Defining “Progressive” and Spotting the Impostors


“The framework of thought is consciously manipulated by an effective choice and reshaping of terminology so as to make it difficult to understand what’s happening in the world, to prevent people from perceiving reality, because if they perceived it they might not like it and act to change it.”

– Noam Chomsky

This election season, millions of Americans will use the terms Progressive or Liberal. I will have no idea what any of them mean.

George Orwell wrote, “The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another.”  Were Orwell writing in 2014, he would include Liberal and Progressive as well. In the regular frenzy for votes, politicians with wide-ranging politics will fly both banners. Despite no common definition or clear understanding of what the terms imply, millions of well-intentioned voters will follow the labels and deliver their votes.

The lack of clear language on the American Left prevents coherent thought and action. Because the Left cannot clearly define what it means to be Progressive or Liberal, it cannot effectively identify its friends nor its enemies. Wolves in sheep’s clothing reside in elected offices nationwide. Well-intentioned, egalitarian voters elect self-proclaimed Progressives and Liberals who proceed to desecrate workers and equality in return.

Modern Americans use Progressive and Liberal with a wide range of meanings, many of them contradictory.

The public brands politicians far apart on the ideological spectrum, from Joe Lieberman to Bernie Sanders, as Liberal. Starkly contrasting intellectuals, from Paul Krugman to Noam Chomsky, also commonly receive the label.

Progressive is no different. Political groups and ideas as different as Bill Clinton’s Reaganesque New Democrats and Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialists of America self-identify as Progressive. Competition is fierce amongst all varieties of Democrats to self-brand as Progressive—every last candidate in the 2008 Democratic Party presidential primaries, from Dennis Kucinich to Barack Obama to Hilary Clinton to Bill Richardson, self-identified as a Progressive in campaign literature.

Progressive and Liberal are consistently used to distance oneself from Conservative, making it clear what the terms are not. What they are, however, is indiscernible based on their rainbow of representatives.

The most defining trait of the 21st century politician is the extent to which they believe free market capitalism should be regulated. The Conservative Right attacks the very existence of government in advocacy of laissez faire capitalism, while the Left ostensibly promotes regulation of the market’s excesses and non-market social welfare programs.

Despite this being the key dividing line in American politics and central to most hot-button political issues, the primary labels of the American Left have no fixed meaning on the matter. Liberal and Progressive refer to politicians and intellectuals all over the map on regulating free market capitalism. It is impossible to predict where a modern Liberal or Progressive will fall on bellwether economic issues such as trade unions, social welfare programs, progressive taxation, public schools, etc. Oft-described Liberal and Progressive Bill Clinton deconstructed social welfare programs and championed NAFTA, while similarly described Barack Obama completely abandoned his pre-election promise to trade unions to pass the Employee Free Choice Act and has pushed vigorously for passage of the newest free trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership Free Trade Agreement. Yet Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, also frequently referred to as Progressive and Liberal, relentlessly fights free trade agreements and refers to himself as a socialist economically! There exists no label on the mainstream Left that indicates support for restraining free market capitalism; its champions and opponents alike populate the ranks of our Progressives and Liberals.

There is a disastrous consequence to the mainstream Left’s lack of descriptive precision: elected officials routinely attacking the very Leftists and workers who voted them into power. The traditional, racism-fueled American political conundrum involves workers supporting conservative politicians explicitly against their own interests. Our loose terminology creates a different conundrum, politicians who win election based on ostensibly anti-corporate, pro-equality platforms only to betray their working class and Leftist supporters.  Electoral politics for Democratic voters today is generally a game of bait-and-switch: Leftist rhetorical bait followed by conservative economic policy.

The effectiveness of this bait-and-switch has fostered the rise of a new class of pseudo-Left, neoliberal charlatans nationwide. Waves of these charlatan politicians continue to ascend, effectively dominating the Democratic Party.  The Charlatans generally support liberal social issues, such as formal civil rights (i.e. marriage equality), basic women’s rights (i.e. the right to have an abortion), and racial ‘diversity’ (i.e. formal equality and ‘color-blindness’). However, they break from traditional Leftist economic positions. The Charlatans often scapegoat and battle worker unions, lead the charge in ‘reforming’ and ‘marketizing’ (privatizing) the public school system, and generally advocate supply-side, trickle-down economics in the name of ‘job creation’ and a better ‘business climate’.

