Can progressives define what to be a ‘progressive’ actually means?

For House Democrats, 2011 is likely to be the year of the progressives.

The midterm elections largely purged the party of moderate Blue Dogs, meaning that for the first time the Congressional Progressive Caucus will represent more than forty percent of Democrats in the House. There’s no question Democrats are now a progressive party. The only problem: nobody can agree on what the word “progressive” actually means.

And not for lack of trying. While many have tried to define the term — John Podesta of the Center for American Progress wrote an entire book on the subject – no consensus has emerged. Call a dozen different self-described progressives, and you’re likely to get as many different explanations of what a “progressive” is.

“I’m not sure what the definition is,” conceded James Rucker, executive director of Color of Change. “I don’t love the term.” Rucker co-founded his organization with former White House “green jobs czar” Van Jones, so there isn’t much question about where he stands politically. But the term still strikes him as opaque. “I think it’s kind of the new ‘liberal,'” he said.

Ambiguous? That may be the point. “People use the word ‘progressive’ these days in part because the word liberal has been discredited by the right,” said Roger Hickey, co-director of Campaign for America’s Future, a Washington-based non-profit that touts itself as “the strategy center for the progressive movement.”

Hickey, whose group hosts one of the most prominent annual gatherings of liberal activists in the country, added that there is more to the term than just a rebranding effort. “‘Progressive’ connotes that element of economic populism and the little guy up against big corporate forces that liberalism does not,” he explained.

“Progressive” may connote standing up for the little guy, but an awful lot of big guys have suddenly appropriated the term. When asked in a debate during the 2008 presidential primaries if she considers herself a liberal, Hillary Clinton said she prefers “the word progressive” because liberalism “has been turned up on its head and made to seem as though it is a word that describes big government.” In October, the President of the United States himself told a group of bloggers that he considers himself a progressive. The Center for American Progress, the progressive movement’s brain trust in Washington, now has a budget of around $25 million.

So what does it mean? Some progressives contend that progressivism is a distinct subset of modern liberalism. Others say that it’s a set of beliefs separate and apart from liberalism – indeed, beyond the traditional “liberal versus conservative” divide.

If you’re confused, you’re not alone. Even within left-wing circles, the debate rages. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell and Glenn Greenwald of Salon got into a heated discussion last Friday after O’Donnell accused liberals of hiding behind the term. He went on to suggest that the re-emergence of the word “progressive” was nothing but a mere marketing ploy.

“Glenn, unlike you, I am not a progressive,” O’Donnell said on the “Morning Joe” program. “I am not a liberal who is so afraid of the word that I had to change my name to progressive. Liberals amuse me. I am a socialist. I live to the extreme left, the extreme left of you mere liberals, okay?”

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  • sunnyr

    Progressives are Socialists/Marxists/Communists who have stayed under their rocks after they were defanged after the Wilson and later the FDR administrations. Saul Alinsky is their hero and they will lie, cheat or steal to accomplish their agenda. “The end justifies the means.” Hillary Clinton is an Alinsky loving Progressive, by her own admission. So is Barack Obozo. All of these LOONS are America-hating nutwads who would like to see this country brought down, by any means necessary, only to rise again in a “new world order” fiasco. George Soros is the Maggot-in-Chief who is pulling all the strings and financing their campaigns. They don’t know it yet, but they are all “dead men walking.” They are FINISHED because the people now know what their agenda is and they are mad as hell. They will have to crawl back under their rock for another 75 years or so because they are not going to make it this time around.

  • libertyatstake

    Progressive = Statist (per Levin). The core “progressive” belief is the ability of an anointed elite to micromanage everyone else (the masses). The odds of you becoming one of the anointed elite are worse than the odds of winning the Mega-Millions lottery. So, good luck with that.

    “Because the Only Good Progressive is a Failed Progressive”

  • Anonymous1010

    Progressives are extremely zealous and militant for their cause.

    If you think I don’t know, visit one of their web pages like “color of change”.

    Liberals who appear on conservative sites like this one are only the operative posters who want to confuse and disrupt they thrive on this kind of activism.

    This is why conservatives shouldn’t give them any ammunition for their despicable cause.

    Progressives and liberals are interchangeable, look it up.

    They want to keep Americans confused and disoriented so they can promote their cause.

    This is also why it is extremely important for Americans to take their responsibility very serious to be informed and educated on the facts.

    The radical extreme progressive liberals are banking on conservatives to get weary of doing good and complacent.

    The left are in this to win, without a fight.

    The left will fight on all fronts in school, government, institutions at every level.

    Don’t argue with these ignorant operative fools.

    Just ignore them and others like them who just want attention.

    They want people to think they are smart, but it’s hard for them to see how ridicules they sound.

    A person who argues with the like will find themselves in an endless circle only getting dizzy from the nonsense.

    The conservative cause is the cause of respect, honor, loyalty and responsibility.

    We conservatives should and need to lead by example to be an inspiration to the liberals of this great country of ours.

    But there are more conservatives than liberals, so don’t give up the fight.

    Even if they will never be able to be civil.

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  • truebearing

    The reason that “Progressive” is hard to define is because that was what was intended all along. It is a deception, a lie. Progressives are yet another bunch of collectivist liars, derivative of Marxism, some of whom are close to Fabian Socialists and some who are disguising even more radical neo-communistic beliefs.

    Progressives have a marked proclivity to be ruthless, elitist, dishonest, and contemptuous of other viewpoints. They share the same rapacity for power that adherents of rest of the Marxist derived ideologies do.

  • MerryJ1

    According to Webster’s New World (College) Dictionary, “progressive” (in the political sense) is synonymous with “liberal.”

    However, none of the political labels (left to right: radical, liberal, moderate, conservative, reactionary) are ideologically definitive, in that their respective descriptive meanings are wholly dependent on the where and when. For example, a Soviet communist hard-liner in 1990’s post-communist Moscow was a conservative (right wing); the same hard-liner holding the same beliefs today is a reactionary (extreme right); but his ideological counterparts here in the US were (and are) radicals (extreme left).

    • noonespetgoat

      And many folks here on the DC would choke on their own vomit to find that much of what today’s conservatives find fashionable would in fact be “liberal” in much of Europe.
      There is a difference between 18/19th century liberalism and modern liberalism in America.

  • leilani

    A “Progressive” (as the term has been disingenuously co-opted & completely transmogrified by those who currently call themselves progressives) is a reactionary who wishes to forcibly impose upon 21st century peoples, especially people of color, the failed socio-economic system & anachronistic political philosophy devised by a dead white guy from 19th century Europe.

    • nomore

      Lots of ten cent words there leilani but we are talking about describing the 20th and 21st century progressives. If you are unhappy with the government our Founding Fathers gave us, you are welcome to move to a country whose founders better suit your sensibilities.