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Original Essays | February 6, 2014 0 comments
One afternoon in the mid-1990s, I found myself in Dauphine Street Books in New Orleans, staring hungrily into a vitrine containing costly literary... Continue »
Progressive Blindnessby Geoffrey Nunberg
So as the "progressive" label gets more popular it's about twice as common in the press as it was a decade ago it's not surprising that people are trying to locate an ideological difference between progressives and liberals. On the New Republic's academic blog, the historian Eric Rauchway traces the difference to the New Deal era, when the early 20th-century progressivism of John Dewey and Walter Lippmann was giving way to modern liberalism. The difference, he suggests, is that liberals are content to make an uneasy truce with capitalism, whereas progressives favor more vigorous social experimentation. Meanwhile, David Sirota says that liberals favor expanded social programs whereas progressives favor more direct limitations on corporate power.
Those are well-reasoned philosophical distinctions, and so are a lot of the others that people have proposed, like this from WireTap magazine. Even so, you can't predict which label people will use by polling them on the issues or asking them about their philosophy of government. And for that matter, you don't really have to. You usually have a pretty good idea which people are going to call themselves progressives without knowing their views on single-payer health care or the estate tax. Do 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? Are they particular about which tea they drink?
This is 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 more chary than most modern-day progressives about identifying themselves with the Democratic Party. But if modern progressives haven't inherited the radicalism or ferocity of the old movement left, they're doing what they can to keep its style 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's 1965 song, "Love Me, I'm a Liberal," a sardonic catalogue of the hypocrisies of middle-class liberals whose political engagement was limited to listening to protests songs and writing checks:
I go to all the Pete Seeger concerts
Back then, 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." With a short time, though, the label had fallen victim to political turbulence over Vietnam, the civil-rights backlash, and the perceived failure of the Great Society social programs. And the label slipped still further in the Nixon era, as the right began to color liberals with new social stereotypes, fitting them out with Volvos, white wine, brie, and other accoutrements that suggested their distance from heartland Middle Americans.
By the 1980s, Democratic politicians were fleeing the liberal label. In 1986, Timothy Noah wrote in the New York Times, "Given the aversion this word inspires in Democratic candidates, future civilizations sifting through the rubble may well conclude that 'liberal' was a euphemism for 'pederast' or 'serial killer.'" And in 1988, Ronald Reagan secured the political fate of the liberal label when he branded it as "the L-Word" in a speech to the Republican convention.
Some Democrats justify their abandonment of the liberal label by expressing a distaste for pigeonholing: when you hear a politician say, "I don't believe in labels," you can be pretty sure that he's someone who would have been described as a liberal forty years ago. But others replace liberal with progressive in an effort to dispel all those disagreeable 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 in 1960, when it discontinued the Edsel line but continued to market the same car with a different grille and trim under the name of a Galaxie, in the hope that nobody would notice.
Of course when Berkeley professors or social activists call themselves progressives, their colleagues know the label is meant to convey ideological purity, rather than simply conceal their Volvo ownership. But that distinction is apt to be lost on Americans who have no idea that Progressive ever wore a capital letter, and who haven't heard of Dewey or Lafollette. (These days, they're apt to be cloudy on Phil Ochs, too.) For a great part of the electorate, "progressive" suggests a vague commitment to progress. After the 2004 election, the conservative columnist Julia Youngs wrote that "George W. Bush kept the presidency because he was the more progressive candidate," citing his commitment to "progressive ideas" like the privatization of social security and the flat tax.
Even a lot of conservatives would probably find that use of progressive a stretch. But for most Americans, the P-Word is simply a way of avoiding the L-Word, for whatever reason. Democrats who call themselves progressives only confirm a widespread suspicion that liberals don't talk the same language as other Americans, even when it comes to pronouncing their own name right. The fact is that there's no way to distance yourself from the negative liberal stereotypes of Phil Ochs without also corroborating the negative stereotypes of Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham.
But the liberal-conservative distinction is still the basic opposition of American political conversation, etched on the split screens of the media. And Democrats who dance around the liberal label simply hand it over to conservatives, who cheerfully drive it further to the political margins. (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.)
The liberal label isn't beyond redemption. Fifty years ago, after all, it was the conservative label that was on the ropes back in 1949, a Wall Street Journal editorialist complained that while conservative was a perfectly good word when it was applied to bankers or clothing, in politics it suggested a person who "wanted to cheat widows and orphans."
The liberal label could regain its former luster, too, particularly if voters are reminded of the historical achievements that have been undertaken in the name of liberalism. But that isn't likely to happen so long as a lot of people on the left are holding the L-Word at arm's length, rationalizing their preference for the progressive label as a philosophical rather than stylistic choice. Ultimately, those rationalizations may be all there is to the distinction. When it comes to the crunch, the difference between progressives and liberals is that progressives insist on believing that there is one.
Adapted from Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show.