The battle between Sanders and Clinton over the term “progressive” presented an opportunity to discuss some history. Now that Sanders is supporting the very person who misappropriated the term it is even more important to define what does progressive mean, if it is more than a euphemism for the vague term “liberal.” This article argues on the contrary that “progressive” has a very precise meaning conferred by its history.
The meaning of the term “progressive” gains importance from new thinking that “people of color and progressive whites add up to a new majority” comprising 23% and 28% of the electorate respectively. See Steve Phillips, Brown is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority (2016). These Americans are those most strongly committed to America’s republican traditions. Today’s progressives represent the same fraction who fought to establish the representative democracy envisaged by the two Toms, Paine and Jefferson.
One of Martin Luther King’s major contributions to republican thought was his speech on voting rights:
“The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition. And so our most urgent request to the president of the United States and every member of Congress is to give us the right to vote. … Give us the ballot, and … we will by the power of our vote write the law on the statute books of the South and bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence. Give us the ballot, and we will transform the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens. Give us the ballot ….”
A century before King, Senator Charles Sumner similarly advocated that “colored suffrage is an overwhelming necessity” of Reconstruction. Referring to Black Codes, Sumner denounced these “machinations which are only prolongation of the war … to organize peace on another Oligarchy of the skin.” Jim Crow succeeded in extending just such an oligarchy.
Tyranny seeks an underclass of scapegoats, which is the status that the recrudescent bias embedded in US history reflexively assigns according to color coding. When American plutocracy effectively disenfranchises all who it rules, by buying off the electoral system, the color code helps determines who will bear the heaviest burden in a divide and conquer system. Flint is no accident. The New Jim Crow and its like are the direct products of political corruption and disenfranchisement. The solution to racial discrimination and disenfranchisement is not identity politics, but an alliance of all for a deep revival of democracy. See Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul (2016).
As the primary targets of plutocratic tyranny, people of color literally have most skin in this game for the defense of what Sumner called “those great words, fit for the baptismal vows of a Republic,–’We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal … that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Any alliance between the primary targets of tyranny and progressives is forged upon these words.
The Progressive Era
The wrestling match over the meaning of “progressive” is about dividing this progressive alliance with identity politics. The current struggle over the meaning of “progressive” can be traced to the liberal theft of the term that occurred on or about March 17, 1976. We can pinpoint this date because Rick Perlstine has reconstructed the crime scene in his masterly study of the period discussed below, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (2014).
The original owners of the term were the reformers of the Progressive Era who founded the Progressive Party for the 1912 presidential campaign of Teddy Roosevelt. Progressives last used the term for this purpose in 1948, in former Vice President Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party campaign. Its theft in 1976 may have seemed innocent enough, as if it were abandoned property. But it had important, specific, political meaning before it was taken, meaning contributed by such original Progressive thinkers, as John Dewey, Thorstein Veblen, Charles Beard, Vernon Parrington, Jane Addams, Carl Sandburg, Louis Brandeis, and especially such journalists as Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell, and Lincoln Steffens who were collectively known as “muckrakers,” and to whom Progressives owed much of their success. Progressives have proven reluctant to concede this heritage to thieves.
The 2016 wrestling match re-opens this old but not entirely buried grievance.
The meaning of “Progressive” with a capital “P” is not historically contested. It precisely denotes a political movement that arose in the late 19th and early 20th Century, but claimed earlier antecedents. Progressives were transpartisan, voting for either of the two major parties (e.g. Bryan (D), or LaFollette (R)), running some of the most successful third party campaigns in history, lending their name to an Era of reform well before FDR gave “liberal” its contemporary meaning.
Teddy Roosevelt, a published historian, and strong progressive when it suited, claimed that “the Republican party … in the days of Abraham Lincoln was founded as the radical progressive party of the Nation.” We can revert to Sumner for the observation: “The work left undone by Washington was continued by Lincoln.” This situates progressives as the industrial age heirs of pastoral republicanism. They updated for the industrial era the radical proposition that legitimate government is rooted in the consent of the governed and a regime of equal political rights, as stated in the “baptismal vows” Sumner quoted above.
