The “L” Word (No, The Other One)

In Liberalism, Political Ideology, Political Parties, Politics, Progressivism on July 22, 2009 at 8:01 am

Everyone knows that the moment in which George H.W. Bush made the word “liberal” a political epithet was an important one. It was the crowning moment of the political project laid out by Bush’s former rival Ronald Reagan. The broad left, even in the guise of mild-mannered and intelligent Michael Dukakis, was effectively marginalized. Being a liberal meant being out of touch with the cultural habits of the average American, and, moreover, it meant being weak, if not subversive, in regards to national security.

Ever since, on the national level, running as a “liberal” is a non-starter. Out on main street, hardly anybody calls themselves “liberal” anymore, even when they agree with liberal policy proposals and share many attitudes with those who wear the “L” proudly. This has allowed the right to scuttle important public policy initiatives with the use of a single word. The “liberal bias” in the news media, popular culture and higher education are regular whipping posts for the right-wing opinion makers, and is used to justify the real attacks on journalistic, artistic and academic freedoms coming from the Bush Administration. Even here in California, intimations that someone is “too liberal” are hugely damaging. It’s as if we have two wings in American politics now: conservative and mushy.

In response, the center left has made two rhetorical moves. The first, which you will see on the pages of magazines like The American Prospect and Harper’s or among more academic circles, is to return to using the L-word unabashedly. “Liberal and proud” has become a bit of a slogan of late- which is a good thing. America has a nasty and parochial habit of drawing red lines around political ideologies which are portrayed as insufficiently “American” or “patriotic”. Elites and the right did an effective job of so proscribing ideologies of the left, an effort made all the easier by some political forces who seemed happy to contribute to their own revolutionary marginalization.

However, the other approach is to leave the word “liberal” on the side of the road. Folks have taken to use the word “progressive”, a term so empty of content that everyone from John Podesta to Howard Zinn use the word to describe themselves. I’ve written before about the strange career of the word “progressive.” As recently as my college days, the word was meant to delineate a politics which was to the left of mainstream liberalism. Progressive politics was characterized by a more rigorous attention to systems of inequality, and a preference for reforms which took these structural fissures seriously. Unlike liberals, progressives took seriously the structuring forces of race, class, gender and sexuality. That distinction has been blurred now that we are all “progressives”, as liberals have taken refuge in a term that hasn’t been destroyed yet.

I understand that all political vocabulary is fuzzy. The way we use the word “liberal” in the United States is not exactly the agreed-to definition in political theory, but American Liberals are liberals nonetheless. Those of us who are not, or, more accurately are not just liberals are caught in a rhetorical and ideological trap. You will hear people say that it doesn’t matter what we call ourselves, “liberal”, “progressive”, even “moderate”, we are all on the same side. That may be true in the electoral arena, but it doesn’t mean that we all are coming from the same place, which is also important.

In that regard, I wish that the “L” word would make a comeback, not only because I’m tired of the dominance of mean conservatism and blithe centrism, but also because I miss being able to understand and explain why our side doesn’t always agree with one another. I have arguments, both theoretical and practical, with fellow “progressive” Democrats, and it is clear that our disagreement stems from the fact that, regardless of what they call themselves, they are liberals. That’s fine, but it would be a hell of a lot easier if we could just be honest about it.

This is most disturbing when it comes to trying to figure out if an action, policy, organization or individual is “progressive.” Locally, I have seen folks who are very defensive of their “progressive” credentials back candidates who were clearly to the right of so-called “centrist” candidates. The only differences were that they took a louder stand on a single, often symbolic, issue and they attended meetings of “progressive” groups. In the absence of a more sophisticated discourse about ideas, labels and single issues emerge as the most important litmus test for organizations, candidates and public figures. In the white left, the issue of the moment is the War. As long as you are sufficiently and loudly anti-War, you are a “progressive”, regardless of your overall world-view. We have to be willing to understand that issues provoke coalitions, not unanimity. Lots of people coming from lots of perspectives are against the War. It doesn’t make you a progressive.

So, I want liberals to start coming clean. I’ll have your back. I may not be a liberal myself, but many of my close friends are. Me and the rest of my pro-liberal friends will be here for you when the barking dogs come after you. After all, when they went after us, you were there…

  1. By way of a reply, I’ll just repurpose part of what I wrote here about an argument made by Matt Yglesias that we should ditch “progressive for liberal”:

    “While the question of “progressive” vs. “liberal” is not the most pressing of debates, in is an important one. How we identify ourselves goes further than issues of terminology; it speaks to who we are as activists and who we think we are, it asks major questions about what it is we seek to achieve and what it means to be on the left in modern America. Moreover, it begs the question as to what use activists should make of history in guiding our thought and action. On one level, Daraka raises a good point. In current political discourse, “progressive” can be a vague term than can be applied equally to the left-most Green Party activist or to the right-most New Democrat. Indeed, the term’s prominence in recent years owes as much to the efforts of New Democrats to elide the differences between themselves and traditional liberals as it does the efforts of liberals to reclaim a right to exist in the political mainstream. It is not by accident that the major New Democrat think-tank chose the name “Progressive” Policy Institute, or that Hillary Clinton described herself as a “progressive” in Democratic debates to muddy the ideological waters between herself, Barack Obama, and John Edwards, as if to say “we’re all progressives now, so let’s not compare agendas.”

