One particular question had been quietly running through my head for years – a question I’ve finally started to think about more seriously lately: When did the word “progressive” enter my reporting?
Specifically, I started to think about it more when I covered an Ohio Democratic Congressional primary last month – a primary in which candidates and voters spoke a lot about who was more “progressive” ( and if being “progressive” is a good thing).
“If you ask someone who’s a little more to the right, they can tell I’m a progressive,” said Shontel Brown, the primary winner. “If you ask someone who is a little more to the left, they’ll tell you I’m moderate.”
And, to be honest, I used the word “progressive” myself … er … generously throughout the piece.
But then the word is so widely used that its meaning depends on the user. Following his recent rise is to tell a story about the divisions currently within the Democratic Party, as well as the extent to which it has (and has not) moved to the left in recent years.
According to a quick search of the NPR archives, the network’s use of the word to describe Democrats really exploded in 2018, after picking up again in 2016 and 2017. This is also the trend being followed by major US newspapers, according to my own research in the news database. And it’s not just that left-wing politicians have become more numerous – the word “liberal”, for example, has not echoed in the descriptions of Democrats in the same way. In fact, the “progressive” has practically caught up with him in recent years.
Not only that, but a 2018 analysis by the center-left Brookings Institution found that Democratic candidates identifying themselves as “progressive” had by then resumed … and word has held since then.
… which led me to speculate that Bernie Sanders and his 2016 presidential campaign might have something to do with it. So I asked Faiz Shakir, the former Sanders campaign manager in 2020, about the word. And he gave me a surprising answer.
“I’ll be honest with you, I don’t use the term ‘progressive’,” he said. “If someone calls me ‘progressive’, that’s fine, I’m not going to run away. But I tend to think that has lost a lot of meaning.”
For Shakir, economic policies that prioritize individuals over corporate interests are progressive. That means there are nuances in his definition: for example, he says he would view relatively moderate Democratic Senator from Montana, Jon Tester, as a progressive.
But Shakir also believes the term has been extended beyond his roots.
“Over time, what happened was that the word ‘progressive’ became so popular that it started to encompass virtually everything in the Democratic Party,” Shakir continued. “It has almost become synonymous, in my mind, with the Democratic Party – the Democratic Party is progressive, progressive is the Democratic Party.”
The word means different things to different people
In U.S. history, the word often refers to the progressive era in the early 20th century, when activists argued for a variety of reforms – some were economic, such as the fight for greater regulation of the industry, and some were social, such as the struggle for women. suffrage and ban. But even then, the movement contained a variety of beliefs.
These days, it is not difficult to find a range of definitions for the word. Consider two DC institutions located a few blocks from each other: the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist think tank founded in 1989 by the also moderate Democratic Leadership Council, and the Progressive Campaign Change Committee, a advocacy advocate who supported Elizabeth Warren in 2020.
For Adam Green, co-founder of the PCCC, “progressive” has qualities of populism, daring and the fight against the establishment.
“Progressive means to challenge power, whether it means to challenge the power of corporations on behalf of workers or it means to challenge systemic racism,” Green said. “It basically comes down to being prepared to challenge the power on behalf of the little guy.”
For Michael Mandel, chief economic strategist at the Progressive Policy Institute, progressivism also has something to do with economic growth.
“One of the strands is anti-business and anti-corruption. But at the same time, progressive also has a strand which means pro-growth, pro-innovation and pro-jobs,” he said. “Progress is both social progress, but it is also economic progress.”
Mandel, for example, believes that the antitrust bills that were passed by a House committee this summer hamper economic progress and are therefore not “progressive.” (What complicates matters further, however, is the fact that prominent self-proclaimed progressives, including Progressive Congressional Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, have supported these bills.)
It seems true that “progressive” in popular usage has come to mean something closer to “relatively left” than what Mandel says – often in politics today, “progressive” and “liberal”. “are often simply used interchangeably. (At the same time, there is a certain imprecision in the way the word “liberal” is used, as argued by Graham Vyse in the Washington post earlier this year.)
When and why it became such a popular label
Clearly self-proclaimed “progressives” have existed for a long time: the Progressive Policy Institute was launched in 1989. The Congressional Progressive Caucus was formed in 1991. The PCCC was founded in 2009.
But the question is why the “progressive” has gained momentum in recent years.
“I think there was a lexical gap, basically, meaning we needed a word that we didn’t have,” said Nicole Holliday, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania.
Holliday also volunteered for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign as a college student in 2008. And she saw a bump in the use of the word around that time.
“I started to see a lot of people I knew getting frustrated because they felt like he wasn’t as left as they expected,” she said. “And so I think there was just a sort of people out there saying, ‘You know, I don’t really identify with what I think the Democratic Party stands for, or what the mainstream liberals stand for. “”
This means that the word “liberal” has been assailed over the years not only by the right, by Republicans who effectively made the word an insult, but also by the left, by dissenting leftists who wanted to distinguish themselves from other Democrats. . .
Frustration with establishment Democrats like Obama – the feeling that they were insufficiently leftist and not bold enough in their policy making – partly paved the way for Bernie Sanders to run for a liberal and anti-establishment candidacy, widening the debate on a series of questions to the left. He and Hillary Clinton argued over the meaning of “progressive” during a debate in 2016, after Sanders said you can’t be both a moderate and a progressive.
Clinton responded by claiming the progressive mantle: “In the very first debate I was asked, ‘Am I a moderate or a progressive? And I said, ‘I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.’ “
Attempting to embrace the label was, on the one hand, likely an attempt to hold on to the fervor for change that Sanders exploited.
But for Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the center-left Brookings Institution, one of the main reasons a candidate like Clinton was trying to embrace the word may have been very practical.
“Let’s face it: America is not a liberal country, nor a progressive country,” she said. “And if you wanted to win the election and win hearts and minds, you had to find a better way to talk about it because you’re outnumbered.”
About a quarter of Americans identify as liberals, according to Gallup, while more than a third identify as conservatives.
It may not seem like a huge difference, but it is significant in a key way, says Kamarck: Democrats simply needed moderate-majority coalitions to win at the national level.
“The Republican Party need not be as afraid of its conservative base as the Democrats should be of their liberal base, because their conservative base has been much larger than the liberal base over the past four decades,” he said. she declared.
That said, the share of Americans who consider themselves “liberal” has increased, and the Overton window of political ideas has widened to the left, bringing ideas like “Medicare for All” into the mainstream.
The word “progressive” has become a tool to seduce the most left-wing Americans without alienating the moderates and independents who reject the label “liberal.”
Saying “progressive” dodges that L-word, Kamarck says, “It’s an effort to get rid of a bad label. That’s why, plain and simple.”
This comprehensive coalition has offered Democrats very slim margins in Congress as the party tries to push through a moderately-crafted infrastructure bill and a bigger budget backed by far-left Democrats like Faiz Shakir.
“You know, literally, any benefits that will come out of this will go almost entirely to working class, low income, and middle class families across America,” he said. “So, you know, that in my opinion is a major accomplishment of the progressive era.”
But only if it passes. And right now he is threatened by the enormous power wielded by the moderates. West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin says he wants his fellow Senate colleagues to “put a stop to” this bill… and they need all Democrats to do it, no matter how progressive they are.