Democrats, by the 1890’s, had been conceded – largely by the US Supreme Court – the power to impose Jim Crow slavery by another name. No longer distracted by such “machinations,” Democrats were able to contemplate other principles. White supremacist Democrats acquired ersatz progressive antecedents in their merger with Populists in the 1890’s. Progressive ideas were advanced in William Jennings Bryan’s unsuccessful runs for the presidency, albeit tainted by association with Jim Crow. The Populist Party 1892 platform listed “The Gilded Age” wrongs to which Progressives would bring their solutions: “that America was ruled by a plutocracy, that impoverished labor was laid low …, that houses were covered with mortgages, that the press was the tool of wealth, that corruption dominated the ballot box, that the fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few unprecedented in the history of mankind: and the possessors of these in turn despise the republic and endanger liberty.” Summary by Charles Beard, The Rise of American Civilization (1930) 210.
At its height, the burdens of this “rule by plutocracy” fell most severely on the backs of people of color, which included their formal disenfranchisement by the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the 15th Amendment to have no teeth in Giles v Harris (1903) (approving grandfather clause). Its modern counterpart is the current plutocratic Court’s denial of the 15th Amendment’s enforcement clause by gutting of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County (2013). Of course the granddaddy of this white supremacist bloodline was Dred Scott (1857), which presumed to foreclose any national citizenship let alone the franchise.
The 1912 Progressive Party Platform, written by a former Republican, includes two remedies for this Gilded Age plutocracy that remain essential today, and help define the contemporary use of the term: “strict limitation of all campaign contributions and expenditures” and “restriction of the power of the courts … to determine fundamental questions of social welfare and public policy.” Both these “progressive” policies go to the root of the struggle against plutocracy, both then and now. Sanders spoke to the first. But he did not speak directly to the second of this essential pair, for which he was given friendly criticism for “a lack of focus and a lack of specificity,” or worse, with respect to these reforms. Sanders even now remains mostly oblivious to the importance of appointing a progressive to the seat Scalia left vacant.
The 1912 Progressive platform, and those that followed in 1924 and 1948 Progressive Party presidential campaigns, show that as a political identity, the term “Progressive” has more richly valuable and consistent content over a longer period than either “Democrat” or “Republican” or the contemporary meaning of “liberal.” The political ideas of the two major parties do not go back very much further than the start of the current plutocracy in 1976. Their scuttling of core principles is indicative of parties that serve as conduits for payoffs and instruments of plutocratic control, but whose principles are subject to opportunistic change. The two major parties have reversed their views on the key issue of slavery and race, which was an existential though waning concern of the Republican Party and an obsession of the slave power/Jim Crow Democratic Party for more than a century of their respective existence.
The 1948 Progressive Party platform expressly rejected “the universal policy of Jim Crow” which “the two old parties … enforce … with every weapon of terror.” These Progressives were prominently supported by WEB DuBois. They rejected both parties, Republicans as “the champions of Big Business” and Democrats as “a party of machine politicians and Southern Bourbons.” Though their voices would be suppressed by anti-communist hysteria, these positions characterized progressive thinking through and beyond the era of the “civil rights revolution, the Second Reconstruction” of the 1960’s. Eric Foner, Forever Free (2005) 221.
Progressive Era structural reforms, such as women’s suffrage, direct election of Senators, progressive income tax, direct primaries, initiatives, recall and referendums, prohibition of corporate electioneering, numerous labor reforms and so forth were not enough to end the Gilded Age, due to the hijacking of the movement by the deceptive (he briefly fooled both DuBois and LaFollette) racist, “he kept us out of war” warmonger, Woodrow Wilson. Novack writes that Wilson’s “entry of the United States into the First World War dealt a mortal blow to the Progressive cause,” which, lacking any other rational explanation, may well have been its purpose.
