The labels Liberal and Progressive are thrown around in Democratic Party politics without any reference to either historic meaning or consistent current definition. We have reached a point in our politics today where anyone can label them self what they like, their opponents can label them what they want and people just accept those labels -- giving those labels their own understood meanings. Thus the labels become meaningless.
In 1896 a relatively conservative Democratic party controlled by the money interests of the northeastern states and the ex-confederate Bourbons of the South was subjected to a popular revolt and transformed into a populist party. That original Populist agenda included many items of economic justice (anti-big banks, anti-monopolies), political justice (direct election of Senators, referendum, recall) and global justice (anti-imperialism and anti-war). After the turn of the 20th century Populism, whose roots were rural and western, merged with urban Progressivism and became the Progressive movement. Progressives added social justice (labor conditions, health care, and slum eradication) to economic and political justice and on the global scene became advocates for an American style world justice and organization. The Progressive movement was personified by Theodore Roosevelt and institutionalized by Woodrow Wilson.
After World War I, as Progressives embraced woman suffrage, extreme elements pushed successfully for prohibition and many nativist elements opposed Wilsonian world leadership. These divisions, which often reflected urban rural differences, lasted throughout the 1920's. And, then came Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal.
FDR, a firm Wilson Progressive and cousin to Teddy Roosevelt, considered himself a LIBERAL. Read his speeches and you will be hard pressed to find one that doesn’t use the world Liberal in it. He advocated economic, social, political, and global justice. He preached Four Freedoms “everywhere in the world” and an Economic Bill of Rights. His twelve years in office made the Democratic Party a Liberal Party. Truman, Stevenson, Kennedy, Johnson and Humphrey were all proud to call themselves Liberals.
The Vietnam War divided Liberals on global issues and the degree to which the US should be willing to engage in war to defeat communists and so called fellow travelers. After the 1968 convention the anti-war Democrats took control of the party apparatus and the 1972 convention and nominated George McGovern on a Liberal platform strongly anti-war. His crushing defeat by Nixon caused a reaction among Democrats that can only be described as cowardly as most Democrats began to deny the word Liberal and instead use the word Progressive which they felt would denote liberal views on social and economic issues and not carry the “stain” of McGovernism. In contrast when LBJ decimated the Goldwater Republicans in 1964 they responded by hunkering down and pushing conservatives from the school board to the court house and building the base for the Reagan revolution sixteen years later.
And so for twenty years the Democrats, having rid themselves of the segregationists and having taken a clear pro-choice position on abortion, see sawed between centrists Progressives like Carter and Liberals like Mondale and Dukakis. Finally in 1992 the centrist Democrats led by Bill Clinton took control of the party and Liberal became an unused label.
It was not until 2014, when Senators like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown began to crusade for economic justice again - and people went into the streets to demand that government reign in Wall Street, raise the minimum wage, and rescue the middle class from extinction, that the word PROGRESSIVE began again to have its historic meaning of economic justice and opposition to the power and greed of the wealthy and the corporate interests. And people also began to again use the word LIBERAL with pride as contra CONSERVATIVE.
The two labels tend to denote the same views on social issues and support for the economic programs of the New Deal and the Great Society. I would argue that Progressive today includes liberal values with a heightened concern about the oligarchic power of big business and the influence of the military industrial complex on our international relations. But, I would also say that it is difficult today to give precise meaning to the two labels: Liberal and Progressive. While both support equal rights for all only some in each oppose the death penalty. Today both labels now denote opposition to corporate power and Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United; but, Progressives place more value on minimum wage and single payer health care than many Liberals. And, most unfortunately, many Liberals today are not advocating political reform - they are satisfied with the reforms that were enacted post 1972 and the party structures they control and so resist changes such as open primaries, abolition of automatic delegates, ending caucus systems.
But, now (2016) in the mind of the public the labels Liberal and Progressive have become somewhat synonymous. Many people see them as the same-- which they are not. And, many party activists argue over the Progressive bonafides of candidates. If the key litmus test is economic justice and attitudes toward Wall Street and corporate political power than we should begin using the terms Progressive Liberal and Traditional Liberal. A Progressive Liberal being one who holds basic liberal values on most issues but is clearly anti-Wall Street and all that entails. A Traditional Liberal would be one who holds basic liberal values on most issues but has become comfortable with the role that corporations and big business play in our government. (To be clear I would denote Bernie Sanders the former and Hillary Clinton the latter.) Personally I prefer either type of Liberal to a conservative, or an extremist tea-partier, or an enabling so-called moderate or Trumpian.
24 July 2016