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?”