Over the weekend, Showtime aired a new documentary about Barney Frank, the now-retired congressman who represented Massachusetts’ 4th district for 32 years. Among Frank’s many quips included in the film (he was known as much for his wit as for his legislative clout), the one that most stuck with me was his response to the question, “What is a progressive?”
“A progressive,” Frank said, “is a liberal who’s afraid to admit it.”
Sounds about right to me.
It is remarkable—and always worth pointing out—how completely the word “liberal” has been scrubbed from the Democratic Party in Washington. Ask any major Democratic figure to tick off the adjectives that best describe him or her, and you’ll find that “liberal” is nowhere to be found.
Indeed, it’s as if party leaders called a secret meeting some years back and proclaimed “liberal” the eighth entry on George Carlin’s list of words you can’t say on television, then went on to intone that “progressive” is the preferred euphemism that shall be employed from this point forward.
Everyone’s been marching in lockstep ever since.
At the first Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton was asked if she is a progressive or a moderate. No one even thought to include “liberal” in the list of choices.
Bernie Sanders’ website boasts of “a progressive economic agenda,” but not a word about doing anything for liberalism. And this from a guy who’s trying to resurrect “socialism” from the linguistic dustbin of history.
President Obama? Same deal. Democrats in Congress? Ditto. Far as they’re concerned, they’re a progressive party with a progressive agenda. No bout a-doubt it: “Liberal” has been stricken from the record and “progressive” is the new black.
This leaves us with two questions I have never quite shaken. First: Why? And second: Does it even matter?
Implicitly, I think Barney Frank’s pithy definition manages to answer both. In short: Democrats are scaredy-cats.
Taking my second question first: Is there a functional difference between these two words, or are they interchangeable?
I’ve always naïvely assumed the latter, figuring that “progressive” is simply a nicer-sounding version of an otherwise identical concept. Barney Frank evidently agrees.
But then I underwent a bit of Internet sleuthing and realized the issue isn’t as cut and dry as all that. For instance, from a Huffington Post article by David Sirota, we have the following:
“It seems to me that traditional ‘liberals’ in our current parlance are those who focus on using taxpayer money to help better society. ‘Progressives’ are those who focus on using government power to make large institutions play by a set of rules.”
If that sounds like splitting hairs, don’t worry, it gets worse.
Indeed, scour the web long enough—say, three or four minutes—and you’ll find “serious” arguments claiming that while Bernie Sanders may be a progressive and a socialist, he is most definitely not a liberal. Or that Hillary Clinton, for all her posturing—along with three or four decades of advocacy for left-wing causes—is not the progressive-in-chief she presumes to become.
All this talk of who’s a real Democrat and who’s not is eerily reminiscent of the purity tests to which conservative voters have subjected Republicans over the past decade or so—particularly in the era of the Tea Party, in which there is no such thing as being too conservative.
The crucial difference, though, is that Republicans actually take the bait, tripping all over each other to be the most maniacally right-wing person on the stage. That’s how you get Mitt Romney calling himself a “severely conservative” candidate in 2012, or Marco Rubio hardening his positions on things like immigration and abortion over the last few months.
On the whole, Democrats are the reverse, constantly assuring us that they are less liberal than they appear. Hence Barack Obama pretending to be against same-sex marriage in 2008, or John Kerry embracing the Iraq War four years earlier.
The conventional wisdom is that candidates run toward the extremes for the primaries and toward the center for the general election. Not really. Republicans, maybe. But Democrats pretty much cling to the center and stay there. Recall how Bill Clinton in 1992 built his entire candidacy on being a “New Democrat,” suggesting there was something wrong with the old ones.
In fact, there was something wrong with them: They kept losing elections. Candidates like Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale ran as across-the-board liberals and got walloped. While those particular losses can be attributed to personality as much as policy (Dukakis’ in particular), it became clear that the party would need to change in one way or another, and Clinton’s solution amounted to, “Let’s be more like Republicans.”
To be fair, the gambit worked, insofar as it produced electoral victories. The Democratic candidate has won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, and always on the implicit promise of being agreeably moderate on most things, whether through cutting taxes, maintaining a large military presence overseas or being as glacial as possible on civil liberties and civil rights.
If the benefit of this strategy has been having a liberal in the Oval Office, the cost has been liberalism itself. The Democratic Party’s ideological center of gravity is smack in the middle of the American political spectrum, leaving left-wing voters with no one to defend their views on such matters as social justice or economic inequality. When such true-blue figures appear—say, in the form of Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders—left-wing voters treat them like the unicorns they are.
There are a billion national Republicans whom the GOP base can claim as its own. Why does the Democratic base have almost none at all?
Easy: Because the Democratic Party either doesn’t trust its own ideas, or it doesn’t trust its ability to sell those ideas to the public.
Considering public opinion, you’d think they would try every now and again. After all, such core liberal programs like Medicare and Social Security remain intensely popular from coast to coast, while subjects that Democrats didn’t even touch a decade ago—gay marriage, legal marijuana, prison reform—are becoming more accepted by the day.
The party worries that it’s too liberal for America. Has it ever wondered if it isn’t the other way around?