Historical Progressivism, that is, what went by the name from the period of around 1890 until around 1945, was a relatively vague thing, concerned primarily with “reform,” which meant that anyone who advocated for what they thought was reform could claim to be a Progressive. Reform is itself a rather vague term, of course, due to its subjectivity. I have discussed this in slightly more detail elsewhere, but suffice it to say that this is why members of multiple political parties and various ideological perspectives were labeled, and labeled themselves, as “Progressives” during this “Historical Progressive” era. As time went on, the term began to take on some distinct meanings, but it would not be until after the end of World War II that Progressivism truly distinguished itself from other currents of thought in the American political arena.
Modern Progressivism was born about 1946 when Henry Wallace became the editor of The New Republic magazine and came of age in 1952 after he realized that the USSR wasn’t what he thought it was initially (due to the rather sanitized presentation he was shown when he visited the country). Modern Progressivism has some rather distinct perspectives, according it the status of something truly unique, different from other socio-political and economic perspectives in American thought. Initially, these included extreme Leftist economic views, but since 1952, Modern Progressives have been generally Socialist while rejecting Marxist Socialism.¹ Henry Wallace was a Progressive Republican before becoming a Progressive Democrat in 1936, and subsequently FDR’s second Vice President in 1941, and was thus an Historical Progressive before becoming the Father of Modern Progressivism. Two or three other camps in the United States today claim the label Progressive, neither of which has any historical connection (“lineage,” if you will) from the original Progressives before the end of World War II. I mean to discuss these and draw some distinctions between them and what I have named “Modern Progressivism.”
Social Liberals and Modern Progressives
Social Liberalism also became a distinct movement in the US about the same time as Modern Progressivism, although it, like Modern Progressivism, had its roots in late 19th century ideals. Classical Liberalism had still held onto the status of dominant “Liberal” perspective in America into the 1930s, with its economic Laissez-Faire attitude taken to extremes under the administrations of Presidents Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. Relegating this now-named “Classical” Liberalism to the past, Social Liberalism in the US went more simply by the name “Liberalism.” Almost from the beginning, Social Liberals and Modern Progressives had disagreements, in spite of some shared goals, and the disagreements were sometimes about how to approach the actualization of these goals, with the Liberals gradually adopting a top-down approach while the Progressives favored a grassroots approach.
One of the most well-known of these disagreements, however, was to do with the Vietnam War in the 1960s and ’70s. The Social Liberals had largely formed within or gravitated toward the Democratic Party, with Modern Progressives establishing a new “Progressive Party” in 1948 and nominating Henry Wallace for President. This party, however, included a number of Communists who would not listen to Wallace’s criticism in 1950 of the invasion of South Korea by the North Korean Communists, and the executive committee of this Progressive Party issued a statement of opposition to US involvement in Korea the same year. Wallace subsequently left the party. His new and more accurate understanding of the Stalinist regime which he had from 1952 also didn’t sit well with them, but by this time he was already gone, and he gave his support to Dwight Eisenhower in the 1952 and 1956 Presidential contests (for reference, a brief examination of the 1956 Republican Party platform will demonstrate how much the Republican Party has changed since then).
The Progressive Party of 1948 disbanded in 1955 as a result of the Cold War and the Red Scare witch hunt led by Joseph McCarthy. Many Modern Progressives had already dispersed into one or the other of the two main parties. The conflict over the Vietnam War between Liberals and Progressives saw the Liberals supporting the war effort, since it was being prosecuted by Democratic Presidents like JFK and LBJ, while the Progressives, with nothing like the partisan loyalty of the Liberals, opposed the war effort, anti-war perspectives having also been one of the defining characteristics of the Progressive Party of 1948.²
A brief account of the 1968 and 1972 Democratic Presidential campaigns will help to further establish some of the history between Social Liberals and Modern Progressives, the relevance of which will be apparent in discussing the post-1988 situation.
When Lyndon Johnson withdrew from his re-election campaign in 1968, Liberals and the Democratic Party establishment rallied behind the pro-war candidate Hubert Humphrey, while the Progressives in the Democratic Party split in two, with some favoring Eugene McCarthy and others supporting Robert F. Kennedy. The Conservative Southern Democrats also split in two, with some behind Humphrey while others backed the notorious segregationist George Wallace. RFK was assassinated on 5 June, and the contest was then between Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy. In 1968, only the District of Columbia and 14 states held primary elections in the Democratic Party, the remainder determined by caucuses before or during the national convention. The results were telling.
