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Democrats Debate: What Is A Progressive And Who Wants To Be One?

Theodore Roosevelt is one of the earliest presidents associated with "progressive" politics, even accepting the nomination of the Progressive Party in 1912.
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Theodore Roosevelt is one of the earliest presidents associated with "progressive" politics, even accepting the nomination of the Progressive Party in 1912.

Before they got down to debating the big issues Thursday night, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders wrangled over one big word: progressivism.

Which of them was the true progressive? Was Clinton a progressive at all?

Sanders has long billed himself as a progressive, also describing himself as a "democratic socialist." He has not been known for flirting with the term "moderate." But Clinton has at times willingly chosen the latter label.

Being a moderate might be a good strategy in many political contexts, such as a general election in November of a year divisible by 4.

But in a hotly contested presidential primary, where the more active and partisan Democrats predominate, it makes sense to call yourself a progressive.

The number of times candidates and moderators said, "progressive" during Thursday's Democratic debate in Durham, N.H. Source: MSNBC Debate Transcript
Meg Kelly and Paulina Firozi / NPR
The number of times candidates and moderators said, "progressive" during Thursday's Democratic debate in Durham, N.H. Source: MSNBC Debate Transcript

"I'm a progressive who likes to get things done," Clinton likes to say, and she said that again Thursday night.

Can she be a progressive and still "represent the establishment," as Sanders accused her of doing on Thursday night?

And what, exactly, is a progressive in the first place?

Clinton said on Thursday night that the term had its root in the word "progress" and the idea of making things better. But that's about as far as agreement about the word usually goes.

The term has been part of European philosophy discourse since the 1700s, and part of American political argot since the late 1800s. It was applied to an entire era of our history roughly a century ago, from about 1890 to about 1920, encompassing the progressive administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson (along with sympathetic analogs in many state capitals, such as "Fighting Bob" La Follette in Wisconsin). There was for a time a magazine called La Follette's, but it eventually changed its name to The Progressive.

The term has also been used to cover certain ideas, attitudes, movements and schools of thought. It has been affixed to leading American politicians, in both major parties, and it has been the official title of a third party that nominated candidates for president — including Teddy Roosevelt.

Republican Teddy was known as a "trust buster" because he feared and fought the concentration of economic power through corporate entities known as trusts. He even spoke of the monopolists such as John D. Rockefeller as "malefactors of great wealth."

When his successor, William H. Taft, abandoned his anti-trust campaign, Roosevelt came back to challenge Taft's renomination in 1912. When the GOP stuck with Taft, Teddy accepted the nomination of the Progressive Party, saying he felt as strong as a bull moose (and thus giving the party its nickname).

Progressivism has historically been associated with science, rationality and an approach to government and society reliant on knowledge and empirical methods. It has often been counterposed with populism, which is a movement among the common folk. Progressives tended to be people with education and some standing in the world.

Critics have said these progressives were overly reliant on the notion of human improvement — even human perfectability — which offends some of the teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

In that sense, progressivism also stands apart from some definitions of liberalism, and certainly from ideas of radicalism, even though all three terms imply support for equality, change and reform — and all three have been used as antonyms for "conservatism."

Many conservatives, and also many journalists, regard the word "progressive" as a euphemism for "liberal" — a subterfuge to avoid a term that's become almost a slur in some circles. In the contemporary Republican Party, calling someone a liberal is a lacerating pejorative, a way of attacking their most fundamental values.

But the two terms have distinct histories and roots, and have denoted different philosophies in the past. The word "liberal" speaks to freedom, including individual personal freedom, and in an earlier era it was used to describe people we might call libertarians today. More recently, liberalism has been associated with government and intervention in the economy, as well as a more tolerant attitude toward lifestyle and moral issues.

Political commentator David Sirota, who has worn both labels willingly, says the two terms are not synonyms.

"There is a fundamental difference when it comes to core economic issues," Sirota writes. "It seems to me that traditional 'liberals' in our current parlance are those who focus on using taxpayer money to help better society. A 'progressive' are those who focus on using government power to make large institutions play by a set of rules."

That would seem to describe the Roosevelts and La Follettes, who moved legislation and regulations to rein in what they saw as the excesses of capitalism. They did not denounce capitalism itself, but they saw great political success by attacking its excesses and breakdowns.

Arguments over orthodoxy are a regular part of the Republicans' presidential primaries, at least in the decades since Ronald Reagan's reorienting of the party. The nominating process seems largely devoted to determining which candidate is the most conservative or "the truest conservative."

But it is striking to see the Democrats plunge into an equally bald competition for the label of "truest progressive."

In past years, Democrats have more often sorted themselves out along a wider spectrum of political identity. In 2008 the main issue between Clinton and Barack Obama was personality, not ideology. The one exception was her 2002 Senate vote to authorize the use of force against Iraq (an issue Sanders is using in the current campaign).

But the term "progressive" was not as frequently a political football in 2008 as it has been this winter, even though the field was far larger and included any number of Democrats who could be called liberals or progressives.

In 2004, another Vermonter, former governor Howard Dean, captured many hearts on the left in Iowa and New Hampshire, but the term he preferred was democratic, as in, "I represent the democratic wing of the Democratic Party."

Dean's main rivals were Richard Gephardt, a founder of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, a more classic liberal in the Kennedy mold.

In the end, Dean and Gephardt seemed to cancel each other out and Kerry won both Iowa and New Hampshire, sweeping to the nomination rather easily. But again, the key distinction seemed to be personality rather than ideology.

In 2000, Bill Bradley, then a senator from New Jersey, ran somewhat to the left of Vice President Al Gore, a Tennessean who hoped to preserve some of President Bill Clinton's appeal in Southern states. It didn't work for Bradley, who dropped out early. Gore got the nomination but was shut out in the South, a major factor in his Electoral College defeat.

In 1992, Bill Clinton ran as a centrist and saw his more progressive opponents (Sens. Tom Harkin and Paul Tsongas, and California's former Gov. Jerry Brown) fall by the wayside, one by one. In 1988, Michael Dukakis, surely a liberal and a progressive by most any measure, ran instead as the champion of "competence." The Republicans successfully pilloried him as a liberal nonetheless.

In that era, some migration of liberals to the label of progressive was visible, as has been the case ever since. It is possible that in another generation, the term "liberal" will gravitate back to something closer to its older meaning. The word "progressive" is well on its way toward displacing the more recent usage of "liberal," and becoming the identifier of choice for American politicians to the left of center.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
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