The Myth of the Progressive

Go to Wikipedia today, and you’ll discover the myriad groups that have utilized the word “progressive” today. Search for “Progressive Party” in the US and you’ll find three different ones, led by such disparate figures as Theodore Roosevelt, Robert M. La Follette, Sr., and Henry Wallace; none of which represented the same thoughts. The use of the word “progressive” for members of the left-wing of the Democratic Party seems to have come into vogue as the word used to replace “liberal” by those who are ashamed to use the latter.

A Pew Research poll released in December found, that despite conservative commentator Glenn Beck’s Fox News-sponsored hit job on the word, “progressive” is the most popular political term, with 67% of respondents saying that they had a positive reaction to it (22% had a negative one). “Conservative” received a 62% positive reaction, while 30% had a negative reaction. Given this popularity, it should come as no surprise that politicians are quite willing to describe themselves as progressives. The word is all encompassing that it contains both politicians who are pro-worker and those who oppose labor, both those that favor progressive income tax and those that don’t, both those that support public education and those who want to destroy it.

Used as a catch-all, “progressive” is shorn of all meaning. Candidates are free to label themselves “progressive” in an attempt to appeal to the largest possible demographic. The regular citizen can use “progressive” to simply mean “what I believe,” and say that someone who believes differently just isn’t a progressive. Progressive is perhaps the word that requires the most contextualization in American society.

Once again, this is largely due to a lack of discipline. During the debt ceiling crisis at the end of the last summer, Nate Silver, the political numbers guru, predicted that the Congressional Progressive Caucus in the House could easily prevent the compromise’s passage and gain concessions for the left. Instead the vast majority of the Progressives voted in-step with the House leadership. That lack of discipline blew a chance to gain much needed-concessions. Instead the Progressive Caucus won for the American people an austerity-riddled bill that backloads the budget cuts to 2013, at which point a “new” Congress will be seated.

Progressive is a buzzword, like “the 99%” (witness both words’ proliferation on various groups attached to the Democratic Party). When a candidate or organization defines themselves based on these terms, it’s up to us ask what they means to them. Letting it sit there, undefined, is folly. We cannot take such people at face value.

Likewise, here in Rhode Island, we must start pushing for “progressive” to mean something more than “wants to be liked”. We need a Progressive Club, one that has a clear agenda and candidates who support that agenda. Now, extreme ideological rigor is a dangerous thing, and I don’t want to be interpreted as suggesting that’s what we need. But I am advocating consistency. Take a look at the sponsors of various legislation throughout the General Assembly. You’ll find the same folks who sponsor death penalty bills sponsoring bills to protect the homeless. You’ll find Republicans who introduce zero-based budget proposals introducing funding for low-income housing. And sometimes you won’t even find a legislator who describes them as “progressive” on the “progressive” bills.

Without a disciplined, consistent progressive constituency, we will continue to face a jumbled reality, where political chameleons will thrive and those more concerned with holding power than using it well will rise.

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A native-born Rhode Islander, educated in Providence Public Schools, went to college in North Carolina and a political junkie and pessimistic optimist.

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