At the time of RFK’s assassination, the total delegate count was 561 for Humphrey, 393 for Kennedy, and 258 for McCarthy. Contrast these numbers with the popular vote in those states (and the District) where primary elections were held: 38.73% for McCarthy, 30.63% for Kennedy, and a mere 2.21% for Humphrey, with the remainder of the vote going to other candidates (including LBJ) and write-in candidates. Interestingly, Richard Nixon received 0.18% as a write-in on the Democratic ticket. That year’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago was the scene of a police riot against anti-war protesters. Hubert Humphrey easily won the nomination (despite having won not a single primary), with McCarthy coming in a distant second and George McGovern taking third place. The scandal of a candidate who had not won a single primary being given the nomination by the party establishment led to a reform in which more states would hold primary elections for the Democratic Party.
This sorry election year left Progressives angry and determined to win in 1972. This time, 21 states and the District held Democratic primary elections, and 12 states held caucuses before the national convention. The clear winner of the caucuses was George McGovern, who was backed by most Progressives, and although Hubert Humphrey running again got slightly more of the popular vote than McGovern, this amounted to only five states won, compared to McGovern’s victory in 15 states. The delegate totals were 1000 for McGovern to only 354 for Humphrey (even George Wallace did better in delegates and states won than Humphrey this time around). At the 1972 Democratic National Convention, McGovern received 57.37% of the votes, to Humphrey’s 2.22%.
Progressive grassroots activism had forced more states to hold primaries and had secured the Democratic nomination for President for one of their own, “the Peace Candidate” George S. McGovern, who was also widely noted as an ecology candidate and a supporter of equality for women (McGovern publicly supported ratification of the ERA, but was not present in the Senate on the date the vote was held in March of 1972, due to his presidential campaign). The Democratic Party establishment and many of the Liberals in the party resorted to forming a group called “Democrats for Nixon,” which helped to get Richard Nixon re-elected, and in 1973, the Democratic Party revised its charter and bylaws to prevent grassroots reform or takeover of the party. They have not nominated another Progressive for President since.
Fauxgressive Democrats or Partisan Fauxgressives
Throughout the 1980s, Republicans waged a propaganda campaign to turn the word “Liberal” into an insult, and were so successful that George H.W. Bush was able to dismiss one of Michael Dukakis’ statements with the retort “That’s just Liberal,” the sneer in his words all-too-evident. For their part, Democrats did not seem to have the spine to defend the term. Following the 1988 election, a number of partisan Democrats who had up to then referred to themselves as “Liberals” sought to rebrand themselves by co-opting the name “Progressive.” In light of the history between Social Liberals and Modern Progressives, this was a strange choice, all the more so because these rebranded Liberals did not see any need to change any of their positions nor adopt any Progressive ideals. Modern Progressives have often called these rebranded Liberals “Fauxgressives,” and I generally refer to this second camp of people calling themselves Progressives as “Fauxgressive Democrats” or “Partisan Fauxgressives.”
Regressive Outrage Mongers
Sometime after August of 2011, a new faction or movement began to coalesce. Largely composed of young people within, or sympathetic to, the Democratic Party, this camp did not fully form until sometime in 2012, but it remains disorganized and without any official leaders (although several persons, living and dead, have influenced this camp, and it does have some personalities held in respect generally). The earliest manifestations of this camp began to arise in the late 1990s as extremists of Political Correctness, and by 2003, they had engaged in semantic revisionism to such an extent that they had redefined “Political Correctness” in such a way that anyone who disagreed with their extremist take on PC (as well as those who tried to offer constructive criticism and even those who merely asked sincere questions about PC) could be dismissed as “racists and sexists and homophobes” automatically.
Toward the end of 2011, these PC Extremists began to merge with what has sometimes been called “Fourth Wave Feminists” (a largely authoritarian perspective counter to the view of the mainstream of Second Wave Feminism that Feminism was about not only Equality but also Liberation from being expected to live up to anyone else’s standard, even that of other Women), distorters of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s original iteration of Intersectionality (while Ms. Crenshaw had intended for the focus of Intersectionality to be on the structures which enabled and facilitated oppression, these proponents of “activism in the tweets” and later also “activism in the streets” had changed the focus to Identity Politics), and keyboard warriors who used a limited understanding of Social Justice as a bully’s weapon.
