressive
wants to move forward. Progressivism implies a view of history as
perpetual progress; conservatism, a view of history as decline from a
better world in the past. Needless to say, nobody who actually thinks
this way could function. In the real world, self-described
progressives aren't mindlessly in favor of everything new, just as
self-described conservatives aren't indiscriminately in favor of
everything that's old.
Unlike progressivism and conservatism, liberalism is not a name that
implies a view that things are either getting better or getting
worse. Liberalism is a theory of a social order based on individual
civil liberties, private property, popular sovereignty and democratic
republican government. Liberals believe that liberal society is the
best kind, but they are not committed to believing in universal
progress toward liberalism, much less universal progress in general.
Many liberals have been skeptical about the idea of unlimited
progress and have believed that a liberal society is difficult to
establish and easily changed into a nonliberal society.
Because liberalism refers to a particular kind of social order, and
does not depend on any implied relationship of the present to the
past or future, liberals can be either progressive or conservative,
depending on whether they seek to move toward a more liberal system
or to maintain a liberal system that already exists. For that matter,
liberals can be revolutionary, if creating or establishing a liberal
society requires a violent revolution. Liberals can even be
counterrevolutionary, if they are defending a liberal society from
revolutionary radicals, including anti-liberal revolutionaries of the
radical right like Timothy McVeigh or Muslim jihadists.
Those, then, are six arguments in favor of using liberalism to
describe the center-left. I've reserved the seventh for last. The
word "liberal" is a badge of pride. What is more embarrassing in
2008, to be associated with self-described liberals like Roosevelt
and Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr. and Barbara Jordan, or with
conservatives like Reagan and George W. Bush and Tom DeLay? I much
prefer the public philosophy of the mid-century liberals, for all
their blunders and shortcomings, to that of the three movements in
American history that have called themselves progressive: the
moderate-to-conservative progressives of the Democratic Leadership
Council in the 1980s and 1990s; the deluded pro-Soviet progressives
of the mid-20th century; and the Anglo-Protestant elite progressives
of the 1900s, who admired Bismarck's Germany and wanted to keep out
immigrants and sterilize the native poor.
But don't listen to me. Listen to John F. Kennedy, accepting the
endorsement of his presidential candidacy by New York's Liberal Party
on Sept. 14, 1960:
What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label "Liberal?"
If by "Liberal" they mean, as they want people to believe, someone
who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government,
and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer's dollar, then the record of
this party and its members demonstrate that we are not that kind of
"Liberal." But if by a "Liberal" they mean someone who looks ahead
and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid
reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people -- their
health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights,
and their civil liberties -- someone who believes we can break
through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies
abroad, if that is what they mean by a "Liberal," then I'm proud to
say I'm a "Liberal."
Michael Lind is the Whitehead senior fellow at the New America
Foundation and the author of The American Way of Strategy: U.S.
Foreign Policy and the American Way of Life.