The reforms that Progressives did achieve, especially at the state level, helped set the stage for the extended New Deal era that started in the next generation. Without Progressives there may not have been a New Deal that implemented progressive policies such as an eight hour day, minimum wage, right to join a union, industrial health and safety regulation, unemployment insurance, disability insurance, health insurance, old age insurance, and the abolition of child labor. FDR emerged from the progressive wing of his own party. His role model was his often progressive cousin Teddy. Novack writes “Roosevelt skillfully exploited Progressive sentiments and traditions to win support for his New Deal.” But there was an uneasy relationship between New Deal liberals and Progressives.
The New Deal had the loyal support of the scion of the Wisconsin Progressive dynasty, Robert LaFollette, Jr., but not necessarily of most leading Progressives. At the most abstract level the reason for the difference was that “The New Deal … was less concerned with polity than politics.” The Depression necessarily focused the governing liberal Democrats on solving the immediate economic emergency, not the systemic problems of structure that tended to concern Progressives. And “where the New Deal became so heavily engaged in economic matters, the New Deal liberalism began to disengage itself from [progressivism]…. [T]he New Deal ignored most of the agenda the progressives had been working on when they were interrupted.” See Otis L. Graham, An Encore for Reform: The Old Progressives and the New Deal (1968) 180, 186.
The plutocracy that Progressives fought had partied itself into a coma by 1929. Their systemic reforms had opened up enough political space for liberals to win elections against the spent force of the Robber Barons, and to establish “no less than a new political tradition” of “interest group liberalism.” Alonzo Hamby, Liberalism and Its Challenges: FDR to Reagan (1985) 51. But the Progressives’ agenda of structural defense against plutocracy was largely left untended. Offense provided a good defense while it lasted, but as it declined crucial defenses against a resurgent plutocracy were found lacking.
Those unfinished reforms might have prevented the 1929 crash and might also have prevented the triumph of plutocracy after 1976. Bernie Sanders’ lip service to the key issue of plutocracy, when he spoke against “a corrupt campaign finance system which is undermining American democracy,” returned to an unfinished Progressive structural reform.
FDR appropriated the term, “liberal,” for the progressive wing of his party, giving it an entirely new meaning. At least in the economic sphere, FDR’s use was the opposite of its original meaning in classical liberalism. The new term circumvented FDR’s complex relationship with Progressives, many of whom were Republicans.
The briefly democratic era following the New Deal through the Second Reconstruction terminated in the second Gilded Age initiated by Buckley v Valeo (1976). Plutocracy resumed control, like that the Populists had described in 1892. The original Progressive program which achieved significant success in response to the same problem of plutocracy that we now face became relevant again. See Sam Pizzigati, The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970 (2012). Left historian George Novack wrote that 20th century “’Progressives’ … principal aim was to oust the plutocrats from Washington and place the power of deciding national policies in the hands of the people.” It still is.
This is why progressives invested their energy in Sanders’ revolution, and against Clinton as the plutocrat Sanders originally sought to oust from control of the Democratic Party. When Sanders endorsed his plutocrat rival for the presidency, ignoring the rigged election by which he lost and the political fix of her servergate scandal, he departed from the anti-plutocratic Progressive tradition. He argued that supporting a plutocrat was justified by some liberal gains he seemed to detect in the irrelevant party platform, which he mislabels as “progressive.” A progressive platform would have prioritized naming and attacking the plutocracy by focus on institutional change, such as the rules changes necessary to prevent stealing a primary election. Sanders ignores that the candidate he supports is trusted by few others than himself to keep her word to anyone who had not paid for it. People lacking a personal interest in thinking otherwise are too well acquainted with Clintons parsing their promises to think a piece of parchment would stop them peddling influence and policy.
Defined by their uncompromising opposition to plutocracy, progressives oppose the contemporary plutocratic ideology of neo-liberalism. The origins of Democratic neo-liberalism is most closely associated with the Clintons’ DLC triangulation that turned management of the economy over to Goldman Sachs’s Robert Rubin. The burden of the new Gilded Age plutocracy that the Clintons served again fell most heavily on the backs of people of color whose support they nevertheless seek through symbolic gestures of noblesse oblige.
