Progressive Etymology

During my time away, Matt did a lot of interesting writing about the history of the 1960's and the impact of 1960's leftism within the contemporary progressive political environment. In keeping with Matt's work, I would like to open up a discussion on the history ideological self-identification within the American left and center-left. Specifically, I would like to take a quick look at the history of the ideological moniker "progressive," in order to develop a better grasp of what we mean by the term, how it differs from liberalism, and how it connects our current political actions to a tradition of American leftism.

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.
Personally, I far prefer the term "progressive" to the term "liberal." Logically, "progressive" is more of a direct opposite of "conservative" than is "liberal." I also don't identify with the ideological position the term "liberal" posits when used in an academic sense, and coming from academia that means a lot to me. I also like the way it is able to unite Democratic activists, and how it ties in with many of the great American political actors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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."

Tags: Ideology, progressive movement (all tags)



Re: Progressive Etymology

I'm a progressive liberal, so there!

by JimPortlandOR 2007-01-02 08:15AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

by JimPortlandOR 2007-01-02 08:15AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

To me a progressive is further left than a liberal. Because a liberal asks for gradual change while a progressive demands more immediate change. I think a progressive is also a more general term that includes different parts of the left.

by SocialDem 2007-01-02 08:46AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

After skimming all of the comments this still strikes me as that which hits closest to the core of the matter.

In my experience, hard-core lefties (myself included) prefer progressive and some will go so far as to wrinkle their nose at the term liberal (I don't).

To us, in the starkest of generalizations, liberals are financially secure individuals who are all for more liberal/progressive policies but who don't want to get their hands dirty when it comes right down to it, e.g. supporting long strikes, civil disobedience, and the like. They may not like corporations but many still rely on them for their income.

Progressives, on the other hand, are all for a fundamental change in the way we distribute wealth and are willing to take the often messy steps to get there (e.g. long strikes, civil disobedience, and the like...)

I see the difference in terms on a purely economic level: progressives are adamantly pro-worker; liberals are nominally pro-worker but not as strongly in practice.

As a side note, I found the history fascinating and it disappoints me that FDR was responsible, in whatever degree, for backing away from progressivism. I knew this before but I had (purposefully?) forgotten it.


by the wanderer 2007-01-02 06:26PM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

Progressive means continual striving towards a better world.

Liberal means loosening societal constraints, whether economically or socially. The loosening of societal constraints is why conservatives were able to effectively denigrate the term. The loosening of economic constraints is why many in academia denigrate it as well.

by adamterando 2007-01-02 08:51AM | 0 recs
Both, and sometimes neither

I guess it depends on the topic at hand. I favor gay marriage and legalized adoptions by gay parent, gay military service, legal abortions, and fair taxation. I also favor existing social programs for the poor, retired and disabled.

But I also favor free trade and a strong Second Amendment, reducing the federal deficit, and reducing the tax burden on small businesses.

I'll go with "progressive liberal," because that describes me best, contrary to what gun control and fair trade advocates might say.

Or is this what a "Libertarian Democrat" might look like? Sheesh, enough with the labels! ;)

Keep The Dreams Alive - Vote Democratic in 2008!


by GuyFromOhio 2007-01-02 08:57AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

I identify as liberal because of the word's ideological content. Self identified progressives, both DLC and left-wing, look down on actual politics as too partisan and un-pure. This was the major weakness of boomer politics, the Clinton administration and the Democratic party at the end of the last century. The absence of ideological content made it impossible for us to make lasting political progress.

by souvarine 2007-01-02 09:01AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

I think progressivism is about ideology and manner of practicing politics (which I suppose is more broadly a function of ideology).  

I think that the term 'progressive' has lost a lot rhetorical luster, especially in the last year or two.  

I still think I'm less concerned with terminology than activism though right now.  It's a matter of whether or not you're into Platonic or Aristotelian forms.

by Peter from WI 2007-01-02 09:03AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

As I read and think about your periodizationn and etymology, I am seeing some striking and important parallels.

The left was also an important but cautious part of "progressive" from 1890 to 1920. In those years I consider "the left" to be Socialists, radical labor unionists like Eugene V. Debs, perhaps folks like Edward Bellamy and Ignatius Donnelly. Progressivism as a political force was built by an alliance between labor unions, the political left, and middle-class professionals who saw their standards of living and surroundings threatened by an unprecedented wave of corporate consolidation and wealth concentration.

That left, and folks of the 1910s generation such as Randolph Bourne and Upton Sinclair, were a part of the progressive movement but not wholly of it. They saw in progressivism the chance to build a better and fairer society, and worked through the alliances I described above to help bring it about through reform of the American system.

World War I shattered all of that. Many middle-class and non-leftist progressives backed US involvement in the war and the government's attack on the political left that went along with the war. At the same time many progressives gave into exclusionist and racist tendencies, believing that closing off immigration and smashing radical labor would provide economic growth and stability. By the 1920s the remains of the left adopted "Progressive" as a way to try and survive and gain some electability, but by then the left was split by the Russian Revolution - the broad Socialism of Debs became a splintered movement by the '20s, especially with the rise of the CPUSA.

