How Much Use Are Labels Like "Progressive?"

Jeff Alworth

How Much Use Are Labels Like "Progressive?"

Sometime back in the early aughts, liberals began rebranding themselves as "progressives." This was all about optics; "liberal" had become a political epithet, so lefties were trying to find an untainted substitute. How has the rebranding gone? Not so great. A Gallup poll released yesterday shows that a majority of Americans don't know what it means--including majorities of liberals and Democrats. (Conservatives and Republicans have a better idea, perhaps indicating that within the Fox-o-sphere, "progressive" is taking on the old taint of "liberal.")

Commenting on the poll, Matt Yglesias says it's not just "progressive"; people are generally just unsophisticated about connecting labels and political philosophies.

I only wish the same level of scrutiny were applied to assertions about whether the public is “liberal” or “conservative” where I believe there’s strong circumstantial evidence that many people just don’t understand these terms in the way political and media professionals understand them. For example, when you break these things out by race you find that whites are more “liberal” than blacks, which simply doesn’t describe either voting behavior or views on issues correctly.

Partly I think this is a function of the tug-of-war ideologues wage over trying to re-brand each other's label as something analogous to "immoral" or "evil." But partly I think it's because the political coalitions that claim these labels shift. We're seeing that happen in the Republican party right now, as adherents of different policy positions scrap for the title of "conservative," leaving erstwhile far-righties like Charlie Crist toting the banner of some kind of not-quite-tea-party conservatism abandoned by the purer of heart. Rebranding is happening, but liberals/Democrats aren't leading the charge.

In any case, I'd say the great "progressive" rebrand can be called a failure. I think we'd do better to reclaim "liberal."

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    One challenge is that even progressives and liberals disagree about those terms meant. I once had to sit through a class on the history of the 1960s where we spent an entire day talking about the Left, the Old Left, the New Left, the New New Left, and other nonsense.

    As we wrote on the original About BlueOregon page back in 2004:

    What do mean, "progressive"? Well, ideology is always in the eye of the beholder. Contributors to BlueOregon will likely disagree with each other a lot. That said, we generally believe in the power of people to organize themselves for the improvement of society, through government and other institutions.

    That's a pretty wide definition that completely ignores (on purpose) the main distinctions that some folks try to apply. Being inclusive about it is why it's Blue Oregon, rather than Democratic Oregon or Liberal Oregon or even Progressive Oregon.

    It's also why I titled my national state-blog aggregator I regularly get complaint emails from people demanding to know why a particular site is included when it doesn't fit their definition of progressive, liberal, or lefty.

    As I've replied many times, what's "left of center" is far different in Oklahoma than it is in San Francisco.

    Ultimately, labels are overly simplistic - but we use them because the alternative leads to overwhelming complexity.

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    Oh, it all gets so confusing when one encounters specific individuals and where to place them and their ideology in terms of "progressive" (or, "liberal") as opposed to conservative.

    I highly recommend an interview from last Sunday night on C-SPAN 2 that had Judge Andrew Napolitano being interviewed by Ralph Nader (!).

    Napolitano is a self-professed Libertarian, which one might cast as "conservative" in that he acknowledges very little role for government as regards either regulatory power or economic stimulus (but, then again, as "conservative" can be defined as defending status quo, possibly Napolitano's views would not be called "conservative", by that measure).

    Nader asked him: Is the U.S.A. an empire? Napolitano: yes. Does the U.S.A. violate international law? Napolitano: yes. Does Israel violate international law? Napolitano: yes. Should G.W. Bush and Cheney be indicted and tried for violations of Habeus Corpus and for infliction of torture? Napolitano: yes. (BTW, he also says the renditions and torture continue under Obama).

    Wow. And this dude, Napolitano, has a program on Fox News!

    And so, I guess Napolitano takes the classic Libertarian view on foreign policy and on issues of personal liberty. Are these "liberal" or "conservative"? Again, strictly speaking, these are "conservative" positions, but as regards the current political lay of the land, lots of people might think they're "liberal" positions.

    And here's what Napolitano said about George Washington: that he rotated slaves in and out of Pennsylvania, in order to beat a state law that had freedom required for anyone in servitude longer than six months in that state; that he had slaves' teeth extracted (without benefit of anasthesia) in hopes of having them implanted in his own toothless gums (!!!); that he had slaves toes cut off of their feet (without benefit of anasthesia) in order to prevent escape (!!!).

    Anyway, back to "liberal" vs. "conservative". Well, selling a message might have to take a back seat to just espousing a program that we think is humane and forward-looking. We should just preach and do what we think is right and let the people figure it out for themselves.

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    There's a simpler way to handle this. There are no elected Liberal/Progressive Democrats. None. The whole party has shifted to the center center/right. That includes Kucinich and Indy Sen. Sanders.

    A real liberal/progressive would have shut down whatever part of US Federal Gov't they were elected to before allowing the US Gov't to torture people in US custody. There are ways. Just don't let any unanimous consent "housekeeping" decrees happen. Ask for a role call votes on everything.

    There's good people pointing out that thus far, Obama has governed further to the right than Reagan did.

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    Labels are stupid and a waste of time. We need to stop trying to define everyone and start focusing on what they are adding to the discussion.

