In his survey course of American history since Reconstruction, my adviser is careful to note during his lecture on Progressivism that while liberals are fond of referring to themselves today as “progressives,” the sense in which they use the term is distinct from the historical Progressive Era and the Progressive Party which flourished, for a time, under Teddy Roosevelt. He includes a sly comment about his confusion over why liberals have started using the term "progressive," as they seem to simply be capitulating to the attempt of conservatives to turn “liberal” into a dirty word.
I will have to admit that this is probably the primary reason for the popularity of the term “progressive.” And yet I still prefer to think of myself as progressive, rather than liberal. Why? For me, it has nothing at all to do with an attempt to distance myself from the negative connotations conservatives attach to the term – indeed, I’ll be happy to embrace them. Am I a latte-drinking liberal? For sure. (Actually I prefer tea, but insofar as we are talking about a liberal whose favorite public dwelling space is a bourgeois coffee shop, I am surely guilty.) Am I a “tax and spend” liberal? Well, considering I can’t imagine what else a government is supposed to do with its time, yes I suppose I am. (And for that matter, nearly everyone is; the trick behind the “tax and spend” tagline is that what conservatives are really complaining about is not spending, but what the money is being spent on.) Do I believe all Americans are responsible for the well-being of their least fortunate citizens, do I believe that all Americans deserve public health care, do I believe that the inequality of gays and lesbians is a national travesty? Yes, yes, and yes. And do I think that religious bigotry and scientific illiteracy pose grave threats to a civilization which, in my mind, should first and foremost be based on Enlightenment values? Absolutely. So far from wanting to distance myself from all that being “liberal” might imply, I would push it even further.
So considering I am a liberally liberal, why don’t I feel perfectly comfortable with the term? For me, identifying as progressive is actually a way of distancing myself from the center-right consciousness of this country. When I think “liberal,” what comes to mind more than anything else is a Blue Dog Democrat, or the Cold Warrior side of John F. Kennedy. The 1960s radicals of the New Left were the most instrumental in creating this definition of the term – when Mario Savio refers to a “well-meaning liberal” in his famous speech on the steps of Sproul Hall, the implication was not flattering. A “liberal” in this discourse is someone who always believes in gradual change, in negotiating with the power structure rather than challenging it directly. A “liberal” in this discourse is someone who buys the redemptive storyline of American political thought, from the boot-straps myth to the benevolence of (almost) all free markets.
I will not deny that personal bias also operates in my tendency to have the above image invoked by the word “liberal.” The phrase conjures up images of swanky Democratic campaign parties, of lawyers and lobbyists in tuxedos and not-too-sexy evening wear discussing the strategy of Barack Obama’s latest move. These people are well-meaning, usually, but have bought one too many conservative assumptions. They go on TV and debate with Republicans who completely control the framing of the issues, and while they think afterwards they have made a one-two punch for calm, rational discussion, in reality they were beat the moment they let the conservatives set the rules of the debate. These liberals are people who have a basic sense of right and wrong, and we would probably agree on most policy issues. But once I suggest that we ought to start breaking long-loved conservative frames left and right – that we should up our use of class rhetoric considerably, refuse to peddle in hallow rhetoric about “the American people” or terrorists who “hate our freedom”, that we should put all our energy into starting a movement for a minimum family wage – a plan Nixon, who Garry Wills significantly once called the last of the liberals, proposed but failed to pass -- at this point, my liberal friend begins to balk. My liberal friend begins to give me lectures on politics being the art of the possible, and of the hope and redemption of American history. My liberal friend tells me you cannot change anything without winning elections. My liberal friend fails to see that what we in fact need in this country is a progressive party actually prepared to lose, indeed intending to lose, for a decade or two, purely so that they can insert themselves into the national discourse and slowly, ever so slowly, change the frames of the debate and the limits of the possible in American political discourse.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Simply, I find “liberal” an unsatisfying way to capture my political views – because too many people who can fairly refer to themselves as “liberal” are still too conservative for my liking. If you need an example of this, just look at President Obama. Every week it seems, what is collectively called “the Left” is getting angrier and angrier at what they view as a huge disappointment; a president who ran on “change we can believe in,” but is unable to give us more than watered down legislation and rhetoric which, at its worst, often reads like a denial of “liberalism” in the sense that conservatives have defined it.
“Progressive” on the other hand seems to capture my overall tendencies nicely – it suggests that the virtue of civilizations is to move forward, to be unafraid of change and to believe that societies are flexible, shifting things, which change with the times as surely as the ice caps around the arctic poles continue to melt. To embrace this evolution - and make the best of it - requires one to find some values other than moral absolutism, or narrow minded traditionalism, to base our empathy on and give us stabilizing roots when we are in rocky waters. Progress!, progressivism!, ever widening the circle of who gets included unambiguously in the human family of dignity and mutual respect. What’s not to love?
Of course, there is also the option -- which is becoming increasingly attractive to me -- of abandoning all phrases commonly used in American discourse today, and opting to describe myself as a social democrat.
BUT, I fear I could possibly be doing liberalism an injustice by so shunting the word “liberal.” After all, what decides who wins the definitional battle? Historically, is the pejorative use of “liberal” that the New Left originated in the 1960s any more justified than the demonization of the term than the New Right has succeeded in making mainstream? Is there a way to isolate, through intellectual history or merely measuring the viewpoints of those who identify as “liberal,” what that word signifies? Of course, as in all battles of discourse there is never one full, concrete meaning – the definitional skirmishes will always continue. But some debates over the niceties of semantics are more reasonable than others – we’ve learned enough about that from conservatives and their fondness for renaming foreign food Freedom this and that. So I would be interested to know, what is the best argument for holding on to that much maligned, rather ambiguous phrase “liberal”? What arguments would you add for advocating a further adoption of “progressive,” or any other term, or do you believe the whole question is unimportant, and we can rely merely on a public willing to hear us out individually as we explain our political philosophies and the complex beliefs they imply?