FDR came out of that milieu and tried to rebuild the 1910s progressive coalition - his use of the term New Deal was a nod to his cousin's Square Deal - by including middle-class reformers, academics, cultural producers, labor unions, and elements of the left that are willing to work for reform instead of revolution. "Progressive" as a term was disused until Wallace, purged along with other elements of the Democratic Party left by the Dixiecrats, picked it up in 1948.

From there on out I think your etymology is sound.

I personally went through the identification as a "Progressive" in the SF Bay Area in the '90s that you describe. After more study of history I think my views and values are best described as "social democracy" or "democratic socialism."

But in terms of the movement we are building, it looks VERY much like the movement of the 1900s/1910s in particular, but hopefully with the racial and gender justice that the earlier 20th century progressivisms lacked. And in that sense I'm quite happy to call myself a progressive.

I read with interest Matt Stoller's post last week, but didn't comment. Should have, as I'm a PhD student focusing on the 1960s. And although that is my area of focus, and though I love talking about the Sixties (as much as someone born in 1979 can), I would humbly suggest we also take a look at what seems to me an even more crucial period in our political history - the late 1940s.

by eugene 2007-01-02 09:07AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology
I sometimes use the terms interchangably, but if you had to pin me down I'd say progressivism is active and more politically left, liberalism is more status quo and to the center.
Ignoring all the frames that the right wing has thrown on "liberal" over the last two decades, liberal is a label that is moving closer to describing the DLC crowd.
by johnalive 2007-01-02 09:09AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

The Progressives were also anti-immigrant and anti-party, which meant "machine" to most of them, and was seen as corrupt.  Although historians would acknowledge that, there's also been a lot of analysis of the "latent functions" of the machine, which included social services and a more inclusive democracy than the restricted electorate envisioned by Progressive reformers animated by anti-party views.

by plunkitt 2007-01-02 09:10AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

Not all progressives of the 1890-1920 era were anti-immigrant and anti-party. There was an enormous amount of variation on those matters.

What we do know is that by 1917-20, the anti-immigrant forces had won out, and yet the party system emerged in a rather strong position out of the whole maelstrom.

by eugene 2007-01-02 09:12AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

From a practical, real world point of view, there are two definitions.

Small p progressive defined by the dictionary.

Capital P Progressive would defined by whatever group calls itself "Progressive" and what it advocates.

What the capital P organization chooses to believe doesn't change the definition of small p word.

DLC has its "Progressive Policy Institute". There are several "Progressive Party of X" in the states.

Using the term "progressive left" or "progressive netroots" one would have to go to the dictionary.

If one is a member of "Progressive Organization X", then one can look at that organization's goals for what that person means by progressive.

Anything else and it's the tower of Babel.

by BrionLutz 2007-01-02 09:14AM | 0 recs
Progressivism is a citizens' ideology

It's the ideology of reality-based citizens who work, raise their families, and want to see the government work for a better future.

You're right; it's a much better opposite to conservatism, and it centers the debate around what America is currently debating -- make progress? or conserve the old broken breaking ways?

It's the people-powered ideology of labor, of science, of solving problems and securing the future. I think it's quite fitting that the people-powered Democratic movement has labeled itself "progressive," and I think there's a lot of room for the CW to expand on the notion, by defining progressivism as an ideology of the people, of a government that empowers and respects them.

by msnook 2007-01-02 09:20AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressivism is a citizens' ideology

The "people power" part is populist rhetoric. Populists on both the left and right invoke the power of the people against the enemy. For the left, the enemy is usually corporations, capital, etc. (see Crashing the Gate's argument about capture of the party itself by a corporatized consultant class). For the right, the enemy is more often government.

Both the left and the right love to use populist rhetoric and claim to represent the people. Both the left and the right in the blogosphere claim to represent the people, too, in the fight against "MSM" and its corporatism/elitism.

I think you are onto something in that the current progressivism is tinged with populism, but progressivism is not the only grouping that claims  to be a "citizen's ideology." Your emphasis on science and use of "reality-based" is explicitly anti-ideological. I think that's more uniquely progressive than is the invocation of people power.

by demondeac 2007-01-02 10:07AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressivism is a citizens' ideology

You're right, so let me be more precise: I do not mean to say that progressivism is a governing ideology which differs from others in that it works for the people more. And I'm glad you mentioned the non-ideological thing, because that's very much what I'm trying to get at.

Rather than being an ideology which dictates policy, progressivism is an idea about how citizens can and should fit into the process of government and politics, one that involves the party and the government empowering individuals, as well as the individuals using that power and taking responsibility for their country's future.

You'll find that conservatism is still a wonderful opposite for progressivism even when we're talking about the citizens' ideology and not the governing ideology.

by msnook 2007-01-02 11:30AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

by chicago jeff 2007-01-02 09:22AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

I always had a problem with "progressive" not because of its historical but its linguistic meaning. It seems to me allied to a notion that historical development has a certain direction, and that direction is improvement, which is too simple a view of the world and lends itself to the converse illusion - that whatever change society makes, so long  as it is not simple reversion to the past (which is never really possible anyway), is for the better because it is "progress". In this sense, the word suggests connections with technological utopianism and this may be part of why it caught on in the Bay Area in the 90's. The 19th century thought it had eliminated torture; we've "progressed" beyond that naive illusion. Any society tells history largely as justification for its present nature and policies, and narratives of "progress" fall naturally into this.

