What's a "Progressive", Anyway?

The ambiguous term has become the go-to identifier for those “left-of-liberal”. Is there a better alternative?

Aidan Smith

1 January 2021

From left to right: Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, three-time Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, and Senator Bernie Sanders.

“I’m not a liberal. Never have been. I’m a progressive who mostly focuses on the working and middle class.”


In the summer of 2015, Senator Bernie Sanders, then just breaking into the national scene, delved into his political views in detail in an exclusive interview with the New York Times. Though this quote did not garner much attention at the time, five years later it stands out as one of the first modern attempts to break from the liberal-conservative binary from the left at the national level.


In the past, left-wing figures in the Democratic Party have tended to justify their worldview by claiming to be the legitimate heirs to the American liberal tradition. Late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone’s quip that he "represent[s] the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” has gone down as iconic, with the quote later being used by, among others, Howard Dean during his 2004 presidential campaign.


Former Representative Dennis Kucinich, the incidental face of the party’s left flank throughout much of the 2000s, also echoed this sentiment during his first presidential bid. Standing before the National Organization for Women (NOW), Kucinich proudly proclaimed “I'm from the universal-health-care wing of the Democratic Party. I'm from the Roe v. Wade-litmus-test wing of the Democratic Party. I'm from the abolish-the-death-penalty wing of the Democratic Party.”


But Sanders was clear that this was not the case for him. He was a progressive, someone outside of the elite political binary who can “mobilize a working-class coalition spanning ideological divides”. He made it clear he had no intention of claiming the mantle of being the true liberal in the race: The Sanders campaign was to be totally removed from the traditional ideological dichotomy.


In the 1990s, the "New Democrats" portrayed their politics as a third way between the Republican Party's hardline conservatism and the "tax-and-spend liberalism" of yore. In the 2000s, libertarianism became a staple in niche corners of the internet, with rigid social darwinism being sold as a peaceful alternative to the "two pro-war parties". In this spiritand with a necessary left-wing twistSanders portrayed his politics as representing the interests of the common worker against needless division perpetuated by the liberal and conservative elites alike.


As Sanders became an established figure in the Democratic Party, he slowly abandoned this unique positioning out of necessity. In 2016, Sanders entered the presidential primary as the sole representative of his politics at the national level. Over the course of a half-decade, however, enough of his ideological allies won office to emerge as a serious faction within the party. Indeed, in an effort to normalize the taboo surrounding the “socialist” label, Sanders has made a point of comparing his platform to that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal. Nevertheless, his acolytes’ aversion to being described as “liberal” has only grown over the course of this period.


But while Sanders and his ideological allies would like to reserve the “progressive” mantle for themselves, moderate Democrats clearly have different plans.


Joe Biden famously claimed to have the “most progressive record of anybody running” in the early stages of the 2020 primary. In a subtle jab to Sanders, Montana Governor Steve Bullock said that being progressive means “actually making progress” before disparaging the “wish-list economics” of the party’s left-wing. Chris Coons, the centrist Senator from Delaware, had the audacity to make the same argument despite being one of the party's foremost proponents of financial deregulation. When former Republican Jake Auchincloss won his primary for a safe blue House seat in Massachusetts, he rightfully received criticism for declaring himself a pragmatic progressive despite helping get the state’s current Republican Charlie Baker elected Governor.


It’s not surprising that a term as etymologically ambiguous as "progressive" is a favorite of individuals across the political spectrum. After all, if there's one common thread in politics, it's that everyone believes their vision of the world represents progress in some way or another. It does, however, beg the question: If “progressive” can be used by the Left as a self-descriptor as easily as it can be used by centrists for the same purpose, what exactly is the term good for?

“What’s The Opposite of Congress”?


“Progressive” is hardly new to American political parlance. The Progressive Era of the 1890s to 1920s, as generally personified by the likes of President Theodore Roosevelt and three-time Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, continues to be held in reverence.


Unsurprisingly, the narrative surrounding the time period is only about as accurate as most popular historiography tends to be. Arguably the most consequential turn of the century “progressive” reform was prohibition, a product of anti-immigrant animus that proved a spectacular failure in implementation. Additionally, the myth of “Teddy” as a trust-busting, tree-loving champion of progressive change glosses over Roosevelt's deeply-held conservatism. After all, one of Roosevelt’s main reasons for running against his Republican successor was his opposition to William Howard Taft’s antitrust policies, which he felt went too far in reigning in corporate concentration.