The alliance between a progressive movement and its counterparts representing people of color must exclude the inauthentic misleaders of either movement who find it personally advantageous to serve the plutocracy in the name of such movements. Sanders failed to convince people of color that he was an authentic progressive and they withheld their support from him. Liberal politicians promising followers a chance to compete for a few scraps from plutocracy’s table in return for sacrificing their inalienable sovereignty, serve the divide and conquer strategy that allows plutocracy to prevail. It was a segregationist Woodrow Wilson, pretending to be a progressive, that destroyed the first Progressive movement. Appropriation of the term progressive by liberals in service to plutocracy makes the contest over the meaning of the term an important political project.
Principle Above Party
A key difference between Progressives and New Deal liberals, was that the Progressives did not relate to party in the same way that Roosevelt did. To Progressives, parties were instruments of the very corruption of democracy by special interests which they opposed. FDR came out of party politics in New York State where he had to win over Tammany Hall, and later deal with the Southern Bourbon wing of the party to win national elections. FDR and the Democratic Party are inseparable.
FDR chose to refashion the Democratic Party as an instrument for change, often depending upon progressive support for his programs. He struggled with his conservative Southern wing. Historians claim FDR’s goals were hobbled by that struggle. He failed in his 1938 effort to eject the worst obstructionists from the party, losing political capital as a result. FDR’s Democratic Party legacy is a liberal wing that places party above principle in compromising with its conservative, frequently senior, partner. First that partner was southern, but after a brief interlude, it became corruptly plutocratic. At an almost visceral level, liberals reject the swing issue voting strategy that the Progressives successfully employed out fear that the supposedly lesser evil might lose.
The history of Progressives was entirely different. Cousin Teddy founded a third party. LaFollette, the leading Progressive due to his remarkable laboratory for reform in Wisconsin, had been a Republican and ran for the Republican nomination in 1912. But when Teddy Roosevelt took plutocrat money to unceremoniously elbow “Fightin’ Bob” aside in pursuit of his own nomination without negotiating terms with LaFollette, and then proceeded to appropriate the name Progressive from LaFollette along with many of LaFollette’s former progressive allies for his own “Bull Moose” third-party run, LaFollette bolted to support the Democrat Wilson. He was tricked, as were DuBois and others similarly alienated by TR opportunism, into believing that Wilson was the progressive he pretended to be, just as many were tricked by Obama. Disillusioned with the Democrat, LaFollette supported the mildly Progressive Republican Hughes against Wilson in 1916. LaFollette made a Progressive Party run for the presidency himself in 1924.
This pattern of party instrumentalism worked for the Progressives. “Muckraker” Lincoln Steffens, “Enemies of the Republic,” McClure’s 23:395 (1904), advised Progressives: “If the good citizen would do as the corrupt politician and the corrupting business man do, shift freely from one party to the other as the change served his interest then both parties would represent good citizenship … they would stand as they do not now for the public interest.” This was the Progressive strategy of placing principle above party. It helped them achieve the greatest democratic advances since Reconstruction.
The party-above-principle approach made the Democrats a powerful instrument of corruption after Buckley legalized buying of influence under the name of campaign finance. Parties no longer have any principles to which they adhere, but only influence which they sell, and the quest for office which secures that influence. Since 1977 congressional Democrats under Tip O’Neill and soon Tony Coelho quickly adapted to Buckley without much internal resistance after Carter’s initially progressive agenda got blindsided by the change. See Brooks Jackson, Honest Graft: Big Money and the American Political Process (1988). Bill Clinton introduced the corruption of the congressional party into the politics of the presidential party with the help of Terry McAuliffe who had “served as Coelho’s chief apprentice.” As money came to pervade both parties it was difficult to find any elected progressives who placed principle above party. Though progressive voters tend to support Democrats, the more prominent the Democrat, the more special interest money they take. For example, “Hillary Clinton’s campaign has received far and away the most donations from lobbyists.”