As for seeking to build a better world, well, all ideologies are doing  that, according to their own definitions of "better". True Burkean conservatism is not in the cards, which is why we get this radical "conservatism" instead: the only thing clear about how the world will be one hundred years from now is that it will be quite different from now.

On the other hand, liberal has gotten mixed in rather thoroughly with elite centrism during the liberal era - the notion that the ignorant masses need to  be manipulated and overridden by the benevolent technocratic elite for their own good, a view I deeply mistrust. So I'll take progressive over liberal, I guess. But I'd like another choice.

by bento 2007-01-02 09:30AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

On the "historical" (through Wallace) description of the terms "progressive" and "liberal", I have no quarrel. But I think that right now they are interchangeable, and we only have "progressive" in the nomenclature because the right did such an effective job of trashing the term "liberal". Very much BECAUSE of that, I have chosen to describe myself as "liberal", as I have since my college days in the late 60s when it was a term much derided by the activists in the anti-war movement.

Either term describes somebody "left of center", who believes in government activism to solve problems and level the economic standing of members of society, not pacifist but reluctant to go to war, not anti-capitalist but certainly anti-laissez-faire. Either term describes an attitude, not an ideology.

by MikeShatzkin 2007-01-02 09:35AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

"Progressive" isn't a pendulum-swing term the way "liberal" and "conservative" are.  

All pundits and most regular people assume that a markedly "liberal" period in U.S. politics will give way to an offsetting "conservative" period, as the political mood swings back and forth.

"Progressive" isn't locked into that supposed inevitability. People like Rove, Buchanan, Gingrich, etc. were effective in their sneering use of phrases like "knee-jerk liberal," "East Coast liberal establishment" and so on.

That can't be done with anywhere near the rhetorical effectiveness to the term "progressive." When you say "liberal" in sneering fashion you can bring in the connotations of permissiveness and licentiousness without adding any other comment. "Progressive," when uttered that way, just makes the person uttering it sound like he or she is against progress.  

by ShagBark 2007-01-02 09:36AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

I prefer "progressive."

Progressive implies that things aren't as they ought to be and we're in the business of making them better.  The liberal-moderate-conservative continuum has to do with how you make progress in the context of cultural institutions like the economy, family, religion, etc.  Conservatives resist what they perceive as change.  Liberals of all stripes seek to reform or replace institutions.  Moderates see the need to move forward but worry about some of the problems with moving too quickly.

I think moderates and liberals can be equally progressive, working together to make a more humane society.  

by chicago jeff 2007-01-02 09:39AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

I think you've nailed a critical point...

there is a political spectrum worshipped by the purveyors of conventional wisdom upon which one falls as either liberal, moderate, and conservative, and you can be placed in exactly one spot as an average of individual placements on any myriad of issues.  

Progressive is about eschewing that political spectrum and thinking about politics and ideology as constant movement forward toward, as you put it, a more humane society (I prefer more just, but that's just my own language).  

by Peter from WI 2007-01-02 11:50AM | 0 recs
Didn't Early Progressivism

...have a very strong protectionist component as well?

by MNPundit 2007-01-02 09:51AM | 0 recs
Re: Didn't Early Progressivism

A lot of today's progressives, if not necessarily protectionists, certainly oppose free trade.

by Englishlefty 2007-01-02 11:30AM | 0 recs
Re: Didn't Early Progressivism

Free trade without incumbent protections for the public good.  Free trade for corporate royalists is free trade for workers.  They just experience it in vastly different contexts.  

"Free" trade does not exist on a level playing field.  If all countries guaranteed the right to organize, had environmental protections at a basic level, had functioning democracies, and enjoyed the same structural horizontal advantages as does America, we could have just free trade.

In absence of that, the public interest must be acted upon to correct the market failures to take into account things like working conditions and pay, clean air and water, and oligarchical repression.  

I don't oppose free trade on a fair and level playing field (I do international business too, I might add).  I do oppose rampant profit-seeking through immoral and unethical (if not illegal) advantage-taking without regard for humanity and justice.  "Protectionism" is a term that to me connotes head-in-sand syndrome, as well as borderline xenophobia and change-o-phobia.  Protecting American jobs and workers, as well as our somewhat advanced system of environmental rules and regulations, which exist and are required in service of the public good is "protectionist" in that is protects the public interest as well as the common humanity of the individual interests of a large swath and many communities.  It is not fearful of the outside world or declaring supremacy over them, only that to have truly free trade and market forces at work, there must be a fair and level playing field.

Sorry if that got long-winded.

by Peter from WI 2007-01-02 11:57AM | 0 recs
Re: Didn't Early Progressivism

Things like tariffs and anti-immigration (though then of Eastern Europeans, and slightly the Irish though that was starting to end by this time). That is the progressive movement then also had strong strains of populism and nativism--and I'm asking if this is largely the case or not because I believe it to be, but would appreciate a second more informed opinion.

by MNPundit 2007-01-02 12:36PM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

I prefer the term liberal because that's how I've identified myself for the last 25 years. The fact that conservatives have been trying for years to vilify the word liberal I feel that they win if we change our terminology now.

by jaseff 2007-01-02 09:56AM | 0 recs
I'm a progressive liberal

One of the hats I wear is a college professor, and I do delve on ideology. As I tell my students, the only free & open societies we know today are LIBERAL DEMOCRACIES. So, I do identify with liberalism--that new, radical ideology that brought down the old regime of religious conformity and ascribed status.

