In case you hadn’t noticed, the new mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, considers himself a progressive. He used the word seven times in his inaugural address. He talked about his “progressive vision.” He committed his administration to a “new progressive direction.” And he insisted that a “progressive impulse” is written into the city’s DNA.
You half expected a cameo appearance from the country’s foremost advocate of progressive policies: Flo. Now that’s progressive.
Interesting word, progressive. It has been bandied about in American politics for more than a century now, and it has proven to be as flexible as a teenage gymnast. Progressives are for progress, after all. We’re all for progress, aren’t we, Flo?
And therein is the beauty of the label. Progressivism knows no partisan boundaries. Republicans such as Theodore Roosevelt, Fiorello La Guardia, and Robert La Follette were as self-consciously progressive as de Blasio, a Democrat who admired and supported the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.
There certainly are some broad concerns that link the progressivism of Teddy Roosevelt to the progressivism of Bill de Blasio. Roosevelt and his fellow progressives in the early twentieth century believed in a more active role for government as a regulator and as a mediator. They supported the breakup of monopolies, greater regulation of the workplace, a more transparent political process, and the beginnings of a social safety net. Mayor de Blasio surely would sign on to all of those causes. But in choosing to identify himself as a progressive, de Blasio has been careful to avoid another label. That, of course, would be the dreaded l-word: liberal.
It has been a quarter century since George H. W. Bush turned a perfectly good word—liberal—into a sneer. Bush’s 1988 campaign against the overmatched Michael Dukakis was a milestone for those on the left in American politics. They learned the hard way that things had changed since the glory days of the sixties, when even Republicans such as Nelson Rockefeller, Jacob Javits, and, yes, George Romney could be described as liberals.
By the time Dukakis rose to prominence, liberalism was associated with American decline, with urban disorder, with broken promises, and with government incompetence. In 1992, Democrats nominated two self-styled centrists—or, depending on your point of view, two shrewd readers of political tea leaves—in Bill Clinton and Al Gore. The result? Democrats have won the popular vote in every presidential election since—except for 2004.
The liberal label has been put into cold storage since Clinton’s ascent more than twenty years ago. No major national Democrat—no, not even Barack Obama—has run as a self-styled liberal. The word remains as scary as it was a generation ago.
But now there is a seemingly safer word: progressive. It doesn’t have the baggage of liberalism. It doesn’t conjure memories of Michael Dukakis in a tank, or of blindfolded American diplomats held hostage in Tehran. It’s a word Republicans once used: Why, Teddy Roosevelt himself ran for president in 1912 on the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party line!
So for Bill de Blasio and other liberals, the p-word is a way to rebrand their policies and perhaps reintroduce left-of-center-ism to a new generation of voters. President Obama, in his recent interview with New Yorker editor David Remnick, made a point of urging “progressives” not to “dismiss out of hand” conservative critics of centralized government power. Progressives, then and now, generally have supported government power as a check on the power of private capital, another point of agreement between Teddy Roosevelt and Bill de Blasio.
But today’s progressives had better choose their historical references carefully, because the progressivism of a century ago—a time period historians call the “Progressive Era”—was associated with policies that few would consider progressive today. Teddy Roosevelt, the very symbol of the Progressive Era, was obsessed with the notion that Anglo-Saxon Protestants were committing what he called “race suicide,” and he fretted about the hordes of immigrant Catholics and Jews who were overrunning urban America. Other progressives shared Roosevelt’s anxiety, leading some to embrace the science of eugenics and its potential to limit reproduction among those judged to be unfit.
More broadly, progressivism in its early-twentieth-century iteration was associated with hostility to immigrant culture, as progressives such as Woodrow Wilson denounced what he called “hyphenated Americans.” The greatest moral crusade of the period, Prohibition, was rooted in the progressive belief that high-minded elites knew what was best for the immigrant poor.
That doesn’t sound like Bill de Blasio’s version of progressive politics. Quite the opposite, in fact. No wonder, then, that after the twenties, when the excesses of Prohibition and eugenics were exposed, politicians on the left began to use a new label to describe themselves.
Yep, the word was liberal.