They're Both Right

Sure, they look like they're having fun, but just wait. This is gonna get ugly.

Pity the poor politician.

To succeed in politics, one must convince a majority of voters that one will enact policies congruous with those voters' wishes. One must further convince a subset of these voters that one sincerely believes in the principles behind these policies. Simultaneously, one must refrain from engaging publicly in behaviors or making comments, even in error, that these voters will find offensive. Finally, one must appear genuinely warm and friendly to one's voters, while appearing fierce and defiant, perhaps even rude, to interests they oppose. And don't even get me started on donors. It's a rare politician whose mind can be spoken to any hot microphone, and stay in the game for long. It remains to be seen how long Donald Trump can pull it off: with his billions, he's immune from donor decay, but it's extremely doubtful he can attract a real plurality, let alone a majority, of voters nationwide to his fascistic prognostications.

So what about Bernie Sanders? Isn't he an exception to the balancing act? He appears to be, after all, a politician who speaks his mind, stays true to his principles, and does not have to rely on the big money interests that fuel most other campaigns.

As Jamelle Bouie points out in a brilliant piece in Slate, Sanders really does seem to fly in the face of the whole notion of wheeling, dealing, compromising, voter-pandering politics--except when it comes to gun control, where he has cut a deal with gun dealers that should make most liberals squirm. (As I've said, if I was going to be a single-issue voter, this would be my issue, and he'd lose me on it--though in fairness to Sanders, that's true of almost everyone who's occupied a seat in Congress or the White House in my lifetime.) He's taken advantage of a home base (Vermont) that is small, homogeneous, and partial to cranky iconoclasts, giving him freedom to be as ideologically pure as he cares to be; and his appeal nationwide appears to be to a class of voters who would fit in well in Vermont.

The primary thrust of Bouie's essay is a meditation on the term "progressive." I'm familiar with its history--originally a description of liberal Republicans who sought to promote free market economics over the robber barons of the nineteenth century, the word nearly vanished from popular usage until it was revived in the 1980s as a replacement for "liberal," a word that had been demonized by the Reagan administration. In the 1990s, "progressive" became interchangeable with "moderate Democrat," a term that meant both concern for the social safety net and a belief in holding individuals responsible for their own actions. In the 2000s, conservatives seemed to catch on to its association with the Democratic party which, by now, had been almost completely purged of the Southern conservatives who used to be one of its mainstays; and with no more need to pretend it meant anything other than "liberal," Democrats began using it as a synonym for that word, disassociating it with "moderate."

Which brings us to the present, and a war of words being fought between the Sanders and Clinton campaigns over who is the true progressive. Given the elastic history of the word's meaning, it's clear to me that it all depends on which decade's definition one is using.

Take the word's origin, in the time of Teddy Roosevelt. Considering the accusations leveled at Hillary Clinton by Bernie Sanders over her associations with corporate interests--interests that exist because of the progressive reforms of the late 1800s--there's no question but that she is the true, classic progressive.

But then let's look at the progressives of the 1980s, when the word was code for big government New Deal liberalism. That's Bernie Sanders, no question. It's also pre-White House Hillary Clinton, who earned the wrath of the radical right with her efforts to create universal health care.

The best example of 1990s progressives, though, were Hillary's husband Bill and his VP, Al Gore, who were redefining the Democratic Party as a mainstream movement. Hillary was along for the ride, then, and continued to claim those values as she was elected to the Senate, then appointed Secretary of State.

In the Obama era, progressivism has taken on more of its original reformist luster, though now it's seen as a corrective to the publicly-owned corporations that were created by the first progressives. Elizabeth Warren, in particular, has emerged as a critic of Wall Street, of profiteering, and of the ever-widening income gap initiated by the Reagan administration. Bernie Sanders embraces this critique, and calls it progressive.

So who's right? Take a look at the title of this essay for my answer. And actually, I have to wonder if maybe "progressive" hasn't outlived its purpose, especially when one considers the mindset that gave birth to it.

Progressivism wasn't just about liberating money from robber barons, after all. "Progress" also meant "expansion": consolidating control of the now continent-spanning United States, growing the economy, making all Americans (persons of color excepted) wealthier, happier, freer. It was a freedom borne on the backs of immigrant labor, though those immigrants quickly assimilated into this culture of progress, working their ways up and out of the ghettos of Eastern cities. It came at a terrible price to the environment of the young nation, though the same Roosevelt who championed progressivism also set aside large swathes of land to protect them from the onslaught of industrial exploitation. To a large extent, this progressive era set the climate change juggernaut in motion.

That's why I wish Bernie Sanders would stick to his own self-definition, and keep calling himself a socialist. I've never been ashamed of being a socialist, and he seems to be quite comfortable with it. Socialism's critique of markets and wealth fits him and his movement far better than most of progressivism's incarnations.

And as for Hillary Clinton: while I do think she's got more of a claim to being a true progressive (and I mean that in the 1890s, 1980s, 1990s, and even the 2000s senses of the word), I'd rather she picked a different word for herself, too. Moderate, consensus-building, even liberal all work. And they don't have that 19th century baggage.

But fighting over who's the true progressive? That's just plain silly.


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