As these elements came together, a few poorly understood concepts from Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault were added into the mix to justify a rejection of objective truth and cherry-picking of historical and scientific fact (this has led to Conservative, Ultra-Conservative, and Reactionary elements claiming that this camp is somehow “Postmodernist,” but that is a somewhat inaccurate assertion; rather, they have a small bit of influence from both Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism, but few if any of them in my experience have demonstrated more than a cursory understanding of either of those philosophies; however, Derrida and Foucault actually had some influence on them, while William Jennings Bryan, Teddy Roosevelt, the Muckrakers, Robert LaFollette, FDR, Henry Wallace, George McGovern, and other Historical and Modern Progressives had no influence on them, because they don’t study History, regarding it as suspect and unreliable — and frankly, they don’t study Philosophy, either, but managed to pick up a cursory understanding of a few concepts of Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism through filtered sources).³ This camp sought some way to distinguish themselves from the Democratic Party establishment (apparently due to a dislike of hierarchy), and so took the name “Progressive” from the Fauxgressive Democrats.
Some of their opponents on the Left have called them “Outrage Warriors” or “Outrage Mongers,” while Modern Progressives as well as some Liberals, Conservatives, Ultra-Conservatives, and Reactionaries have given them other names including “Neo-Puritans” and “Regressives.” I have at times called this third camp “Postmodern Outrage Mongers” (note “Postmodern,” not “Postmodernist”), but I have come to prefer the term “Regressive Outrage Mongers” for them, since so much of what they advocate would result in the undoing of progress achieved over the past 60 years (as an example, some of these kids have called for a return to racial segregation!).
The fourth camp of persons trying to call themselves “Progressives” (if indeed it can be separated from the second camp of “Partisan Fauxgressives”) seems to have formed during 2016 as a result of the popularity of Senator Bernie Sanders, who refers to himself as a Progressive (and has the history to support him being regarded as a Modern Progressive). This camp also consists of partisan Democrats, but their motivation for claiming to be Progressive differs from that of the second camp. While the second camp rebranded in an attempt to distance themselves from the caricature of Liberalism which the 1980s Republicans had created, this fourth camp seeks to use the name “Progressive” as, essentially, an advertising gimmick. That is to say, they exploit the name in an effort to con Modern Progressives into giving them campaign contributions, volunteer campaign work, and votes. These have also often been called “Fauxgressives” by Modern Progressives who see through the act, but in order to distinguish them from the second camp, I prefer to name them “Fauxgressive Opportunists” or “Opportunistic Fauxgressives.”
So what are Modern Progressive ideals and goals? What distinguishes us as Modern Progressives from these other camps apart from having a “lineage” from the original Historical Progressives? That first question has several answers, and I will offer them in a subsequent article. For the moment, I will simply make a few observations of distinctions.
A) Modern Progressives, unlike Fauxgressive Democrats / Partisan Fauxgressives, are non-partisan as a movement, although individual Modern Progressives may feel some sense of loyalty to some political party or another (but this is usually something like the Green Party of the United States, Socialist Alternative, or one of the several parties using “Progressive” as part of its name, rather than either of the two main parties). Modern Progressives are Leftist, or at least Left-leaning Centrists, while Partisan Fauxgressives continue to support politicians who promote Neoliberalism (an extreme Right Wing economic perspective).
B) Modern Progressives see Identity Politics as divisive, and while not ignoring social concerns, are likely to regard economics as the primary struggle which must be won before any of these other concerns can be addressed in more than a temporary and token manner. This is, of course, quite a different perspective from that of the Regressive Outrage Mongers, who focus on Identity Politics. Attributing any economic perspective to the Regressive Outrage Mongers is challenging, since they give lip-service to Leftist or Centrist economic ideals, but their focus on Identity Politics establishes obstacles to the actualization of any Leftist goals (Leftism requires Solidarity to achieve its goals, while Identity Politics is divisive), and they seem all-too-willing to vote for the candidates chosen by the Democratic Party establishment, although some try to buck the system but wind up voting for Opportunistic Fauxgressives..
C) While Opportunistic Fauxgressives give lip-service to Progressive ideals in an attempt to win public office, Modern Progressives actually believe in these ideals. These Fauxgressive Opportunists are pro-establishment and so will support the Neoliberal economic policies favored by the establishment.