The trademark of the Charlatans is to drench everything they do, progressive or conservative, in traditional Leftist rhetoric. They stoke Leftist enthusiasm by breathlessly emphasizing liberal social issues, while quickly glossing over their conservative economic stances with cliché rhetoric. They attack public schools in the name of racial equality and poor, minority students.  They defend de facto racial inequality by celebrating token minority representatives amongst the rich and powerful—the act even works best when the Charlatan themselves is a racial minority, their mere presence projected as an inherently Progressive cause (see Barack Obama, Cory Booker, etc). They wage war on the last bastion of the American labor movement, public sector unions, in the name of improving the economy for the poor and unemployed. In sum, the Charlatans are masters of effecting inequality in the name of equality. Lost in the whirlwind of rhetoric, blinded by the shine of liberal social issues, most well-intentioned egalitarians take the bait.

Defining more clearly what it means to be a Progressive or Liberal—the two most popular labels of the mainstream American Left—would go a long way in stopping the Charlatan swindle. Wolves in sheep’s clothing can do no harm if they are spotted at the gates. As long as Leftists articulate mere vague notions of who they are and what they believe, a bit of euphemistic verbal gymnastics will permit politicians of different shapes to squeeze into the mold. If the Left speaks clearly and specifically about what it stands for, no amount of rhetorical flourish will stop those with contrasting politics from being sniffed out. If Leftists define themselves as believing in a robust public education system, no politician could gain their support without explicitly supporting full funding for our public schools. If Leftists define themselves as standing for democracy at work, no politician could gain their support without declaring support for public and private sector worker unions. And so on.

What exactly the definitions are for each term is less important than having any clear definitions and common understanding whatsoever. What it means to be a Progressive or a Liberal is arbitrary—at least I have no interest in debating the history or import of the labels themselves. The goal is to give them any common, fixed meaning and to stop the neo-liberal swindle.

In this spirit, I propose that Liberal be used only in its classic sense, referring only to those who believe in both social and economic liberalism. This implies support for civil rights and belief in the free market capitalist economy. Liberals shall be those who do not believe in perverting the free market. They oppose racist, sexist, and homophobic discrimination (which are all, in the end, extra-market forces). They also oppose trade unions, strong welfare programs, and progressive taxation (also extra-market forces). They preach equality of opportunity, not outcome. They speak a subtle variation of trickle-down economics, advocating improving the ‘business climate’ in the name of growing the economy for all.  They advocate for competition in all aspects of society, from the labor market to schools to the healthcare industry.

Progressive should be used for those who believe that the free market must be profoundly restrained to alleviate inequality. Progressives should believe strongly in trade unions as a necessary counterbalance to corporate power.  They should advocate taxing the wealthy at much higher rates, nationalization of essential social needs such as education and healthcare, and strong public welfare programs to address poverty. Progressives believe more in equality of outcome than mere equality of opportunity. They do not seek to accommodate wealthy employers, but support more Keynesian direct worker assistance such as higher minimum wage requirement and increased unionization. Progressives do not focus on simply ‘growing the economy’ or ‘job creation’ with faith that this will trickle down to the working class. Instead, they inquire directly to the conditions of the poor and believe it is the role of government to step in with support.

With the terms fixed as such, no politician could claim either label nor win the support of proponents without living up the to clear criteria. Liberal and Progressive could no longer be used interchangeably or meaninglessly. Most tangibly, with clear lines drawn for those who do and do not believe in regulating the excesses of free market capitalism, the ascendant Charlatans could no longer use lofty, vague, and disingenuous rhetoric to win the support of Progressives who believe in regulating the ugly excesses of the free market. Genuine Progressives could more easily identify the Charlatans as the neoliberal corporate lackeys which they are, and seek sincerely Progressive alternatives.

Socialists will make the noteworthy quibbles that they already possess a perfectly lucid label for the Left (Socialist) and that neither Progressives nor Liberals represent a genuine anti-capitalist Left. They may very well be correct on both accounts, but there is utility nonetheless for Progressives and Socialists alike who are engaged in real political struggle in encouraging a more coherent Progressive movement.

The political crisis of treacherous, charlatan politicians on the Left is obviously the result of much more than imprecise language. Lack of organizational unity, more than anything, causes the crisis. This disorganization is likely the root of the confused language as well. Yet, as Orwell stated in his call for clear political language seventy years ago, “an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely.” Those who consider themselves Progressives should demand clarity whenever and wherever either term is used. Until we think and speak more clearly, the Charlatans will continue to deceive, Liberals will continue to co-opt Progressives, and a society based on Progressive values will become further and further from reality.

Andrew Tillett-Saks is an organizer with UNITE HERE Local 217. He can be reached at:  atillett-saks@unitehere.org. Twitter: @AndrewTSaks.



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