How Hillary Clinton Co-opted the Term “Progressive”


The battle between Sanders and Clinton over the term “progressive” presents an opportunity to discuss some history. The meaning of the term 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. These Americans are those most strongly committed to America’s republican traditions. Today’s progressives represent the same fraction who fought to establish the republic 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 ….”

Senator Charles Sumner similarly advocated that “colored suffrage is an overwhelming necessity” of Reconstruction. Referring to Black Codes, he denounced the same “machinations which are only prolongation of the war … to organize peace on another Oligarchy of the skin.”

Tyranny seeks an underclass of scapegoats, the status which the recrudescent bias embedded in US history reflexively assigns by color code. When American plutocracy effectively disenfranchises all who it rules, by buying the electoral system, the color code determines who will bear the heaviest burden. Flint is no accident. The New Jim Crow and its like are the direct products of political corruption and disenfranchisement.

As the first targets of plutocratic tyranny, therefore, 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 with progressives is forged on these words. The primary wrestling match over the meaning “progressive” is about dividing this alliance. It can be traced to a 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, 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, contributed by such Progressive thinkers, as John Dewey, Thorstein Veblen, Charles Beard, Vernon Parrington, Jane Addams, Carl Sandburg, Louis Brandeis, and especially the journalists like 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 originated in the late 19th and early 20th Century. Progressives voted for either of the two major parties (e.g. Bryan (D), or LaFollette (R)), they ran some of the most successful third party campaigns in history, and lent 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, updating for the 20th century 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 1890s, 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 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) (grandfather clause). Its modern counterpart is the current plutocratic Court’s denial of the Amendment by gutting of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County (2013).

The 1912 Progressive Party Platform, written by a former Republican, includes two remedies for plutocracy that remain essential today, and give meaning to 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 has yet to speak directly to the second of this essential pair of reforms, for which he has been given friendly criticism for “a lack of focus and a lack of specificity.” But in principle he has made these issues central to the campaign of 2016 in what could literally be called a Progressive tradition.

The 1912 platform, and those that followed in 1924 and 1948 Progressive Party 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 “liberal” does. 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 existential for 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 as “the champions of Big Business” and Democrats as “a party of machine politicians and Southern Bourbons.” Though their voices were suppressed by anti-communist hysterics, these positions characterized progressive thinking through the civil rights era and after.

That briefly democratic era ended in the second Gilded Age of Buckley v Valeo (1976). A plutocracy resumed like that the Populists described. The Progressive program which achieved significant success in response to the same problem of plutocracy we face became relevant again. 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 seems a concise description of Sanders’ revolution. And of Clinton, a plutocrat he seeks to oust.

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.

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. Such persons, promising followers a few scraps from plutocracy’s table for sacrificing their sovereignty, serve the divide and conquer strategy that allows plutocracy to prevail. This makes Sanders’ insistence on definitions important. It was a segregationist Woodrow Wilson, pretending to be a progressive, that destroyed the first Progressive movement.

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, and so forth were not enough to end the Gilded Age, due to the hijacking of the movement by the deceptive (he briefly fooled DuBois) 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 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’s role model was his often progressive cousin Teddy. FDR emerged from the progressive wing of his own party. 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 left untended.

Those unfinished reforms might have prevented the 1929 crash and might also have prevented the triumph of plutocracy after 1976. Bernie Sanders’ focus on the key issue of money in politics returns 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.

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.

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 for his own “Bull Moose” third-party along with many of LaFollette’s former progressive allies, 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. He made a Progressive Party run for the presidency in 1924.

This pattern of party utilitarianism 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.

Bernie Sanders is the longest serving Independent in Congress ever, certainly at some cost to his own early political career in a relentlessly two-party system. He has lived this Progressive principle of rejecting party loyalty, even if he currently must accede to the duopoly-controlled run-off process.

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 put party above principle in compromising with its conservative, frequently senior, partner. His heirs became anti-communist cold warriors just as post-1976 Democrats became neo-liberals. At an almost visceral level, liberals reject the swing issue voting strategy that the Progressives successfully employed.

Clinton supporters are heirs to this liberal legacy, and to a party others see as systemically corrupt, as it was in the Progressive Era. Obama has proven it is enough for liberals to have that D after the name, irrespective of policies pursued. This involves many compromises of principle, so many that the former majority Party can now claim only 30% of the electorate while Bernie’s non-party, Independents, are over 40%.

The party above principle approach has been particularly conducive to making the Democrats a powerful instrument of corruption. Since 1977 congressional Democrats under Tip O’Neill and soon Tony Coelho quickly adapted to Buckley without much internal resistance after Carter’s progressive agenda got blindsided by the change. See Brooks Jackson, Honest Graft: Big Money and the American Political Process (1988). As money came to pervade both parties it was difficult to find elected progressives who placed principle above party. Though progressives tend to vote Democrat, 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.”

Broad Progressive principles did not match FDR liberalism. They were 1) enhancing the tools for democratic control of government; 2) a preference for enduring structural reform over spending programs such as typified the New Deal, but which were more easily subverted to the ends of corruption; and 3) the use of government to 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.”

This third principle became the essential New Deal political vision of popular economic sovereignty which survived in theory, but has succumbed to plutocracy in practice. This defines another difference between liberals, who like FDR look for short term fixes, and progressives who seek long term solutions to fundamental problems.

Dewitt, The Progressive Movement (1915) described “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.

FDR used patronage over structural reform. After winning his battle with the 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 options. Important progressives opposed 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.

The political thinker David Sirota emphasizes 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.”

Sanders’ emphasis in legislating money of “the billionaire class” out of politics is the “set of rules” type reform that can succeed, if combined with other rules 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.

The approach of “using taxpayer money” produces Obamacare 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 for taxpayers. This progressive preference goes back to Teddy Roosevelt. He advocated rules: (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.

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’ ranks 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 emphasizes each of these purely progressive principles, most notably point four, since this priority 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.”

The pollsters report that “only 15% say the ‘values and principals of my political party are so important that I strongly prefer to vote for the candidates of my party'” which is a rejection of party-above-principle practices. This view parallels the 84% who “believe political leaders are more interested in protecting their power and privilege than doing what is right.”

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”/religious right that has defined the Republican party coalition ever since. Liberal Democrats went looking for a synonym that had positive historical associations and found “progressive” not actively in use at the 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 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, irrespective of its historical meaning. Others, like Sanders, employ it 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. In Sanders’ hands it can still evoke a spirit of fiercely committed resolve rather than contented accommodation.   As a progressive Roosevelt famously proclaimed in 1912, “we stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.”

Hillary Clinton would have us ignore this rich 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 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.

If Clinton’s theft is prevented, the term “liberal” remains for describing Democrats who might support progressive programs except when they don’t, and are more partisan than principled. 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, attempted a heist of the term “progressive” for the same reason Mo Udall did in 1976. She tried to use this term in the same manner in 2008. They do say that criminals always return to the scene of the crime. It is appropriate for Sanders to not let a liberal Democrat get away with it again under the guise of being “a progressive that gets [plutocratic] things done.”

Rob Hager is a public interest litigator who filed an amicus brief in the Montana sequel to Citizens United and has worked as an international consultant on anti-corruption policy and legislation.