What they mean by "progressive"

Do socialists really want to use that word?

The US left is extraordinarily narrow and homogenous, ideologically speaking — and yet consider all of the words we use to describe it. Within its dominant overtly capitalist wing we have terms like corporate Democrat, centrist, liberal, moderate, social democrat, and so on. What do all of these distinctions really mean, and why are we making them?

And then there is progressive, whose meaning is even more mysterious. The term has a historical meaning which situates it as a kind of counter-movement to the politics of the Gilded Age, but in the modern era it seemed to re-emerge among Bush-era Democrats as a euphemism for liberal, which the right had successfully turned into a slur. Today, however, I think that its meaning has shifted yet again, since self-identified progressives seem to be using the term to distinguish themselves from other liberals.

What political and ideological work is this term doing now? To unpack this, I think it’s helpful to look at a passage from a new essay by Max Berger and Leah Hunt-Hendrix: Beyond Trump: A Theory of Political Transition. At length, the post spells out a perspective on contemporary left politics that dominates the distinct complex of NGOs and donors that produced it (Berger most recently worked for Elizabeth Warren’s campaign and circulated from nonprofit to nonprofit before that; Hunt-Hendrix is the granddaughter of oil magnate H.L. Hunt and founder of various Democratic donor groups, and has become increasingly involved with Sean McElwee’s Data for Progress as of late). Here’s what the authors have to say about the 2020 Democratic primaries:

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren both put up strong fights and together had almost 50% of the electorate. And yet… clashes between economic worldviews (a form of democratic capitalism vs. socialism) made it challenging for a progressive faction to align under one candidate enough to win in key primary states, including South Carolina.

In this passage alone I think we can detect three key premises.

  • First, the “progressive faction” is defined as a coalition between socialists and capitalists. The role of “progressive” here is to stipulate that these two groups have shared objectives.

  • Second, it is suggested that these factions must set aside “clashes between [their] economic worldviews” for the greater good.

  • Third, despite the posture of analytic neutrality, we are told that there is such a thing as “democratic capitalism.”

This strikes me as an extremely typical use of progressive, and it makes the role this term plays in our discourse quite clear. Powerful voices who are closely aligned with the Democratic party are using this term to call for a coalition that, for a supposed greater good, abandons political struggle between socialists and capitalists. And in the course of doing this, they often happen to downplay the problems of capitalism — here, by suggesting that it can be democratic.

It is one thing to insist that there are particular situations where it may make sense for socialists to cooperate with capitalists, for example amid efforts to extend unemployment benefits during the coronavirus pandemic or when an anti-war vote is on the floor in Congress. But socialists can do this as socialists, keeping our distinct politics in view and reserving the right, at any moment, to break with and even ferociously oppose the partisans of capitalism. Progressives can’t do this. That’s the point.