That Bernie Sanders was the longest serving Independent in Congress ever, in a relentlessly two-party system, theoretically conferred some progressive authenticity until in practice he put party loyalty before principle by endorsing Clinton.
War and Empire
FDR’s heirs became anti-communist cold warriors just as post-1976 Democrats became neo-con warriors, like Clinton. Progressives subscribe to the founders’ foreign policy for a democratic nation. John Quincy Adams most famously expressed it: “She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, … she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.” As one historian summarizes de Tocqueville’s description of the original American consensus of the founding era, “wars and rumours of war, like an acid, eat away the body of democracy.” As late into the Gilded Age as Grover Cleveland’s 1885 inaugural address, this policy was still favorably pronounced to “dictate the scrupulous avoidance of any departure from that foreign policy commended by the history, the traditions, and the prosperity of our Republic. It is the policy of … rejecting any share in foreign broils and ambitions upon other continents and repelling their intrusion here. It is the policy of Monroe and of Washington and Jefferson—’Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliance with none.’”
When Wilson overturned this historic policy for no good reason, Progressive Senator LaFollette voted against the declaration of Wilson’s War. He challenged the validity of Wilson’s justification that the war was to spread democracy. LaFollette claimed that most of warring allies had autocratic governments while “it will be generally conceded that no one of the[ allies] has done as much for its people … in securing social and industrial reforms as Germany.” He questioned a “profession of democracy that is linked in action with the most brutal and domineering use of autocratic power. Are the people of this country being so well-represented in this war movement that we need to go abroad to give other people control of their governments? Will the President and the supporters of this war bill submit it to a vote of the people before the declaration of war goes into effect?” Instead of democracy, Wilson submitted to the people war propaganda which was, according to Walter Lippman: “Probably … the largest and the most intensive effort to carry quickly a fairly uniform set of ideas to all the people of a nation.”
Clinton supporters are heirs to this legacy of war and empire which went on to define the past century. Because this is the opposite of progressive, it is no coincidence that Clinton’s party is also seen as systemically corrupt, as it was in the Progressive Era. Under Clinton her party has transformed from a member of a duopoly party to the principal instrument of plutocracy. The MIC supports Clinton, war and empire. Obama has proven it is enough for liberals that a leader has that D after the name, irrespective of the plutocratic policies that leader pursues. This involves many compromises of principle, so many that the former majority Party can now claim only 30% of the electorate while non-party, Independents, are over 40%.
The Progressive Program
Dewitt, The Progressive Movement (1915) described progressives’ essential “three ideals: the removal of special interests …, the perfection and extension of democracy, and the use of government to reduce social inequities.” See John D. Buenker, Urban Liberalism and the Progressive Movement (1973) 215. Consisten with these ideals Teddy Roosevelt advocated: (1) “controlling and regulating both competition and combination [monopoly] in the interest of the people, so that the people shall be masters over both,” (2) getting plutocratic money out of “any part of our affairs,” and (3) curbing plutocratic judges by recall votes on judicial supremacist decisions. Woodrow Wilson, by contrast, transferred the highly lucrative power over the currency to plutocrats by creating the Federal Reserve in exchange for their promise to tamp down the business cycle.
Even before the Democratic Party became the plutocratic party, broad Progressive principles did not precisely match FDR liberalism. The principles that distinguished progessives from liberals included 1) enhancing the institutional tools for democratic control of government; 2) a preference for enduring structural reform over the spending programs that typified the New Deal but were more easily subverted to the ends of corruption; 3) understanding that since in a democracy no person rules, progressives do not worship leaders; and 4) government should serve the whole nation, not just a minority, much less a tiny plutocratic sliver of it. As T. Roosevelt put it, “property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth.”
