May 20, 2019

A Progressive Misnomer

The group of Democratic candidates running against President Trump in the 2020 elections. REUTERS/Files

Labels matter, and they are an integral part of the war of ideas.

When British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and American President Franklin Roosevelt met in December 1941, weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the Nazi Germany declaration of war against the United States, they signed a joint document articulating their nations’ war aims. It was titled “Joint Declaration of the United Nations,” not “Joint Declaration of the Alliance” and not “Joint Declaration of the Associated Powers.” Roosevelt rejected the term “Alliance” because it might be a problem to Senate isolationists. Churchill rejected the term “Associated Powers” because it sounded too “flat.” Hence the birth of the “United Nations,” a title designed for both its emotional punch and its political purpose.

This choice of labels is of constant concern to politicians and political movements. Those who favor retaining access to abortions call themselves “pro choice,” not “pro fetal death.” Those who favor more restrictive access to abortions call themselves “pro life,” not “pro unwanted babies.” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who has accused those who support Israel of having an “allegiance to a foreign country,” rejects the label “anti-Semitic” but has no objection to “pro-Palestinian.” 

Democrats seem to understand the value of emotive branding better than Republicans. The latter demonstrates no objection to being called “conservative,” although that label can connote a lack of originality and a kneejerk adversity to change. Democrats, on the other hand, have rebranded themselves as “progressives,” eschewing the use of the term “liberal,” which can have an elitist connotation (for example, the “liberal arts”) out of touch with the everyday problems facing the average American. Consistent with this rebranding, almost half of the Democratic House members are part of the Congressional Progressive Caucus; there is no Congressional Liberal Caucus. 

Democrats have rebranded themselves as ‘progressives,’ eschewing the use of the term ‘liberal.’

This stratagem, which the media and even Republicans have bought into, obfuscates and prejudges discussion. “Progressive” and “progressivism” are labels that have strong positive connotations. “Progress” is defined by the Random House Dictionary as “movement to a higher stage,” “advancement in general” and “continuous improvement,” and is a synonym for “betterment.” “Progressive” is defined as “favoring progress.” What millennial — indeed what person of any age, educational level or background — would be opposed to improvement or betterment? To be a social reformer, a progressive in the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt, committed by definition to “continuous improvement” and “betterment,” has an obvious appeal. 

Today, “progressivism” sometimes describes economic populism; other times, it encompasses cultural or social issues. “Progressive” Hillary Clinton, during her presidential run, asserted her unrelenting opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and her willingness to impose tariffs on China and other countries. “Progressives” are said to support New York’s recent late-term abortion law. “Progressives,” in the words of one Los Angeles Times headline, “hope to reset debate on Israel.” Other “progressives” campaign to restrict the availability of charter schools.

The “progressive” label unfairly biases and confuses the arguments concerning these and other social and political issues. Fair and informed public discussion would be served by a general return to “liberal” or “leftist,” terms that do not subtly predispose one to favor so-called “progressives” and their programs. While “liberal” and “leftist” do carry some baggage, this is equally true of the terms “conservative” and “rightist.” Media and commentators who strive to be unbiased must take the lead. “Progressive” ideas and candidates should be judged on their merits, not wrapped in a distorting label that prejudges thoughtful consideration.


Gregory Smith is a retired appellate lawyer in Los Angeles.