by Chris Bowers, Sun May 09, 2004 at 09:56:09 PM EDT
Personally speaking, I find this shift in terminology ironic because the first time I heard a group of lefties regularly refer to themselves as "progressives" was around three years ago at a so-called "radical" teaching conference.
This shift of terminology is also ironic from a historical point of view. From the 1880's until the 1920's, "progressive" was actually the most common ideological label for reformers and the "leftist" wing of the Democratic party. However, since by 1930 that term had itself become a bit of an insult, FDR instead took to calling himself the more generally accepted political term of the time: "liberal." (This rhetorical move angered Herbert Hoover, a self-proclaimed "liberal," to no end. Hoover once even challenged FDR to a debate entirely over who was the "true liberal.")
Of course, one of the dirty secrets about the term "liberal" being a supposedly negative term is that the amount of self-identified liberals in this country has not actually changed in at least thirty years.
The second, far dirtier secret, is that terms such as liberal, conservative, radical, moderate, progressive, neoconservative---or any other sweeping political abstraction you can name---have become entirely devoid of fixed ideological signification. Since usage determines grammar, and since all of these terms have been repeatedly and frequently used in thousands of different contexts, each connected to almost every political stance imaginable, all of these terms have been freed from their moorings. Each term is so overflowing with signification that meaning has been all but emptied from them.
With all of this in mind, I'd like to make a proposal. Everyone on the "left," no matter what ideological stances s/he holds, should call herself a "moderate." Since the abstractions themselves are completely meaningless, the only advantage I can see is to use the most popular meaningless term (and then, possibly, to demonize "conservative" as a concept for not being moderate enough).
Fight the battles you can win. After spending the last decade in academia, trust me when I say that attempting to recoup specific definitions from a set of hopelessly deluded abstractions is not one of them.