When I attempt to make these distinctions, I have often been told that word meanings change. As a person with a little formal training in Linguistics, I know this, but I also know the difference between descriptive, prescriptive, and proscriptive lexicography. Most common-use dictionaries nowadays are descriptive (that is, they describe the way the words are commonly used), while technical dictionaries (such as a dictionary of philosophy, for example) will prescribe how technical terms in their field should be used (and sometimes also proscribe incorrect uses).
Sometimes I have been accused of a No True Scotsman fallacy. As someone with considerable training in Logic (one of my two undergraduate majors was Philosophy, and, as is the case with most undergrad programs in Philosophy, at least in the US, the focus of my program until senior-level classes was on Logic and the history of ideas, specifically the history of ideas in the context of Philosophy), I do find it annoying when people start tossing the names of fallacies around inaccurately, especially when they refuse to listen to correction and won’t even consider references given to them which provide the correct explanations of these terms. I’m not infallible, but I do have some idea of what terms in my own field mean, and probably a better idea than those with no formal training in a discipline which is a part of my own field.
One of the key elements of the Elengkhos (Socratic Dialectic) involves the quest to understand by sorting out word meanings. This is done through a process of dialogue in which Socrates asks what one of his interlocutors means by a given word, gets an answer, applies logical analysis to the definition to find flaws, the interlocutor refines the definition, Socrates again looks for flaws, and so on, until, ideally, they arrive at a definition upon which they can agree, and then they proceed with the dialogue.
In Chapter III of his Analects, Kong Fu Zi (Confucius) says “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things.” This quote is often paraphrased as “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.”
The purpose of language is communication. Ludwig Wittgenstein discussed the confusion and frustration which can arise when people trying to communicate are playing different Sprachspiele (Language Games), using the same game pieces but with different rules. This is one of the reasons the definition of terms up front is recommended for “polite academic discourse.” If we use the same words, but with different meanings, communication becomes at least challenging, if not impossible. Words do not mean just whatever someone wants them to mean, and common use can turn a word into its opposite over time if nobody should care enough to correct those using the word incorrectly. An example with which many English speakers will likely be familiar is “literally,” which is nowadays becoming more and more often used to mean “figuratively” and not literally at all. Do we want to communicate? Then we need to understand the correct meanings of words.
1. Modern Progressives are generally in favor of some type of Socialism other than Marxism, although some proponents of Modern Progressivism have supported slightly-Left-of-Center Social Democracy rather than Socialism, while some others have continued to espouse various forms of Marxism while rejecting Stalinism: Council Communism, for example (which is what the USSR was originally supposed to adopt, until Stalin consolidated his power and got rid of all of the soviets [regional/local councils] except the Supreme Soviet, resulting in centralized economic planning, rather than regional and local economies). I myself am a Cooperative Commonwealth Socialist (I support local democratic economic cooperatives working together through confederation).
2. Worth noting before moving on, the Democratic Party establishment had tried to prevent Franklin D. Roosevelt from choosing Henry Wallace as his Vice Presidential running mate in 1940, but FDR insisted, going so far as to threaten to not run for re-election if he could not have Wallace. In 1944, Roosevelt, weakened by illness, didn’t have the strength to battle the party establishment again, and they replaced Wallace with Truman. FDR did, however, name Wallace his Secretary of Commerce, in which position he continued under Truman until the latter fired him in 1946. Why the Democratic Party establishment was so opposed to Wallace is also telling: he opposed racial segregation and supported the advancement of women’s rights.
3. A common theme for this third camp is a limited or incorrect understanding of many of the ideas they claim to espouse. They’re basically young (for the most part, although some of them are older than I am, and I’m from Generation X) and naïve with superficial knowledge of a few ideas. Their situation is actually a rather sad one, because they want to effect some kind of positive change, but they haven’t bothered to take the time necessary to understand the context in which the current situation exists (I mean the historical context and the ideological currents which have come out of the past to influence the present). Wanting to effect positive change is admirable, but you can’t just jump into the deep end of the pool before you learn how to swim.
For Further Reference
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, by Hunter S. Thompson (available here)
All original content in this article is © Copyright 2013–2018 & an. seqq. by Giovanna Laine, who grants Real Progressives™ a non-exclusive license to publish the article in perpetuity so long as (a) the substance of the article remains unaltered, and (b) this copyright notice is attached.