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A real American meaning

On the vacuity of ‘progressive’, again

Back in northern Europe (in a part not yet under water), I note that I’ve written before about how the word “progressive” in politics is smug and empty, indeed a term of liberal Unspeak, since it enables you to say you are in favour of things getting better without specifying exactly how they will. Happy, then, to see this reading confirmed by Senator Hillary Clinton last night. Asked by an audience member whether she would describe herself as a “liberal”, she distanced herself from that term and said: ((Via, as usual, WIIIAI.))

I prefer the word “progressive,” which has a real American meaning, going back to the progressive era at the beginning of the 20th century.

I consider myself a modern progressive, someone who believes strongly in individual rights and freedoms, who believes that we are better as a society when we’re working together and when we find ways to help those who may not have all the advantages in life get the tools they need to lead a more productive life for themselves and their family.

So I consider myself a proud modern American progressive, and I think that’s the kind of philosophy and practice that we need to bring back to American politics.

Who is not a “progressive” on this definition? Who from the Republican party will say that he does not believe in individual rights and freedoms, or that society is better when people don’t work together but stay on their couches with six-packs and reruns of The Sopranos? I did like Clinton’s invocation, though, of “a real American meaning” to the word “progressive”, as though the Republicans’ success in making “liberal” a dirty word had been the equivalent of giving it a meaning from another country where people are more filthy and devious: in all likelihood, a French meaning.

Meanwhile, during my absence, the Guardian printed my review of a novel about a man with a detachable penis (the novel’s French edition is everywhere in Paris this summer); and dsquared rose to a musical challenge from Unspeak (the very line that had so irritated Alastair Campbell) with wonderful inventiveness.

  1. 1  Workshy Fop  July 24, 2007, 11:14 am 

    Now if she really believed in individual rights and freedoms (for minority groups; healthcare and welfare; for the rest of the world), then that would be a nice progression.

    Billy Bragg uses the term ‘progressive’ to describe his attitude to nationalism. In that sense, I believe, it simply means ‘not a fascist’.

  2. 2  abb1  July 24, 2007, 4:17 pm 

    I’m not her fan, but I think this may be a bit unfair, as she does refer to the “progressive era [in the US] at the beginning of the 20th century”. Specific reference to a real American movement with a philosophy.

  3. 3  richard  July 24, 2007, 6:52 pm 

    Who from the Republican party will say that he does not believe in individual rights and freedoms,

    Alberto Gonzalez?

    or that society is better when people don’t work together

    Actually, I’m pretty sure Dick Cheney must have said both these things at some point, but I can hardly hear him over the buzzing of the flies.

  4. 4  RobW  July 25, 2007, 5:09 am 

    I thought “progressive” was the term used for themselves by Americans who comprehend the distinction between leftism and liberalism and yet can’t bring themselves to use the more accurate terms made verboten by decades of residual McCarthyism. By which usage, Hilary is even less entitled to call herself progressive.

    Historically the term simply contrasted with conservative, about which you could make the same complaint – “Exactly what are you conserving?” So a general indication you were in favour of changing the way things were – is there a way of conveying that while not throwing the stroke-word “progress” into the mix?

  5. 5  Jeff Strabone  July 25, 2007, 5:35 am 

    In practice, Americans on the left, if the U.S. can be said to have a left, have been using ‘progressive’ since the 1990’s to distance themselves from the right-leaning tendencies and cowardice of the Democratic Party. The word usually carries at least two relevant connotations: a position left of ‘liberal’ on the political spectrum, and a higher degree of commitment to left-leaning principles in an age when liberals had allowed the word ‘liberal’ to be impugned by conservatives. A self-identified ‘progressive’, in the contemporary sense, might deny being a ‘liberal’ on the grounds that he or she was beyond liberal, i.e. ‘progressive’.

    If Hillary Clinton is calling herself a progressive, so much the better. It means that the blogosphere is succeeding in swinging political discourse leftward.

    Why is this a good thing, however devoid of substance the label may be? Consider the attempts of Northeastern Republicans Rudolph Giuliani and Mitt Romney to become more conservative as presidential candidates. Neither one of them has a single conviction between them, but they eagerly run rightward because they believe that’s where the votes are. Up until the 2006 Congressional elections, Democrats did the same nationwide: they drifted rightward in both policy and rhetoric. Bill Clinton is the outstanding example.

