Is it OK to be liberal again, instead of progressive?

Come out of the closet, liberals. Stop using the fashionable euphemism "progressive" and relaunch the old, tarnished L-word.

Published November 21, 2008 11:16AM (EST)

If the conservative era is over, can liberals come out of their defensive crouch and call themselves liberals again, instead of progressives?

In the last two decades, Democratic politicians, including Barack Obama, have abandoned the term "liberal" for "progressive." The theory was that Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush -- and Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Pat Buchanan -- had succeeded in equating "liberal" in the public mind with weakness on defense, softness on crime, and "redistribution" of Joe the Plumber's hard-earned money to the collective bogey evoked by a former Texas rock band's clever name: Teenage Immigrant Welfare Mothers on Dope.

I've always been uncomfortable with this rather soulless and manipulative exercise in rebranding, for a number of reasons.

Objection No. 1. Futility. It's not the name of the center-left that the right objects to, but the policies and values. Suppose the defeated Republican minority decided that it needed to rebrand itself by replacing "conservatism" with "traditionalism." Would anybody on the left or center be fooled, if traditionalism was defined by exactly the same synthesis of free-market radicalism, anti-Darwinism and support for a neoconservative foreign policy?

The center-left is going to be trashed by the right, whether the right adopts one term or another. If conservatives continue to call the new progressives "liberals," then the right wins, by implying, correctly, that progressives are liberals who are ashamed to admit what they really are. If, on the other hand, "liberal" becomes as extinct as "Whig" and conservatives agree to use the term "progressive," then what has the center-left gained? Nothing. The same conservatives who formerly denounced liberals as tax-and-spend appeasers would now denounce progressives as tax-and-spend appeasers. What then? Would wimpy progressives then abandon progressivism and hope to avoid the wrath of Limbaugh by disguising themselves with a new alias -- reformists, or pragmatists? Your enemies will caricature you, no matter what you call yourself.

Objection No. 2. Progressivism as neoliberalism. Some have sought to distinguish progressivism from liberalism in content. This was the project of the disproportionately Southern "neoliberals" like Bill Clinton and Al Gore and Dave McCurdy and the Democratic Leadership Council and Progressive Policy Institute in the 1980s and 1990s. Instead of using the obvious term, "moderate" or "centrist," they sought to co-opt the term "progressive," even though they weren't very. In their analysis, liberalism was too identified in the public mind with organized labor and big-city machine bosses like the first Mayor Daley. They struggled and largely succeeded in creating a new Democratic Party based among upscale suburban whites and financed by the Industry Formerly Known as Wall Street rather than private-sector labor unions.

Fine by me. While the New Democrats were too conservative for my taste in some ways, a majority party has multiple factions or wings, and in the late 20th century the only way that the Democratic Party could grow was by appealing to centrists as well as liberals. If the DLC had been granted exclusive franchising rights for the term "progressive," then it would have meant simply the pro-corporate right wing of the Democratic Party, whose left wing was pro-labor and populist. We would then be speaking of conflict and also collaboration within the Democratic coalition between liberals on the left and progressives on the right.

Unfortunately, Democrats on the left insisted on calling themselves progressive too. Instead of meaning a moderate Democrat, progressive came to refer to any Democrat. So by the 1990s anti-labor, pro-NAFTA progressives were battling pro-labor, anti-NAFTA progressives. Fiscal conservatives who wanted to invade Iraq were progressives -- and so were democratic socialists. The left, center and right of the Democratic Party simultaneously gave up the name of the tradition of FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson and Humphrey, all because Ronald Reagan and Rush Limbaugh denounced liberals.

Objection No. 3. Progressivism as the radical left. What made all of this even more confusing was the fact that the term "progressive," which center-right Democrats like Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute sought to capture, had been identified with Marxists and other groups on the extreme left during the previous half-century. If you were a progressive in the '30s and '40s, like many supporters of Henry Wallace's Progressive Party, you were likely to find redeeming qualities in the Soviet Union's social experiment and to think that FDR was a pawn of the capitalists. If you were a progressive in the '60s and '70s, you were likely to think that Truman and Johnson were warmongering "corporate liberals" under the control of the "military-industrial complex" and that the Democrats and Republicans were indistinguishable. For the moderate and conservative Democrats of the DLC to call themselves the new progressives was the equivalent of moderate, secular Republicans calling themselves the new fundamentalists.

At least the far-left progressives were honest. They genuinely despised the mid-century American liberals, whom they viewed simply as another species of bourgeois imperialists. This is another one of the reasons I dislike the term "progressive." Why should I call myself by the name preferred by deluded radicals who despised the New Deal and the Great Society liberals I admire? Why share a label with anyone who romanticized Ho Chi Minh or Fidel Castro?

Objection No. 4. The early 20th century progressives. Now that "progressive" is widely used as a euphemism for "liberal," there is a natural tendency to link the progressives of the early 2000s with the Progressives of the early 1900s, like Woodrow Wilson and John Dewey. The problem is that while the modern center-left is the child of mid-century Roosevelt-Truman-Kennedy-Johnson liberalism, it is only the grandchild -- or perhaps grand-nephew or grand-niece, twice removed -- of the Progressives of the 1900s.