There are, of course, countless positive developments associated with the Progressive Era: Child labor laws, early anti-trust provisions, and the marginalization of political machines in major cities, among others. Indeed, under the umbrella of “progressivism” were an array of political currents, namely the cooperative banking movement, that can unequivocally be considered left-wing in retrospect. But painting the “progressivism” of the era as the American answer to Fabian socialism or the antecedent of Sanders’s movement is misleading, even if it may prove rhetorically useful. After all, the influential Efficiency Movement, which promoted “scientific management” as a means to more efficiently exploit labor, fell under the banner of progressivism, as did eugenics.


One does not need to look to the early 20th century to find the term being commonly used, however. Before Sanders emerged as a key player in national politics in 2015, “progressive” was already widely used as a self-identifier for conventional Democrats scared of the much-maligned “liberal” label. In contrast to Sanders's use of the term, "progressive" in this context amounted to little more than a rebranding of Democratic Party orthodoxy. This attempted change in terminology was unconvincing, being viewed by conservatives as a display of insecurity. A 2005 episode of The West Wing captured this arrangement perfectly, with the fictional Republican presidential nominee mocking his Democratic opponent on stage for this desperate shift in nomenclature.


Like progressive, liberal is a deeply ambiguous term. Etymologically rooted in the word liberty, a contested concept itself, “liberalism” can describe basically any political tendency depending on context. As an Americanism, the term roughly refers to an ideology that values political pluralism and at least partially rejects the taboo surrounding state intervention in the economy. Following decades of conservative onslaught, the term has become equated with weakness and flimsy principles in the minds of Americans across the political spectrum. It’s only natural, then, that Democrats have increasingly abandoned the term in public settings in favor of the less stigmatized, yet equally ambiguous, “progressive”.


It’s clear that liberals will not let go of the term without a fight, making the phrase an even more flawed self-descriptor for leftists seeking to stake ground as a unique political force. If not “progressive”, though, it must be considered what self-identifier could be a suitable alternative for those “left-of-liberal”.

The “S” Word


It’s easy to take the normalization of “democratic socialism” as an acceptable term in American politics for granted. Five years after Sanders began his first presidential campaign, it’s largely uncontroversial for advocates of policies like single-payer healthcare and universal higher education to identify with the label. Indeed, it’s not uncommon for orthodox socialists to scoff at this self-identification, arguing that the politics of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez represent little more than “welfare liberalism”. This argument posits that the equation of "socialism" with "New Deal liberalism" benefits no one involved, with neither the cause of anti-capitalism or even basic redistributive politics being advanced in the process.


Nonetheless, the erosion of the taboo surrounding the “socialist” label is, if not a victory in of itself, at least a positive harbinger. The stigma surrounding the "socialism" label has caused untold damage to the cause of redistributive politics in the United States, with even the most basic of anti-poverty measures being derided as a Soviet scheme in the late 20th century. It's welcome, then, that polling on the popularity of socialism taken in recent years has revealed welcome developments. Three in ten Americans indicated their favorable view towards socialism in a 2020 YouGov poll, and data on young voters’ attitudes towards the term reveal a more favorable outlook than that of their elders.


However, one should not interpret the popularity of Sanders and his signature policies as evidence that the stigma surrounding the "socialist" label has totally evaporated. The "socialist" tag remains an electoral liability in American politics, even if it isn’t the insurmountable one it once was. Though Democratic leadership's scapegoating of the term for 2020 down-ballot losses is just that—a deflection from their own strategic failures—it's true that the stigma surrounding the term remains potent, especially among older voters.


This situation presents a strategic dilemma for the American Left. On one hand, the normalization of the "socialist" label has helped neutralize a conservative refrain against left-wing policies: By committing to the label, politicians like Sanders have been able to partially nullify the effectiveness of "socialism" as a derogatory term against them. On the other hand, there is clearly a large pool of voters sympathetic to policies like Medicare for All who nonetheless remain averse to the "socialist" label. Though the American Left clearly stands to benefit from the normalization of "socialism", it's probably unwise to lean too hard into the label when pushing popular policies.