    So what now? Are we to decide who we are and what we stand for by a game of historical hot potato? Absolutely not. More serious issues are at stake, and the difference between “progressivism” and “liberalism” have deeper significances and broader importance than the brand value of a label. As historians of the Progressive Era like Mary Furner, Daniel Rodgers, Robert Johnson, Eldon Eisenach, John Recchiuti, Martin Sklar, and others have explored, there was something special to the progressives. They were the first generation of Americans to live in an age of corporate capitalism, and they were perhaps the last generation of Americans whose minds were not limited by the acceptance of the resulting social order as natural. Progressives like Theodore Roosevelt or Robert LaFollette proposed far-sighted policies such as universal health insurance, the right to vote for women, the right to an eight hour day, the minimum wage, old age insurance, unemployment insurance, and disability insurance, the right to join a union, industrial health and safety regulations, and the abolition of child labor. In many ways, they defined the agenda that liberalism would pursue. However, the scope of progressive imaginations was larger than just this. Progressives looked beyond the world they lived in to advocate for a new economic order, something different from either capitalism or communism. In bold, confident terms, Progressivism argued that an activist government should exercise economic sovereignty and engage in economic planning, and regulate, nationalize, or abolish the great industrial corporations of the day. Their vision was a way of life in which cooperation replaced competition as the guiding impulse of economic life, in which human values would be privileged above market values, and in which sweeping inequality would be replaced by a rough equality of wealth, a fair share in national prosperity, something they called “an American standard of living.” Their rationale for this vision was not grounded in traditional liberal concerns about the individual or in Marxist ideology that the worker should own the means of production. Rather, Progressives were animated by a faith in collective action, and a belief that the flaws in society created by humans could be fixed by humans. In a very real sense, the Progressives were the heirs of a rich tradition of American republicanism, a philosophy that saw the sovereign people as the only legitimate source of political and economic power, that believed in the defense of the common-wealth against private privilege, and that demanded the great concentrations of wealth be redistributed to create a “rough equality” among equal citizens, lest inequalities of wealth become inequalities of political power. Ultimately, the vision put forward was that economic sovereignty – the right to decide how each one of us lives our lives in the workplace, in the marketplace, and in the public square – must be taken from the hands of monopolistic corporations and restored to popular government. As Theodore Roosevelt put it:

    “The Constitution guarantees protections to property, and we must make that promise good. But it does not give the right of suffrage to any corporation. The true friend of property, the true conservative, is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth; who insists that the creature of man’s making shall be the servant and not the master of the man who made it. The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have themselves called into being.”

    Alan Brinkley and other historians have noted that the political vision of post-war liberalism shied from such challenges to capitalism. After a vigorous and diverse flowering of progressive experimentation in the New Deal – all the way from the economic planning enshrined by the National Recovery Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority to the provision of public jobs in the WPA and the vision of a right to a job, and the price-setting powers of the OPA – post-war liberals were tired of struggle. Abandoning even the modest progressivism of social Keynesianism, liberals looked to accommodate capitalism and capitalists, to use social programs to compensate (not prevent or replace) the shortcomings of the economy, of using interest rates and military spending to manage the economy, rather than expansive investments in housing and infrastructure. Above all, liberals sought safer waters than the issue of reconstructing capitalism. Ironically, liberals looked to civil rights, environmentalism, education, and other “quality of life” issues as safer targets for reform. In the long run, it is to our great advantage that liberals took the cause of reform in new directions. On another level, it is important that we recognize that a price was paid: a narrow horizon of imagination, a smaller vision of what could be accomplished, and a certain complacency with the status quo. And when the foundations that underwrote that complacency – close to full employment, steady economic growth, a strong union movement, and favorable trade conditions – cracked apart in the 1970s, even liberalism became too radical for American politics. And here we are today, in what I believe is the beginning of the post-post liberal era. Eight years of the Bush Administration have catastrophically delegitimized and exhausted modern conservativism, conservatives no longer have anything new to offer to each other or anyone else in terms of ideas, and the American electorate is increasingly comfortable and desirous of a more active government presence in their lives. Part of that desire comes from the fact that we are living in a precarious time: deregulation and free trade agreements have diminished the power of government to modulate the shocks of the global market, yet the promised results of a more risk-intensive world order have yet to arrive. Our economic system is badly imbalanced between our means and our salaries, between productivity and income, and between wages and profits. The world economic system seems no better, and instability and uncertainty are the order of the day. Two things become clear. First, there is a space that will open in American politics for new agendas, new approaches, and new thinking. Second, the consequences of which ideas we will choose are very high. Will we take up the banner of liberalism, and strive valiantly to repair the damage that has been done, and to try once more to make the system we have more livable for the American people, all the while accepting the fact that we live in an age of international finance and globalized production that constrains our options? Or will we instead take up the banner of progressivism, and attempt to construct a new way of life, a political economy that is better suited to the current time and the human condition, knowing as we do that the one we have now is dangerously blind to human need? For my own part, I would call myself a progressive, and call upon others to take up the label, and the cause. As a historian, I have never felt the kind of doubt that liberals post-1968 have felt – the creeping fear, after McGovern, Mondale, and Dukakis, that maybe we’re wrong, that maybe Americans really hate us and what we stand for. For as Theodore Roosevelt once said, “we stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.”

  2. […] The “L” Word (No, The Other One) […]

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