Heck, I even have a blog, the Liberal Citizen. I'm also working to restore the word "liberal" (and take it from those on the right who've defined it for us)by defending and explaining what it means to be a liberal.

However, I do undestand the American reality, and I have no problem supporting the word "progressive" and  seeing myself as one. Americans prefer this word too.

I dare say, dear brothers & sisters, that we are not the majority within the Democratic party and we have a lot work to do to steer this party into a sustainable progressive course--a course that's good on its own merits, not as a reaction to conservatism.

by Andros 2007-01-02 10:06AM | 0 recs
Re: I'm a progressive liberal

Also, I understand how liberalism evolved after winning the argument against the old regime. How many people today realize that (even the very conservatives/Republicans) hold liberal values? [except the ones who like royalty, ascribed status and religious conformity]...

A progressive seeks improvement, but it is the liberal that maintains the very principles of individual rights, and that the individual is the main actor is politics and economics.  

Having said that, labels should only serve as a rough guide, as the ultimate decider should be the force of reason and utility (remember JS Mill?)  Liberalism intitially attacked the old powerful state as the main enemy of individual freedom, but after liberal democracy was realized, the state was seen as one of the agents to control unbridled capitalism and laissez faire.  

In the last 50 years, the division between the progressive liberals and the conservatives focuses on the role of the state:

ECONOMY:  Cons: reduce/eliminate role of state. Marketplace knows best.  Libs/progs: state should safeguard the commonwealth.

MORAL/SOCIAL ISSUES:  Cons: greater state role to promote the "moral fitness of America."   Libs/progs: The individual should be incharge of him/herself.

by Andros 2007-01-02 10:21AM | 0 recs
Re: I'm a progressive liberal

"Liberalism intitially attacked the old powerful state as the main enemy of individual freedom, but after liberal democracy was realized, the state was seen as one of the agents to control unbridled capitalism and laissez faire."

Yahoo for making a great point, and perhaps pointing out that progressivism originally took the lead in seeing that the government play a role in advocating for democracy (in the full and robust sense of the word, where people have a right to justice and full dignity as individuals of equal worth to all others) against corporate oppressors and the failures of the market too free.  

"ECONOMY:  Cons: reduce/eliminate role of state. Marketplace knows best.  Libs/progs: state should safeguard the commonwealth.

MORAL/SOCIAL ISSUES:  Cons: greater state role to promote the "moral fitness of America."   Libs/progs: The individual should be incharge of him/herself."

Again, I like how you lay these out - but let me extend them to say that individualism is key for liberalism and progressivism, in the sense that an individual is worthy of himself on the face of such a matter, no exceptions.  A man is an end and never just a mere means (forgive the Kantian language).  He is equal to all others is his individualness and no one deserves an advantage to which others are given opportunity while others left out.  

We all have the same democratic rights, again in the robust sense of the term.  I deserve a job that pays me for working hard the same as I deserve to be unrepressed by the state for my political beliefs.  I deserve to make choices in the marketplace the same as I deserve to have my rights protected and guaranteed by the state.  I deserve to be protected against economic oppression by a beast too big to be challenged by one man just as I deserve to own a gun without undue hassle from the state.  I could go on, I think that has gotten too abstract already.

by Peter from WI 2007-01-02 12:07PM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

Citizen Bowers:

Although I generally agree with your  etymological analysis of "progressive", I would like to advance the idea that not only is the term "progressive" used to avoid association with the loser label of "liberal" but is used by left wing democrats and democratic socialists (such as myself) to separate themselves from Democrats In Name Only (DINOs), DLCers (Clintonistas) and neo-liberal corporatists. "Progressive" in it's historical context represents most of the social and economic positions of us "left-wing Democrats"...indeed, the isolation of progressive from "liberal" was the method by which FDR was able to secure southern Democrats for his coalition.  FDR knew that the progressives would never vote Republican and would not stay home to give the Hoover liberals power.  This "triangulation" as you call it worked beautifully but was the "deal with the devil" that stifled the growth of a truly left wing democratic politics for 75 years.

I would like to think that we lefties can expropriate the term "progressive" and triangulate the neoliberals and corporatists (DLCers) right out of the Democratic Party.

by LiberalFlamethrower 2007-01-02 10:36AM | 0 recs
kicking them out

"I would like to think that we lefties can expropriate the term 'progressive' and triangulate the neoliberals and corporatists (DLCers) right out of the Democratic Party."

Happily, we've already started.

by Big River Bandido 2007-01-03 10:56AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

Wallace was prescient! According to Wikipedia: "Wallace famously said, 'The American fascist would prefer not to use violence. His method is to poison the channels of public information.'" llace

by lemonyellow 2007-01-02 10:40AM | 0 recs
You Missed A Big Piece of The History, Chris...

From the 1960s onwards, folks like me--from the New Left and later, took to calling ourselves "progressives" as opposed to the corporate, Cold War liberals who brought us all the Vietnam War.

I used this term myself, and encountered many others using it from coast to coast--when I lived in Florida, Philadelphia, Vermont, or back in California, both Bay Area and SoCal.  It was part of the common parlance among activists everywhere I can recall.