Hubert Humphrey, liberal, championed integration and federal enforcement of civil rights. Woodrow Wilson, Progressive, resegregated Washington, D.C. The Warren Court liberalized abortion and censorship laws. The early 20th century Progressives campaigned to outlaw alcohol and outlaw abortion and many of them favored eugenic sterilization of the "feeble-minded." New Deal liberals celebrated Americans of immigrant stock. Progressives like Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt were horrified by "hyphenated Americans." Roosevelt and Truman inherited a disturbing progressive fondness for executive prerogative but by the 1960s and 1970s civil libertarianism and a renewed interest in checks on the imperial presidency became part of the liberal tradition.

Today's center-left Americans can find a usable past in the liberals of the New Deal and Civil Rights eras. They will search in vain for philosophical ancestors among the snobbish, nativist, technocratic, authoritarian, segregationist Progressives of the early 20th century. Which leads me to:

Objection No. 5. It's too German. The term "progressive" entered English from 19th century German politics. The first progressive party in the world was the Deutsche Fortschrittspartei, founded in Prussia in 1861 ("Fortschritt" means "progress"). The American Progressives like Woodrow Wilson who translated the term into English believed that Bismarck's Imperial Germany was superior in many ways to the United States and Britain. They sought to graft German-style bureaucracy onto what they considered to be an antiquated political system crippled by 18th century Enlightenment notions of local government and civil rights. In other words, they saw statist, technocratic German progressivism as an advance beyond Anglo-American liberalism.

The older Anglo-American tradition of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, of the Founders and John Locke, is called "liberal" with good reason. "Liberal" comes from the Latin word for "free." The antithesis to liberalism is servility. A liberal society is one in which everyone is free and nobody is a serf or slave. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, the New Liberals in Britain and the New Deal liberals in the U.S. saw the need for social insurance and national regulation of business. But social welfare programs were added to civil liberties, which are what define liberalism. The radical left in the old days could excuse Fidel Castro's tyranny because of his free hospitals, but no genuine American liberal believes in a tradeoff between civil liberties and social welfare. You can have universal healthcare and personal liberty, but if you have to choose, personal liberty is more important. On that point, liberals of the left, who don't think you have to choose, agree with libertarians.

In his book "Freedom's Power," Paul Starr says that he prefers the term "liberal" to "progressive" because modern liberals are the heirs, not just of 20th century welfare state liberalism, but of centuries of Anglo-American liberalism, going back before the American Founding to Britain's Glorious Revolution of 1689. He is right, I think, to insist that the history of evolving personal and political freedom should not be ceded to libertarians, who represent the extreme right wing of liberalism. American liberals, it might be said, are Lockean libertarians who recognize the need for social insurance and regulation; they have never had anything philosophically in common with Marxists or post-Marxist social democrats in Europe, support for universal healthcare and various public services notwithstanding.

Objection No. 6. "Progressive" implies progress. Like "conservative," "progressive" is a term associated with a particular view of history. The conservative wants to stand still or go back; the progressive wants to move forward. Progressivism implies a view of history as perpetual progress; conservatism, a view of history as decline from a better world in the past. Needless to say, nobody who actually thinks this way could function. In the real world, self-described progressives aren't mindlessly in favor of everything new, just as self-described conservatives aren't indiscriminately in favor of everything that's old.

Unlike progressivism and conservatism, liberalism is not a name that implies a view that things are either getting better or getting worse. Liberalism is a theory of a social order based on individual civil liberties, private property, popular sovereignty and democratic republican government. Liberals believe that liberal society is the best kind, but they are not committed to believing in universal progress toward liberalism, much less universal progress in general. Many liberals have been skeptical about the idea of unlimited progress and have believed that a liberal society is difficult to establish and easily changed into a nonliberal society.

Because liberalism refers to a particular kind of social order, and does not depend on any implied relationship of the present to the past or future, liberals can be either progressive or conservative, depending on whether they seek to move toward a more liberal system or to maintain a liberal system that already exists. For that matter, liberals can be revolutionary, if creating or establishing a liberal society requires a violent revolution. Liberals can even be counterrevolutionary, if they are defending a liberal society from revolutionary radicals, including anti-liberal revolutionaries of the radical right like Timothy McVeigh or Muslim jihadists.

Those, then, are six arguments in favor of using liberalism to describe the center-left. I've reserved the seventh for last. The word "liberal" is a badge of pride. What is more embarrassing in 2008, to be associated with self-described liberals like Roosevelt and Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr. and Barbara Jordan, or with conservatives like Reagan and George W. Bush and Tom DeLay? I much prefer the public philosophy of the mid-century liberals, for all their blunders and shortcomings, to that of the three movements in American history that have called themselves progressive: the moderate-to-conservative progressives of the Democratic Leadership Council in the 1980s and 1990s; the deluded pro-Soviet progressives of the mid-20th century; and the Anglo-Protestant elite progressives of the 1900s, who admired Bismarck's Germany and wanted to keep out immigrants and sterilize the native poor.

But don't listen to me. Listen to John F. Kennedy, accepting the endorsement of his presidential candidacy by New York's Liberal Party on Sept. 14, 1960:

What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label "Liberal?" If by "Liberal" they mean, as they want people to believe, someone who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government, and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer's dollar, then the record of this party and its members demonstrate that we are not that kind of "Liberal." But if by a "Liberal" they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people -- their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties -- someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a "Liberal," then I'm proud to say I'm a "Liberal."

By Michael Lind

Michael Lind is the author of more a dozen books of nonfiction, fiction and poetry. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Politico, The Financial Times, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, Salon, and The International Economy. He has taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins and has been an editor or staff writer for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New Republic, and The National Interest.

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