When Is a Democrat a Progressive?
One of the ongoing debates within the Democratic Party is what makes someone a progressive. With the movement that accompanied Bernie Sanders’s 2016 Presidential Campaign, we have seen a group of people who primarily refer to themselves as progressives, as if to distinguish themselves from others that associate with the Democratic Party. This has led many Democrats to ask, “Aren’t we all progressives?” This short answer is: No.
The word “progressive” is a tricky piece of English. On its face, there is nothing overtly political about it. It just seems to mean pro-progress, but we would never call the accumulation of miles on a long trip progressive, even if we are literally progressing along the Interstate. No, to say that something is progressive is almost always, in American parlance, a statement on some set of values.
A common view is that to be progressive is to be an advocate of left-wing politics, of American liberalism. Even this definition is wanting. The word “progressive” has merely floated around for decades among liberals. Only in certain instances does it become a primary descriptor, with the current movement being one of those examples. Moreover, the current movement sheds light on why its association with liberalism is tenuous at best.
A study by Voter Study Group demonstrated that there was very little difference between supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders on most issues. Sanders, the candidate associated with the progressive movement, did not have a base of support that stood out as more left-wing. Rather, his base was simply unhappy with the political system, while Clinton’s was not, and dissatisfaction with a status quo is neither a left-wing nor right-wing position. It is merely a sense of priorities.
To clarify, progressives in the Twenty-First Century are dissatisfied with a runaway capitalism that has enabled a handful of Americans to accrue enormous wealth. To add to that, they are terrified that this wealth is used like a weapon in the political process. In a society where all are supposed to be civic equals, one’s vote suddenly becomes insignificant compared to the ability of individuals such as the Kochs and the Waltons to write checks to candidates. While both Clinton supporters and Sanders supporters have identified this problem, it is Sanders supporters alone who view socioeconomic injustice as the primary problem of our age.
Thus, it makes sense that they would distinguish themselves not as liberals but as progressives. This is a use of the term that is not without precedent. In fact, it is found in one of our nation’s seminal, historical periods: The Progressive Era. From 1897 to 1920, under the leadership of presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt, Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson, many similar problems were identified by the American people as are identified today. Income inequality was rampant. Workers had few rights. Politicians were bought out. Monopolies dominated markets. So many problems had been born out of the Gilded Age, and the American people were not having it anymore.
What is notable is that progressivism was not considered a product of the American left at the time. Roosevelt, in a speech on his New Nationalism, said:
The true friend of property, the true conservative, is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth; who insists that the creature of man’s making shall be the servant and not the master of the man who made it. The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have called into being.
For Roosevelt, the politics of reining in capitalism-gone-rabid, progressive politics, was a necessary part of conservatism. This may be strange to our ears today, as most of us are familiar with the neoconservatism that was born of the Reagan Era. Neoconservatives would be hesitant to make that kind of statement, but that statement alone does not make Roosevelt a liberal in disguise, only perhaps less right-wing. Let us not forget that Roosevelt was a staunch imperialist, and he had little to offer on the issue of civil rights for racial minorities.
In fact, the Progressive Era’s lack of focus on social issues was associated with some egregious behavior by progressives of this time. Fearful that they would be paid to vote a certain way by wealthy industrialists, many progressive whites in the South moved to cut African-Americans out of the political process. Forms of voter suppression such as poll taxes and literacy tests were implemented at this time for just this reason. In addition to that, the number of progressives who would have been tolerant of homosexuals were probably few and far between. Sexism would have also been rampant, and this might explain why the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women’s suffrage, only succeeded at the tail-end of the Progressive Era, in 1920.
This is not to say that progressivism is a bad thing. The Progressive Era accomplished many reforms that are central to American life today. It ended child labor. It reduced monopolies and corruption. It gave us higher wages and the eight-hour work day. It pioneered regulatory agencies, like those that keep our foods clean. It brought us the income tax and allowed us some control over banking through the Federal Reserve. Life would certainly be harder without these things, and even racial minorities have gained from these policies (and fortunately the racial voter suppresionists are not associated with today’s movement but with the Republican Party). Nonetheless, it gives us a clear idea that being sympathetic to every social issue a progressive does not make.
As we come back to today’s progressive movement, however, it is important to identify the parallels between them and their forebears of the early Twentieth Century. Income inequality has returned, as has its influence over politicians. Unions have been on the decline, and the rights and wages of workers have been increasingly threatened. Fraud occurs regularly in our financial institutions, and it rarely results in convictions, even if it puts the well-being of our economy at risk. Workers dump fortunes into healthcare premiums, only to be denied coverage in several cases, and millions of Americans still lack health insurance altogether. As free trade and automation continue to take away jobs, many Americans are realizing that enough is enough. They have lived long enough in a Gilded Age. They want another Progressive Era.
Where issues such as criminal justice reform, gun control, LGBT rights, legalization of marijuana, and climate change are at the forefront of many liberals’ minds, for progressives, the yoke of socioeconomic injustice is Public Enemy #1. Most of these other issues are, in their view, impossible to solve without an economy that provides a level, stable playing field. This is not to say that they are against these issues. Some progressives will care very passionately about them, but they do not measure up to the angst and existential fear that economic inequality engenders in this movement.
Perhaps it is best to identify what exactly progressives are trying to call themselves: social democrats. No, they are not calling themselves extroverted members of the Democratic Party. A social democrat is an individual that believes in democracy and capitalism, but when capitalism errs and puts the welfare of the people at risk, they believe it is the job of democracy to intervene and correct those mistakes, while preserving a generally free market.
“Social democrat” as a term is unlikely to gain much footing in America, due to its similarity to the party’s name, so “progressive” is here to stay, and it is this understanding of the word that is definitive. Should you hear someone ask once again, “Aren’t we all progressives?” you should ask them a few questions. Is socioeconomic justice their main priority? Are they going to demand our leaders not be bought out? Are they going to demand a living wage or universal healthcare? If they answer you “No,” then your answer to their question is the same: No, they are not progressive.