Brian Birdnow

The 1920s saw the American people turn happily away from Progressivism. The Progressives, themselves, realizing that they suffered from an image problem, sought to reinvent and rechristen themselves. They began calling themselves “Liberals”, appropriating a 19th century term, but giving it a new meaning. The 19th century liberals had favored states rights and a restricted federal government. The new liberals, circa 1930, were actually Progressives of a recent vintage, and they were arguing in favor of an omnipotent federal government. This dramatic change reversed attitudes of more than a century’s standing. The Progressives were thus reborn as “Liberals.”

Liberalism of the 1930 variety would ultimately suffer the same fate as the Progressivism of 1900, although the battle raged much longer. Whereas the American people began to see through the sham facade of Progressivism in a relatively quick twenty years, Liberalism hung on for about fifty years before Mr. Reagan, finishing the work begun by Robert Taft and Barry Goldwater, tossed it into the ashcan of history in 1980. By 1985 “Liberal” had become a dreaded tag in American politics since the people associated liberalism with all of the problems that had plagued the country during the 1960-79 epoch. Certain prominent liberals, especially the noted historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. could not fathom this new development and attempted to rally the troops for a counterattack. This attack turned out to be an article written by Schlesinger for Newsweek during the 1988 Presidential campaign entitled, “Hurrah For The L-Word”. (“L” standing for liberalism in this case). Yet, the American people were not buying this bunkum, and the effort to rehabilitate liberalism and the liberals fell flat.

This sequence of events placed the Left in a quandary. They found themselves saddled with an unappetizing legacy, and a high mountain to climb in order to regain respectability as polls and surveys showed that the American people disapproved of traditional liberal positions and the term “liberal” disturbed most of the voters.

The solution to the problem seemed very simple. The Left simply dropped the term “Liberal” and replaced it with a dusted off and freshly polished term, namely “Progressivism”. Hillary Clinton started calling herself a Progressive back in 2007. She had not changed her New Left policy ideas one iota, but she could not afford to be labeled a liberal, so she beat her opponents to the punch and admitted to being a “Progressive”. President Obama cannot risk allowing his opponents to call his legislative program a quasi-socialist platform, so Obama and his media acolytes refer, instead, to his “progressive agenda”. There no longer exists a “liberal” wing of the Democratic Party, it is now the “progressive” element of the party.

The American people will, in time, see through this charade. Today’s “Progressives” hope to make progress toward a leftist welfare state, just as the liberals tried to drag us in the same direction in the years gone by. As the French say, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” This wise old aphorism is undoubtedly true of progressive-liberalism, and of liberal-progressivism.


Brian Birdnow

Brian E. Birdnow is a historian and teaches at a university in the St. Louis area.