It is all the fashion today for left-leaning politicians, journalists, academics and vapid celebrities to describe themselves and their leftwing proclivities as “Progressive”. In fact, anything associated with modern liberalism is now characterized as “Progressive”. For example, most of the mainstream media figures comment about President Obama’s “progressive agenda”, and they call the Democrats the nation’s “Progressive” Party. The term “Liberal” seems to be vanishing from our public discourse. Can this be mere happenstance, or a minor linguistic adjustment? In actuality the terminological change has been intentional as the leftists seek, once again, to obfuscate reality and to impose their version of truth on America, and the world.
“Progressive” as a term pertaining to political ideology can be traced to the Progressive movement of roughly 1897-1917. The movement, born in the cities just before the close of the nineteenth century, sought to change American society and even to subvert the essentials of American government from the intention of the Founding Fathers. The Progressives wanted to transfer power from city halls and state capitols to Washington and to endow the federal government with new authority to impose its vision of order and good government on the states. Progressivism presented itself, of course, as reasonable and non-threatening, and the progressive types talked vaguely of “…using Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends”, as the well known Progressive journalist Herbert Croly put it in his 1909 classic, The Promise of American Life. Still, just beneath this non-threatening exterior of Progressive reform, the big government Leviathan lurked ominously.
Over the course of a decade-and-a-half the American people grew tired of Progressivism. The income tax, higher prices and a reduced standard of living combined with a reckless, if well-intentioned effort “…to make the world safe for democracy” by declaring war on Germany convinced the majority of the people that progressivism was a misguided set of principles at best, and patently dangerous in application.
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.