In fact, I never felt any affinity or identification with the term "liberal" until George Bush I took pot shots at it back in the 1988 campaign.

by Paul Rosenberg 2007-01-02 10:41AM | 0 recs
Re: You Missed A Big Piece of The History, Chris..

I agree.  I lived in Boston, Madison, Wisconsin and Vermont, all prior to the 1990s, where the terms "progressive" and "Progressive" were in use.  Prior to Reagan and the first president Bush successfully taking shots at "liberals," I always thought that the term progressive was used to separate left-winged activists from the more centrist and established "liberal" portion of the Democratic party.  As Democrats did worse and worse in elections from 1980s through the 1990s and our Democratic majority became a minority in the 1990s, I saw less of a distinction between the two terms because it became more necessary for the diminishing left to stick together and the established centrish Democrats began to avoid the term liberal and began using the term progressive to describe themselves.        

by gunnar 2007-01-03 08:39PM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

I've been getting used to progressive over the last four years, but I absolutedly hated that Kucinich insisted on using it instead of liberal.  To me, progressive still sounds farther to the left than liberal.  I mean, wasn't it the more leftist intellectual elites who started up with the term?

But maybe there are moderate Republicans who have worse associations with "liberal."  Certainly some wimpy presidential candidates over the last 20 years have distanced themselves from the word.

Someone should commission a poll of moderates of both parties to see which one they feel more hostile/receptive to.

by catherineD 2007-01-02 10:42AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

Liberal/Progressive: Mostly in agreement with a few differences, mainly in emphasis.

Progressive - Think: reform union laws to make union-joining easy, Medicare for all, Progressive Caucus, Progressive Magazine, Air America, Teddy Roosevelt, admiration for the Constitution, fair judging, rule of law, and fair sports referees; comfort with the ordinary and big bad mouths; love loyalty, demand peace and prosperity for all. Progressives love Al Gore because of his speeches on war, empire, law-breaking WH, and the future. Progressives discovered Howard Dean who called himself a social progressive, fiscal conservative.

Liberal: Think: ACLU, Amy Goodman, PBS, The American Prospect Magazine, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Liberals are  comfortable with all manner of high-status people, tolerant of the poor and imprisoned, love independence and the lone voice, admire expertise in foreign policy that supports "virtuous" wars, higher military spending, lower social spending. Liberals are good negotiators and governors.

by mrobinsong 2007-01-02 10:49AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

I am not an historian.  I also disclaim personal knowledge of the early 1900's. But it seems to me that a major component of the 1920 progressive agenda is missing in the short summary: income taxation.  The adoption of income taxation was a fairly big thing, involving amendment to the federal constitution.  The "progressive" element of income taxation is based upon an economic theory of the diminishing value of marginal increases in income.  Your first thousand dollars of income is worth more to you than the last thousand dollars of a million dollar income. In practical terms, Ronald Reagan achieved the most significant rollbacks against "progressive" taxation, and Steve Forbes flat tax seems the most avowedly anti-progressive. I think that in practice, progressive taxation yields results most of us view as fairer, and the term progressive used as a party name certainly has a life beyond the tax and economic component.

by wind off the lake 2007-01-02 10:51AM | 0 recs
also the estate tax

The estate tax was the crown jewel of the early 20th century progressive movement -- the one associated with Theodore Roosevelt.  The tax was adopted to prevent wealth from concentrating in the hands of a few who passed it on to their sons and daughters like...royalty.  

by Big River Bandido 2007-01-03 11:06AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology: Progress before liberal

I keep wondering why it might be desirable to really emphasize and retain the term "liberal" in a contemporary context.  It would seem somewhat devoid of meaning, properly applied to the programs one might come up with after progressive changes were made to our current system.  Liberal, a la FDR, really was an outgrowth of progressive ideas and successes, elaborated into a mainstream message and commitment, which had the effective of "liberalizing" the broader culture.  Right now we are in the throes of a popular progressive movement toward change to correct the abuses and neo-conservative excesses, much like progressives did at the last turn of the century, opening the way for liberal programs.  We don't have a meaningful contemporary context for liberalism, until the progressive wave hits the beach and prepares the way with ideas, language, and innovation.

by citizenzeus 2007-01-02 10:54AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology


"To me, progressive sounds further to the left than liberal.."

Yes indeed and that is the point.  The neo-fascist corporatists in power for the last 26 years have so circumscribed the political vocabulary today that "moderate" is a meaningless term used to divide non-fascists against each other.  I hate ta tell ya this catherine, but there is no "middle" politically right now.  To understand this better, take a peek back at those "moderates" in 1932-33 Wiemar Germany who tried to keep themselves from bein' contaminated by the leftists so they either didn't vote or voted Nazi.  How'd that work out for ' fact how'd it work out for the "moderates" in 2000 and 2004?

by LiberalFlamethrower 2007-01-02 10:54AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

The liberal religion of the Unitarian Universalist Church:

"We are a liberal religious organization that welcomes all people seeking their own spiritual path - whether they believe in an established religion, a path of their own choosing, or are agnostic or atheist. Our congregation offers Sunday services, religious services for couples and families, and special programs in every season. We celebrate diversity, and newcomers are always welcome."

by mrobinsong 2007-01-02 11:01AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

Bless you mrrobinsong...perfect!

by LiberalFlamethrower 2007-01-02 11:02AM | 0 recs
Future vs Past

It is useful to look at terminology through the use of contrast.

