Among the Democratic candidates for governor, there has been some talk about the word progressive, especially as there is jockeying to be the candidate most worthy of that classification. But what does the word mean? It’s not a trivial question.
As a Republican activist, my opinion on this is probably not worth much to those who are talking about it, but I am a lover of words in politics, and I agree that this matters, as politics is primarily a game of words. I won’t be a conservative jerk about all this and just say it’s communism, OK?
(Let me also pause and say that I am horrified at what has happened to the word ‘conservative’ – once a dignified adjective referring to an intellectual tradition going back two centuries – now a word that I wouldn’t use in mixed company at a dinner party in Massachusetts. I am a Republican. Full stop. I could list a wide variety of issues that I am conservative about, but the conservatives in my party don’t care as long as I don’t agree with them on God, guns, gays, immigration, and climate change – and consider me a heretic. Such are the struggles of being a thinking Republican in #mapoli.)
When I first heard the word progressive several years ago, I squinted and thought, “Are we bringing back those people I learned about in history class?” (They were government reformers and corruption fighters of 100 years ago.) I then told myself, “OK, this might not be a bad thing.” But then I learned this was just a rebranding of liberalism, and that today’s progressives will not support even the slightest structural reform of how our federal government operates. I was deflated.
But what do Democrats say it means? Mostly, I have heard them say it is just an updated term for “liberal.” OK. Words get re-invented. It’s how language works. A few days ago, on Mara Dolan’s radio show, a loyal liberal was asked what “progressive” meant. Massachusetts Senator Jamie Eldridge said it was like the word “liberal,” but, in addition, was about “not leaving anyone behind.” How… odd! I can’t imagine going back ten years and telling proud liberal friends of mine working on behalf of the poor or the homeless or gay rights, “Hey, you guys are just leaving people behind! Fear not – some people just like you will come along and take care of all those folks you’ve forgotten about.” They would be… bewildered.
Kidding aside, I think there are differences. After several years of percolation through the thinking of Democratic activists, I think the word has taken on some ideas that are not found in the word liberal. Don Berwick’s campaign has been a good example of the change. Being liberal used to be about peace, love, and a government that really cared about people. That isn’t… all bad. (Perhaps mostly bad.) But when someone tells me that they are “progressive” these days – it sounds like a muscular and inerrant belief that the government is in the superior position to handle society’s problems, and they will fight off the private sector if need be. I understand some of this: corporations have become more powerful, they are more involved in politics, and inequality is worsening. So, liberalism needed a boost to compete with all that. And lots of union-backed otherwise-evil SuperPACs.
Don Berwick acts accordingly. Single payer health care is coming not in the first 100 days, but the moment after he is sworn in, no matter what anyone has to say about it. Jobs? All should be union. People in need? The government will be there no matter what your issue. Is there any indication that he is concerned about building consensus or respecting the views of others? Hell no! This is “bold progressive leadership” as he likes to say! You’d think he was about to take over Venezuela. (Of all people, Steve Grossman agrees with me: “Don – you don’t have a magic wand!” he interjected at a recent debate. AG Coakley then reminded him you need to build consensus for big change. I guess she isn’t a bold progressive, but an ordinary progressive who does not own a magic wand.)
Stepping back, I think the move from liberal to progressive is similar to what happened to the word conservative. A highly polarized and nasty political era meant the partisan troops needed a stronger, simpler way to define their political citizenship, as party identification was no longer sufficient. Conservative used to mean a preference for the past, and that change had to be justified. But change could be justified! Now, to me, it sounds like, “Screw the 21st century! We’re not going there.” On the other side, progressive, to me, sounds like, “We who have faith in government aren’t just going to sit on the sidelines, we are joining a holy crusade to make sure government gives us the society we know is the correct one. Just like Norway, but… without the fossil fuels.” Yeee…eesh!
Will the word progressive matter in the governor’s race? Yes, and it will hurt the Democrats. This race will be decided by the unenrolled, who certainly aren’t progressives and are more certainly not conservatives. So, when the Democratic primary is over, someone who likes to say they are progressive will win, and run against a Republican who… is actually strongly disliked by many people who primarily call themselves conservative! The progressives will discover that the guys on television they hate aren’t on the ballot in November, no matter how much SuperPAC money tries to say Charlie Baker is really David Koch in disguise. The progressives will, instead, be running against a guy who just wants the state to be more humble, more accountable, and for the government to not waste so much money on foolish things. Maybe that was considered conservative at one time.. but, unfortunately, not anymore. 🙂
p.s. To my worthy conservative and progressive friends: sorry for the generalizations! Language is a dynamic thing. Please use your political activism to save these words from the crazy people, OK?
p.p.s. And to Dr. Berwick – some of the people who make Massachusetts great are entrepreneurs, financiers, wealthy philanthropists, devout religious people, and self-righteous computer programmers. What part of “all” don’t you understand?