Renewing Social Democracy


The ambiguity of "progressive" and the persistence of the stigma surrounding the "socialist" label renders both terms flawed as self-identifiers for American leftists. As such, it's worth considering which, if any, alternative labels exist that are neither unpopular with the general public nor equivocal in definition.


One reasonable recourse, then, might be to popularize the "social democrat" label. Having never been widely disseminated in the United States, the term has not been tarnished by decades of right-wing propaganda in the way "socialist" has, and the term is unlikely to be an easy target of co-option by opposing forces in the same way as "progressive". Additionally, many have argued that social democracy is a more accurate description of Sanders's stated politics than "democratic socialism" anyhow.


According to the dominant framework in mainstream political science, social democracy and democratic socialism can be distinguished by their respective end goals. Both tendencies are said to be in favor of redistributive policies in the immediate, but differ in that social democracy favors long-term maintenance of the market economy while democratic socialism seeks the ultimate end of global capitalism. The truth is a bit more murky than this framework implies: The terms have often been used interchangeably to describe political actors seeking egalitarian or "socialist" policies through parliamentary means, irrespective of long-term vision.


Given that the term is largely foreign to American politics, it's unsurprising that there is a paucity in available data on the popularity of "social democracy" as a descriptor. That's why it comes as a welcome surprise that 45% of Americans hold a favorable view of social democracy per a 2020 poll by YouGov, rendering the term more popular than "conservatism", "liberalism", "populism", in addition to "socialism".


Nonetheless, it would probably be a mistake to view the label as a panacea for the Left's self-identification crisis. Though unlikely to prove as attractive a target of appropriation as "progressive" is, "social democracy" is not impervious to being wrongfully co-opted. After all, Pete Buttigieg, an austerity proponent whose presidential campaign was best defined by his staunch opposition to Sanders's Medicare for All plan, has spoken in support of "a new American social democracy". This does not even account for the countless international examples of political parties claiming the "social democracy" label without supporting any of the redistributive policies traditionally associated with the term.


This is not the main concern about the prospect of American leftists suddenly adopting "social democracy" as a self-descriptor, however. Abruptly dropping the "democratic socialist" label in favor of the term would likely come off as a display of insecurity by the Left, akin to how the effort by liberals to rebrand as "progressive" was seen. It's hard to imagine that the likes of Sanders, who has worked tirelessly to normalize the "socialist" label, abandoning the term in favor of "social democrat" wouldn't be seen as a move made purely out of political expediency.


Sanders's steadfast commitment to his principles in contrast to the flimsiness of mainstream Democrats powered his rise to national prominence, allowing him to garner support from many voters not especially partial to his policies. Future Left candidates should not discount the electoral appeal of "sticking to one's guns", and an abrupt change to using the "social democrat" label out of convenience could prove harmful to left-wing causes.

No one likes a non-conclusion. Unfortunately, there is no readily-available solution to the Left's self-identification crisis that satisfies all fronts. "Progressive" remains ambiguous to the point that just about any political tendency can co-opt it, the stigma surrounding "socialism" continues to persist some thirty years after the conclusion of the Cold War, and any concerted effort to adopt the "social democrat" label will likely be seen as a display of insecurity.


Should leftists continue using the term "progressive", it's important that the label's ideological boundaries are cemented to prevent moderates from appropriating the term for their own use. Rather than an abstract concept in favor of "progress", leftists should insist that being a true progressive means supporting the trademark initiatives of the American Left: A generous welfare state, principled non-interventionism abroad, and protecting marginalized communities, among many others.


Political actors who use the term without supporting these principles should be challenged on it, something that Sanders provided a blueprint for in his 2016 presidential campaign. Sanders publicly mocked the idea that one can be "progressive" while "rais[ing] millions of dollars from Wall Street" in reference to moderate rival Hillary Clinton's use of the term. Sanders also stated in no uncertain terms that "[y]ou can be a moderate. You can be a progressive. But you cannot be a moderate and a progressive". Only by firmly tying the label to left-wing policiesand publicly challenging its use to the contrarycan the term prove useful as a self-descriptor for those "left-of-liberal".

Aidan Smith (@Aidan_Smx) is the founder and political director of Labyrinth. He has contributed to an array of publications, including The Nation, The Appeal, Current Affairs, and Salon.


Artwork by Aidan Smith. Design by Tia Wagh. (@Tia_Wagh)