Ross Douthat notes Hillary Clinton’s preference for the label “progressive” over “liberal” and wonders if this goes beyond mere questions of branding to serious changes on the left that should worry us.
Progressivism, after all, has a very mixed history in American politics, which takes in not only efforts to reform labor laws, bust trusts, and create national parks but also some serious doses of racism, social Darwinism, eugenics, and a very strange mix of authoritarianism and out of control populism (a point well made by Marty Peretz recently as well). Ross suggests it is no coincidence that the growing preference for the term “progressive” comes at a time when a new eugenics is rearing its head, and when the left is increasingly emphasizing its self-identification as the party of science (a notion some of whose peculiarities and ironies I noted here a while back.)
To Ross’s thoughtful post I would only add that Hillary Clinton has had more to say on the subject than the passing reference in the YouTube debate. In this speech in late May, for instance, she made very explicit her identification with (the better parts of) the original American progressive movement, and sought to draw an extended analogy between the circumstances that surrounded its emergence and our own day.
The American left contains elements of both a liberal (in the American sense) tradition and a progressive tradition, and while the two are very different on some points, they coexist in relative peace much of the time, like the very different elements of the American right. These days, though, the progressive strand is certainly dominating the arena of ideas, a good deal more so than the last time a Clinton ran for President.