    Now, Democrats are finally drifting leftward. (Again, I mean ‘left’ in its limited American sense.) Yesterday, Howard Wolfson from Clinton’s campaign appeared on the Bill O’Reilly show to defend Daily Kos, the leading liberal/progressive/whatever blog. I never thought I’d see the day when a typically controversy-averse Democratic candidate for high office went out on a limb to defend the party’s left flank. I’d like to think it’s a new day in American politics: Democrats leaning left. Wow. Thank you, Santa.

  6. 6  Steven  July 25, 2007, 10:48 am 

    There’s more on this over at Crooked Timber. I don’t myself actually think that any invocation of “progress” implies a pseudo-Hegelian philosophy of history as inherently teleological, but it always remains to be defined what kind of “progress” is being argued for and how it is to be achieved. George W. Bush talks a lot about “progress”, particularly in Iraq.

  7. 7  Porlock Junior  July 26, 2007, 8:49 am 

    A French meaning, to be sure, following historical precedent. In the early 19th century, when “liberal” was coming into use in its modern (pre-Roosevelt) sense, the concept was so poisonous that conservatives liked to use plurals like liberaux (or liberales) to emphasize its unsavory foreign connections. Cf. “un-American”.

    So much, of course, for the standard right-wing pieties about how Liberal was an honorable term, universally respected, till the nasty Democrats perverted it.

  8. 8  Graham Giblin  July 26, 2007, 1:51 pm 

    We like “progressive”, especially progressive muslims.

    As Alberto Gonzalez hurtles towards a Presidential pardon, I discovered another American phrase today, at least I think it is particularly American: linguistic parsing”

    A Justice official conceded during a background briefing for reporters this week that Gonzales’s “linguistic parsing” has caused some confusion, but said that he spoke accurately.

    As a description of the way Gonzalez blatantly obfuscates, evades and lies it seems to be intended to characterise his dishonesty rather as a linguistic sophistication which confuses other, less erudite mortals, thereby placing the blame on their inferior intelligence. Or something.

  9. 9  Steven  July 26, 2007, 10:48 pm 

    Nice point, Porlock Jr.

    “Linguistic parsing” is great, perhaps a cousin of “just semantics”. When caught out in a lie, just say: “It’s only words!”

  10. 10  ozma  July 27, 2007, 9:13 am 

    I like to call myself a radical (i.e., everything is all wrong and must be drastically changed) as it is empty of specific content (maybe smug too!) and then I can fill in the politics at will in case I change my views–it’s so easy to stay consistent that way.

  11. 11  Jeff Strabone  July 28, 2007, 5:15 pm 

    A new poll by Rasmussen Reports has data regarding ‘progressive’:

    Just 20% said they consider it a positive description to call a candidate politically liberal while 39% would view that description negatively. However, 35% would consider it a positive description to call a candidate politically progressive. Just 18% react negatively to that term. Those figures reflect a huge swing, from a net negative of nineteen points to a net positive of 17 points.

    On the other side of the ideological spectrum, being called politically conservative is considered a positive description by 32% and negative by 20%.

  12. 12  Guano  July 30, 2007, 9:39 am 

    More worrying than Hilary’s use of the word “progressive” is it’s use by the clique around Peter Mandelson. By the way, what’s happened to them?

  13. 13  bastion  July 30, 2007, 1:14 pm 

    This Rob Porter, from Irvine, California. Surely he was a plant. It seems a very strange question to ask.

    And the meaninglessly positive response, that Clinton’s ‘progressive’, sounds too rehearsed to be true.

  14. 14  redpesto  July 30, 2007, 5:30 pm 

    This was part of an email I once sent to the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee which indicates my suspicion of the term in a UK context:

    “One other thought: most governments – even Thatcher’s – could claim to have increased or decreased the ‘right’ economic indicators, and therefore claimed things have got better. It was that crude and narrow platform that Blair effectively campaigned on in 2005. How badly would Labour have had to have screwed up *not* to have put at least one more bobby on the beat, for example? I suspect that is what’s behind the weaselly use of ‘progressive’ these days by so many associated with New Labour, and which will doubtless be used to defend Blair’s record.”

    Progressive is therefore the term of choice by all those New Labour types who regard ‘socialist’, social democrat’ and even ‘New Labour’ are worn-out or unusable terms – though they’d better claim it as a party name before Cameron does. Thanks, Steven: now I know it’s not just me.

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