Liberal and conservative have settled into positions of contrast through usage.

Progressive is a term that has not successfully been contrasted with anything positive: progressive vs. regressive? Who wants the latter?

Mark Warner and John McCain were both using the rhetoric of, "It's not useful to argue left vs. right, we need to look to the future and not be stuck in the past," in their commencement speeches last spring, and we heard that theme reprised by Warner at YKos.

Just thinking out loud here, but it seems that progressivism (which is not really ideological at all) as a gesture to a better future and an invitation to abandon ideological rejection of good policy is a powerful rhetorical position.

by demondeac 2007-01-02 11:20AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

The right has successfully demonized the term "liberal". So, with respect to labeling ourselves, I see two basic choices:

1. Defiantly embrace the term, and thereby de-demonize it. This is the strategy homosexuals have taken with the term "queer". I think this strategy works best for a group that is willing to remain somewhat out of the mainstream.

2. Find a more positive label. This is the course I would counsel for those who wish to build a broad-based movement. "Progressive" is the best suggestion I have seen so far. I particularly like the connection with the Teddy Roosevelt Republican Party (back before the Republicans lost their minds), as I think that it positions the movement as modern, muscular, and can-do, but incorporating rock-solid traditional American values.

by Dr K 2007-01-02 11:32AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

If I self-identify at all (I'm not convinced my thinking is sytematic enough to fit any ideology) it's going to involve the label 'socialist' but that's hardly going to play in America (Vermont excluded.)

In general terms, 'liberal' no longer seems appropriate when the Democrats and the netroots feel compelled to stress fiscal responsibility and when the consensus in the netroots is that a laissez-faire economic policy is not a good thing.

'Progressive' works well, as it's actual opposite is not 'conservative' (which is the opposite of 'radical') but 'regressive', which might be a useful coinage to use against the right (even if people don't understand the meaning of regressive, it's close enough to recession to still sound bad.)

by Englishlefty 2007-01-02 11:38AM | 0 recs
lost down the memory hole

Campus lefties have been using the term "progressive" since the 60s, and it was used widely in the 80s to distinguish from the neo-libs.

I'm guessing that you are in your early 30s and that your hs/college history books ended with a chapter on WWII.  

How about inviting a political historian on site to give a real history of the term?

by Disputo 2007-01-02 12:25PM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

"Until FDR, "progressive" was actually the most common term used to describe the mainstream of American leftism."

There is some truth to this, but stated this way it's highly misleading.  As "eugene" remarks above, "in those years ...'the left'...[consisted of] Socialists, radical labor unionists like Eugene V. Debs, perhaps folks like Edward Bellamy and Ignatius Donnelly."  Socialism, for example, was a serious force in American politics.

Two critically-important points about 19th-century progressivism are: (1) it was a broad climate of opinion, encompassing many diverse and differing streams of political, social and economic thought; it was not a political ideology, as such. (2) In terms of its political content, first and second generation "progressivism" included important elements of both "liberalism" and "conservatism."

In that sense (although without endorsing their definitions  of "liberal," "conservative," "moderate") I would suggest that "Chicago Jeff" and "Peter from WI" are onto a key point: historically, 19th-century progressivism was about breaking public policy free from the liberal-conservative continuum of political ideology; indeed, the outstanding political progessives of the early 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, can only be properly understood in terms of their effective fusion (in different ways) of "liberal" and "conservative" political values.  

by JTL 2007-01-02 12:30PM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

New Donkey noticed Chris's post and explains his (and the DLC's) usage:

I have one quibble with Chris' suggestion that New Democrats started using the term "progressive" (most notably with the establishment of the Progressive Policy Institute in 1989) "as a means to avoid being labeled as 'liberal.'" That suggests the terminology was purely cosmetic and non-ideological. In fact, the early New Democrats argued that "liberalism" had become temperamentally reactionary, consumed with defending the dead letter of every single New Deal/Great Society program and policy, while sacrificing the spirit of innovation that made "progressives" progressive. The whole international "Third Way" phenomenon was not designed to produce a moderate middle-point between Left and Right, but instead a reformulation of the progressive mission of the center-left at a time when the Right was successfully battening on popular discontent with outworn social democratic programs. That's why many of us from the New Dem tradition heartily dislike the "centrist" or "moderate" labels, even though they are hard to escape as a short-hand for intra-party politics.

There's more. Worth reading IMO.

by demondeac 2007-01-02 01:02PM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

Here's how I view the resurrgence of Progressivism:

For a very long time we have been obsessed with a left/right graphing of political ideology.  The more conservative one was the more to the right the pendulum swung, etc.  This was a great narrative for those who promulgate narrative because it remained value neutral and allowed reporters and authors and political types to easily access a ready narrative.

The world, however, is changing.  I think it has a lot to do with the great generational shift that is about to get underway with the Boomers aging out and the Greatest Generation going out like candles.  Whatever the causes, we are no longer considering our ideology on the basis of whether it moves us right or left and instead on whether it moves us forward or backward.

