by Chris Bowers, Tue Jan 02, 2007 at 07:41:03 AM EST
I'll start the discussion with how I understand the history of the term in an American political context:
- 19th Century Roots. The term "progressive" first came into use in an American political context in the late 19th century. It was the ideological term many American leftists self-identified with, from women suffrage activists, to Teddy Roosevelt supporters, to backers of Robert LaFollette. At this time, "progressivism," was clearly distinct from "liberalism" in American political discourse. At the time, "liberalism" was a distinctly middle-class and American bourgeois view of a laissez-faire economic policies and (very) gradual movement toward universal suffrage. Progressivism was associated with the more forthright and hard-nosed suffrage and governmental accountability movements of the time, including the popular election of Senators, first wave feminism, and the implementation of ballot initiatives. Economically, it was vehemently anti-trust and pro-corporate regulation. In many ways, it is what we would now define as the differences between "neo-liberalism" and "progressivism."
- The Flip. Until FDR, "progressive" was actually the most common term used to describe the mainstream of American leftism. In what can be considered an early example of triangulation, FDR instead chose to call himself a "liberal," thereby poaching some of Hoover's turf while also distancing himself from the left-wing label "progressive." FDR thus changed the meaning of both terms in American political discourse, as the "progressive" label was rendered fringe left-wing, and the "liberal" label was tied to the economic policies of the New Deal instead of the laissez-faire and corporatist policies. From what I understand, Hoover was so outraged over FDR calling himself a liberal during the 1932 campaign, that Hoover challenged FDR to a debate entirely over who was the true "liberal" in the race. It is also important to note that when former Vice President Henry Wallace broke from the Democratic Party in 1948, he took up the banner of the "progressive" party. After that debacle, people did not call themselves "progressive" for some time.
- The 1990's revival. After nearly fifty years in the post-Wallace wilderness, the term "progressive" saw a revival in our political discourse in the 1990's primarily from two sources. First, "third way" triangulation types such as the DLC took to the term as a means to avoid being labeled as "liberal." Second, left-wing creative class types, at first primarily in the Bay Area, took to the term in order to disassociate themselves with the exiting "liberal" political infrastructure on both ideological and identity-based grounds. It must have been unpalatable for the wildly successful, and generally cutting edge, entrepreneurs of the Bay Area to self-associate with an ideological term that appeared to be old-fashioned and failing.
- The New Big-Tent Term. Entering 2007, "progressive" appears to be the new and emerging "big-tent" term for the American center-left. The term is used just as comfortably by New Dem types as it is by the Democratic Party's left-wing. Whether or not this has drained it of any significant meaning is open to debate. Whether or not it still has any significant difference from the term "liberal" is also open to debate. It certainly appears to have morphed into something of an empty vessel term that an increasingly large segment, if not the majority, of the left and center-left political activist community feels comfortable self-identifying with. That is a good thing, because it allows us a sense of unity we lacked when many would call themselves moderate and many would call themselves liberal. However, it is difficult to tell what degree of resonance the term has outside of the universe of political activists. Pollsters like to use the same question for decades, and thus are not ready to start including the term "progressive" in ideological self-identification questions anytime soon.
Which do you prefer? I have added a poll to the extended entry. Also, what detail can you add to this etymology? What mistakes did I make? I would like to get a better handle on how the term "progressive" is currently used, and has been used over time, within the context of American political discourse. Even if we cannot think of any other reason why this is important, if we are going to have a "progressive movement," it is probably a good idea to grasp what we mean by the term "progressive."