Over and over again, political pundits and journalists make constant reference to the Democrats’ “progressive base.” Without heavy progressive turnout, we are told, the House won’t flip in 2018 and Democrats will have to endure the most painful, humiliating victory Tweetstorm from President Trump.
This is likely true, but it raises an important question: What exactly is a “progressive” at this point?
Yet such a description is vague at best and deceptive at worst. After all, Senator Bernie Sanders mainstreamed many of these policies in last year’s Democratic primary campaign, not as a Democrat but as an Independent who proudly calls himself a “democratic socialist.” Despite his outsider status, Sanders still received over 43 percent of the votes cast in his campaign against Hillary Clinton. And according to a poll done in 2016 by American Action Network, nearly 60 percent of Democratic primary voters viewed socialism as having a “positive impact on society.”
So one must ask why so many insist on using an outmoded nicety like “progressive.” While the term was originally used to describe those who supported a more active federal government and expansive welfare state in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, old-school progressives like Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson didn’t advocate for government control of the means of production, as many socialists do today. Setting aside whether or not their policies of trust busting or expanding the role of the executive branch produced desirable outcomes, neither of these men sought to fundamentally dismantle the nation’s market economy.
Old-school progressives like Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson didn’t advocate for government control of the means of production, as many socialists do today.
The answer likely has to do with marketing. “Progressive” remains a nebulous enough term that the average voter won’t make any immediate historical connections to the phrase; the historical failures of socialism, meanwhile, are well documented. The root of the word — progress — has generally positive connotations for voters. Thus when presented with a “progressive” policy, voters will think of an improved future, rather than some sort of rigid ideology. (Simple, yes. But, then, most sales pitches are.)
Of course none of this makes the efforts by Democratic-party officials and their allies in the media to shy away from the “S” word any less disingenuous. When so many members of the party openly celebrate socialism and support socialist candidates, using any other word to describe this political constituency is an act of absurdity.
Perhaps in an earlier time when the country was less divided politically and Americans were more suspicious of liberal welfare programs, a rebranding was necessary. Now, on the heels of a primary campaign in which Democrats nearly nominated a socialist for president, it’s safe to say that that moment has passed.
It’s time to move on as a society and retire “progressive.” “Socialist” might seem just as outdated, but if you’re worried about how people might judge you, perhaps you should reconsider your beliefs.
— Joe Simonson writes about politics and culture.