Perhaps it has to do with the cynicism of the Xers and Millenials and a pervading notion that we live in a great country, but one whose glory is on the decline.  The right/left paradigm, which presupposes that where we are "standing" as a country is as progressed and modern as possible and that we need only to move right or left to get the best vantage point, requires one buy in wholly to the notion of American exceptionalism.  It requires that you believe that you and your nation are simply the best because you are American and the nation is America.  There is no need to move forward or backward; there is only a need to remain entrenched and move left or right.

The progressive/conservative graphing, however, requires a hardnosed look at the fact that America is slipping in a lot of fields.  It requires that instead of shifting from one foot to the other in a decade long dance of electoral masturbation that one move either forward or backward.  That is the choice we now face and that is why a progressive ideology with such a broad base of support has formed.

by electricgrendel 2007-01-02 01:07PM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

The term "progressive" was not neglected as long as you suggest in your chronology. Nor is its modern provenance 1990s San Francisco. Morris Udall rather proudly used the term in his 1976 presidential bid. (I checked my memory on this and found a NYT article where Christopher Lydon reports that "Representative Morris K. Udall's first move as the self-styled leader of the "progressive" wing of the Democratic Party in the Presidential race was a tactical retreat this weekend from the New York primary on April 6 and a redoubled commitment to the Wisconsin primary on the same day."  NYT March 8, 1876.  

I did a small and incomplete bit of research on the term. Originally it indicated a salutary generational change in politics, such as the second time the word was used in an 1890 NY Times headline "HOPEFUL SIGNS IN INDIANA; THE OLD SOLDIER LOSING POWER IN POLITICS. YOUNG AND PROGRESSIVE MEN COMING TO THE FRONT -- THE STATUS OF THE TWO OLD PARTIES." NYT Feb 3, 1890.

By the 1960s, as you suggest, the term progressive is rarely used in headlines about American politics, save for Henry Wallace's obituary, or curiously to denote the views of liberal Republicans: "Javits Campaigns for Taft in Ohio House Race; Sees Victory in Cincinnati as Vital for G.O.P. Liberals Hails Son of 'Mr. Republican' for Progressive Views"NYT Oct 17, 1966.

The downside of the progressive label is that authoritarians like Bush and Giuliani also covet an association with Theodore Roosevelt, the 1912 Progressive Party candidate, and not without reason. They share TR's nationalism and militarism. Also, as has been pointed out, it can imply some sort of telology--that history is a narrative of constant improvement--that I think most of us would eschew.

Most "progressives" today would differ from the Progressives of the early twentieth century who, like TR and FDR believed in maximizing executive power, particularly those who fear the irrational judgment of the likes of LBJ and W. when it comes to invading other countries for domestic political gain. But TR's militarism was also criticized by other progressives at the time, such as Jane Addams. Some turn-of-the-century Progressives founded the NAACP, which along with Addams and the labor reformers around Gov. Alfred E. Smith is the progressive tradition with which I feel more kinship, though far from precise identification.

by TomSkidmore 2007-01-02 01:17PM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

If I may add a  note on FDR: CB's account of FDR's "Flip" (love that term) is, in my opinion, mostly wrong.  (No offense intended, Mr. Bowers--I appreciate your analyses of contemporary politics.)

To start with, FDR's ideological reorientation of the term "liberal" did not occur during the 1932 campaign; it came later: not before 1934, perhaps as late as 1935-36.  Certainly, during the `32 campaign FDR called himself a "liberal," and insisted that the Democratic party was the "liberal" party, but he was using the term in a reasonably conventional sense, and that's not what outraged Hoover.  What sent Hoover up the wall was that FDR was getting away with running both to the "left" of him and to the "right" of him, simultaneously--for example, by calling for both increased federal expenditure on unemployment relief, and a balanced budget, at the same time (sound familiar?).  Hoover considered FDR a political and intellectual lightweight, who was too stupid to understand the contradictions (sound familiar?).

FDR "flipped" the meaning of liberalism in American political discourse during the so-called Second New Deal (1934-35, or 1935-36, depending on which historian is grading your essay exam).  This was a deliberate move in the run-up to the 1936 presidential election, designed to do two things: (1) identify the allegedly "radical" policy departures of the New Deal with the nation's political past (by appropriating the term "liberal" for his own movement, FDR reassured the nervous middle that he was not some kind of European-style dictator); and (2) send a tacit message (dog-whistle?) to the actual "left" that the New Deal in fact represented a break with what the "left" perceived as the hopelessly compromised politics of the (by then) "old" progressives.  FDR's success in doing (1) and (2) simultaneously (they don't call him "The Juggler" for nothing!) fractured the opposition into mutually antipathetic fragments: old progressives, southern conservatives, and business conservatives (to say nothing of the "hard" left, communists and the real socialists, for example).  It took two full generations, and a considerable assist from liberal self-destruction, before Goldwater/Reagan were able to pull together the old-fashioned, 19th-century style liberals (now known as "libertarian conservatives"), the business conservatives, and the southern conservatives into a more-or-less coherent political force.

by JTL 2007-01-02 01:28PM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

I prefer progressive, because it doesn't tie me strictly on idealogy; rather it is about real progress

by v2aggie2 2007-01-02 06:35PM | 0 recs
Progressives Populists & the 19th Cen.

I just finished a graduate-level history class on the progressive era:  

I think a key to understanding the democratic party & populism is to see how William Jennings Bryan affected the Dems by being it's candidate in 3 elections over the course of 20 years.  

