The ‘progressive’ label: Why context matters

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Having concluded the term “liberal” was too toxic about a decade ago, many liberals decided to adopt (or co-opt) the term “progressive.” A few years later, Glenn Beck (concluding that 19th and early 20th century progressives — Theodore Roosevelt included! — were the evil ideological fathers of today’s Left), made a career out of attacking progressivism.

Once both sides bought into the language, the word “progressive” essentially became synonymous with “liberal.

It’s funny how the meaning of words can change. Somewhere around 2006, I heard Jack Kemp describe himself as a “progressive conservative.” Based on the context of the time, this struck me as an oxymoron, and — though I can’t find it now — I said as much on my blog.

Much to my surprise, Kemp read my post (presumably Google alerts worked back then?) — and emailed me. He and I went back and forth a few times — he couldn’t have been kinder — but the bottom line was this: While Kemp viewed “conservative” and “liberal” as opposites on the ideological spectrum, he argued that being “progressive” simply meant favoring progress or reform. Thus, a person could be a “progressive conservative” or a “regressive liberal.”

Why does this matter? A few days ago, a video surfaced of Mitt Romney calling himself a progressive. Now, a newly-posted video shows Newt Gingrich calling himself the same. In both cases, consumers of this information should consider the context of the times when judging how this might impact their perception of the candidates.

Matt K. Lewis