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Progressive to a Fault

Geoffrey Nunberg

"Fresh Air" commentary,
October 27, 2006

People don't like distinctions without differences. Soda and pop, rap and hip hop, breakfast nooks and dinettes -- however close two words seem to be, we're naturally going to try to tease out a difference in meaning.

So as more people take to styling themselves as "progressives" rather than "liberals," it isn't surprising to see efforts to carve out an ideological difference between the two labels.[1] At the New Republic's academic blog, the historian Eric Rauchway traces the origins of the distinction to the Roosevelt era, when the early 20th-century progressive movement was giving way to the liberalism of the New Deal. The difference, he says, is that liberals are content to make an uneasy truce with capitalism, while progressives favor more vigorous social experimentation. And the political writer David Sirota argues that liberals favor expanded social programs whereas progressives favor more direct limitations on corporate power.

Those are solid philosophical distinctions, and so are many of the others that people have proposed. But none of them has much to do with with how the labels are actually used. You can't predict how people will describe themselves by polling them on the issues or interviewing them about their philosophy of government. And for that matter, you don't really have to. You have a pretty good idea which people are going to call themselves progressives without knowing how they come down on single-payer health care or the estate tax. It's enough to know that they live in a university town or work for a nonprofit, listen to Pacifica radio rather than NPR, read blogs like Daily Kos and Eschaton, and don’t have any conservatives in their Wednesday night poker game.

That all has less to do with ideology than genealogy. Far more than liberals, progressives see themselves in the line of the historical left. Not that America has much of a left to speak of anymore, at least by the standards of the leftists of the Vietnam era, who were a lot less eager than most modern-day progressives to identify themselves with the Democratic Party. But if modern progressives haven't inherited the radicalism or ferocity of the movement left of the 60's, they're doing what they can to keep its tone and attitude alive.

At the heart of that attitude was a sense of superiority to all those middle-class liberals whose wan political commitments were tempered by self-interest. You think of Phil Ochs' 1965 song, "Love Me, I'm a Liberal," a sarcastic catalogue of the hypocrisies of middle-class liberals:

I go to all the Pete Seeger concerts
He sure gets me singing those songs,
I'll send all the money you ask for,
But don't ask me to come on along.
So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal.

When Ochs wrote those words, of course, the liberal label was still riding high in the saddle. In 1961, the philosopher Charles Frankel observed that "anyone who today identifies himself as an unmitigated opponent of liberalism . . . cannot aspire to influence on the national political scene." Little more than a decade later, the label was in tatters, the victim of political Vietnam, the civil-rights backlash, and the perceived failure of the Great Society social programs. That was when the right began to color liberals with new social stereotypes, fitting them out with Volvos, white wine, brie and other accoutrements that suggested their vast distance from heartland Middle Americans.

By the 1980's, Democratic politicians were cutting and running from the liberal label, particularly after Ronald Reagan branded it as "the L-Word" in a speech to the 1988 Republican convention. Some of them explained their reluctance to use the label as part of a general aversion to pigeonholing: when you hear a politician say, "I don't believe in labels," you can be pretty sure you're listening to someone who would have proudly worn the liberal label forty years ago.

But others switched over to the progressive label, so as not to evoke any of those fatuous L-Word stereotypes. During the 2003 California recall election, Gray Davis contrasted Arnold Schwarzenegger's "conservative agenda" with his own "progressive agenda" -- this from a Democrat who had never been known for cruising in the party’s left lane. It's the same strategy that the Ford Motor Company adopted after the Edsel bombed in the late 1950's -- they changed the  grille and trim and successfully marketed it as the Ford Galaxie, in the hope that nobody would notice it was the same car.

When Berkeley professors or social activists use the progressive label among themselves, it's the political equivalent of a fraternity handshake -- they know that it's meant to convey their ideological purity, rather than  simply to conceal their Volvo ownership.  But those nuances are apt to be lost on Americans who have no idea that the word Progressive ever wore a capital letter -- people who not only haven't heard of Walter Lippman or Robert Lafollette, but who are probably a little cloudy on Phil Ochs, too. For them, the P-Word is simply a way of avoiding saying the L-Word, which is the term everybody else uses for the left-hand pole of American politics, etched on the split screens of the cable talk shows. It seems to confirm the suspicion that liberals don’t talk the same language as other Americans, even when it comes to pronouncing their own name right.

That's the progressives' bind: You can't distance yourself from the negative liberal stereotypes of Phil Ochs without also corroborating the negative liberal stereotypes of Rush Limbaugh. The more Democrats avoid the liberal label, the more cheerfully the right steps in to redefine it, driving it to the margins of political life. (Not long ago, the Republican minority leader of the South Carolina Senate described a Democratic legislator as “one of the most liberal leftists that we have in the House"  -- a description that would have sounded dyslexic thirty years ago.)

Of course progressives will tell you in all sincerity that they're not out to trash the liberal label, and insist that their differences with liberals are fundamentaly philosophical, not stylistic, even if it isn't easy to put your finger on what they are. The irony is that nowadays it's chiefly that insistence alone that divides the two. The difference between progressives and liberals is that progressives believe that there is one.

1. As best I can determine, progressive as a political label is almost twice as common in the press as it was 15 years ago. Return

Copyright © 2006 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.