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    I disagree. The progressive brand is a good one, based on a good historical foundation of the progressive movement that is older than the liberal brand. The fact that people don't know what it means is an opportunity to define the brand. The term "Liberalism" actually comes from the free market, nationalist Republican movement, that swept Europe in the 19th century. When used today in Europe it is equivalent to what we now know as traditional Republicanism. FDR used the term "liberal" to define his policies in order to place them in an American context and fend off the charge they were an imported brand of European democratic socialism. Hence liberalism became identified with strong Federal govt. and the programs we know today as social security, medicare, medicaid, environmental protection, and strong personal liberties. The right wing has successfully rebranded liberalism to identify it with some form of elitist authoritarianism on the one hand, and libertine personal liberties as advocated by the Amer. Civil Liberties Union on the other. Progressivism has strong American roots going back to Robert LaFollette and Teddy Roosevelt. The convervation and anti-Trust movement, social reform (including health care coverage) were all a part of the Progressive Movement. And for a time was identified with a branch of the Republican Party until they were purged in a victory by the corporatist right wing crowd led by William Taft. No, I think Progressivism is certainly appropriate, but I would like the people who claim the mantle with so much righteousness to define what it means and why their definition is so correct and so exclusive.

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    I would simply add a central tenet of progressivism, a belief in progress, and policies that promote it, is a good policy platform to adopt.This is particularly true when those who claim to be conservative are fundamentally reactionary ideological orientation and fantasy of trying to reinstate some imagined idyllic point in history. Those who are conservative today seem to believe that our present state of societal development is corrupt and we should return to something like the 1950s when their supposed religious values were pre-eminent, before feminism, civil rights, gay rights, and the growth of personal freedoms.

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      "a central tenet of progressivism, a belief in progress, and policies that promote it, is a good policy platform to adopt.This is particularly true when those who claim to be conservative are fundamentally reactionary ideological orientation and fantasy of trying to reinstate some imagined idyllic point in history."

      Very well said. The progressive label has a long and proud history and liberals should not be afraid to apply it to themselves. Progressives stand for progress, and what American doesn't want progress?

      The term "liberal," on the other hand, has unfortunately become associated with the silliest aspects of political correctness.

      As for the suggestion to not use any label, if we don't apply a label to ourselves our opponents will apply one to us -- and it won't be flattering.

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    A rose by any other name....

    If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then its a duck.

    Changing labels or names does nothing to change the tenents of those who are true believers in a highly centralized, statist society.

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      Mr. Chapman,

      Think of the left/right, love/hate thing in politics as a dance. On one hand, we don't want government to get out of control and the other, we want it to do for individual citizens what they cannot do on their own -- to act in the public good. The point made about dropping labels individually is a good one for we all are Americans. The term statist does not fit many of the people who post here, they just believe in good government. Don't lump us in with communist coordinating boards or whatever. That's misleading and frankly, not a nice thing to say.

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        Mr. Young, i hear your statement and respectfully disagree. In general, the newly re-invented term 'progressive' is all about more, bigger, more intrusive, controling centralized government.

        The newly minted progressives not only want to do for citizens what they think the citizens can't do on their owm; they don't trust the citizen to do what they deem the responsible and correct thing. A statist believes in a growing government that controls and regulates ever more aspects of society.

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      Changing labels or names does nothing to change the tenents of those who are true believers in a highly centralized, statist society.

      Like, say, Dick Cheney.

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        Ah, Darth Cheney, the advocate of the unitary executive, the doctrine that states that the commander in chief decides what is law and what isn't. He was such a liberal statist, along with Richard Nixon, and let's not leave out "The Decider." Yup, those Republican political leaders, they are all for decentralizing power.

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          We defintely agree that Cheny was/is a very bad man. He ran the shadow government for years and used Bush the younger like a hand puppet. But he was more a facist than a statist.

          Joshua, normally folks exhibting such severe symptoms of mental constipation have chronic, debilitating headaches. I hope that you feel better soon.

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      same drivel, different day.

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    I'd challenge Yglesias on this claim:

    "For example, when you break these things out by race you find that whites are more “liberal” than blacks, which simply doesn’t describe either voting behavior or views on issues correctly."

    It's hard to unpack the statement since it's not clear whether he means all Blacks and Whites, those who self-identify with a particular political party, etc

    Anyway, if you look at the 2008 NES, it contradicts what he claims. The figures are below. The scale runs from 1 (extremely liberal) to 7 (extremely conservative), I have compared those who gave their race as Black (1) and White (2).


    1: 10 3.87 2: 50 4.34

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    It is certainly true that the branding war has been lost by liberals. I think it is far past the time we reclaim the word and use it openly. And, when the term is used as an insult, the actual definition of the word is a good defense.

    A progressive is someone who is able to use new ideas and scientific findings to create solutions to old and difficult problems. This carries a heavy responsibility for sorting fact from opinion and for taking some risk in implementing new ideas.

    A liberal is broad minded and tolerant of different views and standards of behavior in others. In addition a liberal is progressive politically or socially. A liberal favors gradual reform to extend democracy, to distribute wealth more evenly, and to protect personal freedoms.

    The opposite of a liberal is not something than most people do not want to be.

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    Well, some "progress" has been made in definition. In 2005, Zogby assumed that progressive = ultra liberal.

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    I think it's about time we abandoned labels of nineteenth-century ideological stripes and start talking to one another as Oregonians living in a very troubled 2010.

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