The political thinker David Sirota expresses the second point above, explaining that “’liberals’ in our current parlance are those who focus on using taxpayer money to help better society…. ‘progressive[s]’ are those who focus on using government power to make large institutions play by a set of rules.” The approach of “using taxpayer money” produces Obamacare-type opportunities for enormous profits to plutocrats who give campaign contributions in exchange for relatively modest liberal redistributive programs. Progressive reform would change the system to single-payer so there is no need to bribe plutocrats to leave small liberal crumbs on the table, and would thereby produce savings rather than expenses for taxpayers.
The fourth principle became the essential hard-won New Deal political vision of popular economic sovereignty which has survived in theory, but eventually succumbed to plutocracy in practice. FDR preferred use of patronage over structural reform. After winning his battle with the Supreme Court in 1937, FDR consolidated his victory through appointments to the Supreme Court. He only invested limited political capital in his court-curbing legislation, itself an ad hoc solution in comparison to other structural options preferred by Progressives. Important Progressives helped defeat FDR’s controversial legislation because it would aggrandize executive powers of patronage over their favored legislative structural reform. See Bruce Ackerman, We the People: Transformations, (Volume 2, 1998) 321-35. As a consequence the Supreme Court was able to once again subvert democracy in the Buckley-era as it had done in the Lochner-era that FDR overcame for a time. As a result government again serves a small sliver of plutocrats under rules made by the Supreme Court.
The priority ideal of removing special interests requires legislating money of “the billionaire class” out of politics. This task includes strengthening conflict of interest recusal rules so as to cover campaign finance legalized by Buckley. This “set of rules” type of reform can succeed, if combined with other reforms. The Democrats’ FENA-type public funding scheme is a conventionally liberal “taxpayer money” approach to the problem which aggravates campaign expense, without equalizing resources of publicly funded candidates. Public funding in complicity with the Supreme Court’s restrictions upon them is a mere paliative that cannot reduce corrupt campaign finance spending that buys influence.
Pollster Patrick Cadell led a bipartisan team in polling the popularity of progressive principles without using that term. They used a “candidate Smith” to test progressive propositions and found a “perception of widespread political corruption … voters feel corruption taints every action and interaction in Washington.” “Two-thirds of Americans disagree that the US government is working for the people’s best interest.” “‘Government ethics and corruption’ rank among the three top scoring issues. And 7 out of 10 Americans believe that the government in Washington does not govern with the consent of the people.“ Candidate Smith wins from 2/3 to over 4/5 of the electorate on the following planks of a platform 1) “for ordinary Americans to stand up, take responsibility and take control,” 2) “provide real jobs and better wages for the middle class,” 3) “take on and defeat the corruption and crony capitalism in our government” and 4) “fix our broken political system before we can go about solving the other important issues.”
Sanders’ campaign adopted several of these purely progressive principles, most notably point four since this prioritization of plutocracy is seldom heard elsewhere. The first is his “grass roots movement” required to make any change. The pollsters conclude that “Smith’s favorability rises to 81% of all voters when they have learned about [t]his platform…. This, in fact, is a revolution.”
If Sanders had the integrity and courage to take this progressive agenda into the general election he almost certainly would have won. His treating the Democratic Party who stole the election from him as more important than principle so that he has to support it conflicts with the results of this poll. The pollsters report that “only 15% say the ‘values and principles of my political party are so important that I strongly prefer to vote for the candidates of my party.'” This is a broad rejection of party-above-principle practices, to which Sanders capitulated as if an immutable political law. Sanders choice would be no surprise for the 84% who “believe political leaders are more interested in protecting their power and privilege than doing what is right.” Sanders proved the 84% correct even for the one politician that marketed himself as the exception to the rule.
This popularity of traditional Progressive political ideas brings us back to the theft of the term or, put more politely, cooption of the term by partisan Democrats to euphemize the term “liberal.” At the outset of the current era of systemic corruption, “liberal” became an epithet of the right. Money bought an alliance between plutocrats and the “new” right/religious right that has defined the Republican party coalition ever since. The restructured Republic Party based now in the south was defined by opposition to liberals. Liberal Democrats went looking for a synonym that had positive historical associations and found “progressive” not actively in use at the very close of the liberal era founded by FDR.
