The Ever-Shifting Definition of ‘Progressive’

Bernie Sanders’ campaign website categorizes his platform as “progressive”; Hillary Clinton has recently started describing herself as “a progressive who likes to get things done.” And Beverly Gage has a fascinating piece over at The New York Times Magazine about the shifting definition of the word “progressive,” particularly in relation to its similarly left-leaning lexical cousin “liberal.”

According to Gage, “progressive” came into widespread use in the early 1900s, during “a moment when many Americans believed democracy was failing.” The time period doesn’t sound so dissimilar to today: the richest of the rich—robber barons like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller—controlled enormous wealth, while millions of Americans (many of them immigrants) lived in poverty. The first round of progressivism was a response to this massive income inequality, as the middle class “went in search of a new politics that would enable both the government and the citizenry to rebalance this distribution of power.”

The ‘‘progressive’’ movement was, at first, a big-tent enterprise, a ‘‘remarkably good-natured effort of the greater part of society to achieve some not very clearly specified self-reformation,’’ in the words of the historian Richard Hofstadter. The general impulse to do something inspired a bewildering array of social movements that had little in common by today’s standards. At its height, progressivism produced moralists, cynics and social engineers, with some progressives seeking to liberate humanity from its benighted superstitions as others sought to impose strict rules about sex, alcohol and racial intermingling. Urban reformers and pacifists and trustbusters and suffragists all called themselves ‘‘progressives.’’ So did prohibitionists and segregationists and antivaccinationists and eugenicists. Historians still refer to the first two decades of the 20th century as the Progressive Era, a time when the nation enacted its first federal income tax and food-safety regulations and women won the right to vote. But during that period, progressivism’s darker side emerged, too: the creation of the Jim Crow system and the passage of viciously exclusionary immigration restriction.

And if you think the currently squabbling over the true definition of “progressive” is confusing, 2016 has nothing on 1912, when both Democrats and Republicans simultaneously embraced the term. Former Republican president Theodore Roosevelt was running for office under the newly minted “Progressive Party,” with his two main opponents (Woodrow Wilson and William Howard Taft, one a Democrat and one a Republican, respectively) also self-describing with the term.

But the real narrative of the word “progressive” seems to be that of a shifting pendulum: it fell from favor in the aftermath of World War I, and Great Depression-era reformers abandoned it completely, instead identifying as “liberals.” As Gage writes:

This word [liberal] set them apart from the prim moralizing of some of their predecessors; one of Franklin Roosevelt’s first acts as president was to allow the nation to drink beer. It also suggested a growing respect for civil liberties, rejecting the progressives’ tendency to favor social control over individual freedom. When Washington reformers became ‘‘liberals,’’ ‘‘progressives’’ in turn became more radical. In the parlance of the 1930s, to be a ‘‘progressive’’ was suddenly to be a ‘‘fellow traveler,’’ someone who never joined the Communist Party but who felt that the Communists might have a point.

The pendulum shifts continued throughout the 20th century and, it now seems, will keep swinging well into the 21st.

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