Imagine the affect Gore would have had by being the candidate in '04 and then again in say '12.  Bryan shaped a young generation of suffragists, prohibitionist, settlement house workers, populists, and idealists.  Bryan was a pacifist, and internationalist, a fundamentalist Xtian, and a prohibitionist.  One of Bryan's closest people was Adlai Stevenson Sr. who's son ended up being the Dem's Prez nominee 2x as well.  

Between Bryan & Adlai you have nearly 3 decades of democratic policy making.

Understanding Bryan helps to understand how the Democratic party was labeled as overly big-brother (pushing fundamentalist & prohibitionist schemes down the throats of a more libertarian nation)... why the dems have such a huge pacifist streak, why the Dems won the White Xtian Southern and Midwestern votes until the 60s, why the dems are so populist (Bryan won the populist endorsement in 1896) and several other things like that.  

Hope that helps.  

by johnowens2 2007-01-02 09:03PM | 0 recs
Re: Progressives Populists & the 19th Cen.

Adlai Ewing Stevenson I (1835-1914) was vice president of the United States under Grover Cleveland.  In 1900, he was again nominated for vice president by the Democratic Party, as an elder statesman intended to "balance the ticket" with William Jennings Bryan.  He was generally regarded as a "Cleveland Democrat," i.e., a business conservative, and was not particularly close to Bryan, either personally or politically.  The fact that the Democratic candidate for President of the United States in 1952 and 1956, Adlai Ewing Stevenson II (1900-65) happens to have been his grandson is, in my opinion, a coincidence with no great significance for American political history.

by JTL 2007-01-03 03:41AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

Everyone posting here seems to have missed a key name-- Woodrow Wilson.  FDR saw himself as a Wilsonian Democrat.  The kind of world order both liberals and progressives stand for-- the rule of law, international cooperation in institutions like the UN or League of Nations, was a Wilsonian invention.  Wilson was a liberal.

The progressives originally were a response, in part, to the corruption of many urban and state political machines.   Their focus was more local.  The original progressives, like the populists, were a bit atavistic in that they looked back to a declining small town social order.  They were against bigness and concentrations of power.  

The Wilsonian liberals realized we were going to be living in a industrialized urban society.  So they focused on controlling big business, for instance, rather than just breaking them apart.   They knew a big nation was going to require a big government and big solutions. The liberals then would not have agreed with Reagan that "government is not the solution, government is the problem."   The original progressives might have agreed with that.

There are still overtones of this today, but the backward looking aspect of progressives looking to a dying small town social order is gone today among those who call themselves progressives.   They have come over to a liberal perspective, that government is the solution, not the problem.  They also completely share the liberal view on all international issues-- we are all Wilsonian liberals now on foreign policy.

Progressives call themselves that because we allowed the right wing to demonize the word liberal, as was noted above.  Whether one wants to call oneself a liberal or progressive should be fine with all of us, but none of us should consent to the right's effort to demonize the word liberal.

by tea in the harbor 2007-01-03 05:53AM | 0 recs
Re: Progressive Etymology

People adopted the term "progressive" because it signifies a specific, positive worldview, not to avoid an unpopular "liberal" label. "Liberal" simply isn't an accurate word to describe progressive ideals.

The Progressive wordview is close to what Bento mentioned above: a forward-looking belief that humanity's best days are ahead of us, that we are evolving toward higher states of civilized existence, and that ordinary people can actively influence and participate in human betterment.

Progressives cite achievements like the elimination of slavery, cannibalism, human sacrifice, and child labor; the development of democratic systems of self-governance, equal rights for women, hygiene and public health improvements, and the discovery of medical cures as evidence that humanity is proceeding toward a improved life, liberty and happiness.

The Progressive worldview holds that reason and empiricism are the highest source of moral authority. Thus, progressives tend to try new ideas, collaborate, and abandon beliefs & practices that do not work.

Conservatism, on the other hand, assumes a backward-looking belief that humanity's best days are behind us, that we exist in a "fallen" or "separated" state, or have turned our backs on perfect values that succeeded in a prior idealized age --whether Biblical Eden or the 1950's-- to which we must return. Conservatives tend to believe that an external God determines humanity's fate, and thet human beings are powerless to change anything unless God wills it.

Thus, at almost every critical evolutionary juncture, Conservatives opposed (and still oppose) innovations and changes to existing orthodoxy --such as abolishing slavery, extending equal rights to women and race-mixing -- and scientific breakthroughs --like the Copernican solar system, the lightening rod and stem cell research-- merely because they contradicted Conservative doctrine.

Conservatism holds that revealed truth, tradition and supernatural religious texts are the highest source of moral authority. Thus, conservatives tend to ignore facts and new ideas that contradict their ideology, and will ignore emipirical proof (e.g. global warming, evolutionary biology) and simply assert that they or their religious texts "know" better.

Additionally, Progressives tend to view human excess and failure as a result of fear, ignorance and weaknesses that can be corrected through education and social improvements, while Conservatives view them as the result of sin, moral evil and demonic forces that can only be remedied by adopting the "correct" conservative religious ideology and/or by supernatural "cleansing" of sin.

by Munguza 2007-01-03 06:00PM | 0 recs


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