That liberals took the word devoid of its content is shown by the earliest known adapter of this evasive use of the term, Democratic Party leader Mo Udall during the 1976 primary. Udall had a reputation for being clever. But when asked by reporters about the difference between the two terms, liberal and progressive, he asserted they did differ, “but how, exactly, he was not able to explain. Then he admitted it was mostly an exercise in public relations – ‘People relate better to ‘progressive.’” R.Perlstine (2014) 629-30. It probably need not be pointed out that Clinton is heir to this liberal PR use of the term by conveniently stripping it of any content.
Progressives resent this usage of the term by confused, evasive liberals, and some dislike it so much as to reject the term itself as terminally damaged from its association with liberal Democrats, irrespective of its historical meaning that contrasted with liberal Democrats. Others still employ the term in its original sense. Its original meaning of fighting for broad democratic principles against plutocracy makes it a term worth fighting for and reclaiming from its murky, coopted, vacuous, uncommitted, and mostly ignorant “exercise in public relations” meaning that Democrats have imposed upon it. It can still evoke a spirit of fiercely committed resolve to make progress toward democracy rather than accommodate the plutocratic status quo. As a progressive Roosevelt famously proclaimed in 1912, “we stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.” Progressives understand that this battle for democratic progress is never over.
Hillary Clinton would have us ignore this rich progressive history that provides specific and relevant meaning to the term. She would substitute a simplistic abstraction virtually devoid of objective content: “A progressive is someone who makes progress,” she asserts. Don’t conservative Republicans want to make progress, albeit toward a neo-liberal dystopia? What politician would admit of policies that do not lead to some kind of “progress” on some opportunistic vector? This definition is as subjective as Clinton’s defense against her pervasive financial conflicts of interest on the grounds of her untestable denial that she subjectively “ever changed a view or a vote because of any donation that I ever received.” No experienced influence peddler leaves evidence of such subjective motive laying around in public.
The progress invoked in the term “progressive” is not the kind of vague subjective donor-driven abstraction that Clinton would make it. It reflects the understanding that constant progress toward democracy is a necessary priority if we are not to lose it.
If Clinton’s theft is prevented, the term “liberal” remains to describe Democrats who might support progressive programs except when they don’t, and are more partisan than principled, even justifying corruption if it serves partisan ends. Liberals who vote Democratic in the Buckley era fundamentally accept plutocratic control of their party while unstrategically hoping for the best. Their voting therefore tends toward the Lesser of Evils justification, causing a downward spiral where both parties compete for plutocratic money. This is the opposite of the upward spiral that Steffens advocated by putting principle above party. After the systemic corruption of the Democratic Party, such loyalty prompts a common progressive epithet, as in Chris Hedges’ description: “the liberal elite, has always been willing to sacrifice integrity and truth for power.”
One such “liberal elite,” Hillary Clinton, who is viewed by the nation in just this manner, has attempted a heist of the term “progressive” for the same reason Mo Udall did in 1976. She tried to use this term the same way in 2008. They do say that criminals always return to the scene of the crime. It is appropriate for progressives to not let another liberal Democrat get away with it again under the guise of being “a progressive that gets [plutocratic] things done.” It needs to be understood that, if the term is used consistently with its historic roots, Clinton is the opposite of a progressive. She represents plutocrats and their special interests. Someone like Sanders who supports her may be a socialist, may or may not be capable of identifying the greatest bigot, but he is not a progressive if he does not prioritize removing special interests and fighting plutocracy.
Rob Hager, a Harvard Law graduate, is a public interest litigator who filed amicus briefs in the Montana sequel to Citizens United and has worked as an international consultant on anti-corruption policy. He is currently writing a three-part book assessing proposals for ending the political influence of special interest money. The current eLibrary draft of the first part, Hillary Clinton’s Dark Money Disclosure “Pillar,” is available online.
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