Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Ideology Matters - What's In a Name?

One of the absolute truisms of political opinion polling for a long, long time has been that American political ideology has been relatively static for a long, long time. The graph to the left is based on the Harris poll of ideological self-identification that's been conducted over the last forty years, and the data's been almost constant - about 35% of the country identifies as conservative, about 40% identifies as moderate, and about 18% of the country identifies as liberal.

Now, I've long held the belief that this artificial stasis in ideology, given the dramatic upheavals in political fortunes from the Watergate revolt and the election of Jimmy Carter in 1974-1976 to the dominance of Reaganism from 1980-1992 and the rise of Clintonian Third Way-ism from 1992-2000 and the epic crash and burn of Bushian conservatism from 2000-2008, is the result of using the stale terminology of liberal, conservative, and moderate as the only ideological terms of note.

Now look at the second poll there, done by the Center for American Progress. If you give people more options, lo and behold, the pciture gets a lot less static. The number of liberals doesn't change much, but all of the sudden there's a whole 16% of the population who's calling themselves progressives, and there's even some libertarians and people who don't know what the heck they are. If you push the squishy moderates to pick sides, it turns out that about 47% percent of the country considers themselves Progressives or Liberals, 48% call themselves Conservative or Libertarian, and another 5% remain...well, very confused people

The closeness of all this actually makes a lot of sense, considering the tight elections we had in 2000 and 2004, and the differential mobilization in 2002 (when the Right really mobilized pro-war sentiment) and 2006 (when the Left really mobilized anti-war and and anti-party-in-power sentiment). I imagine the 2008 election might have shifted the boundaries somewhat, as Americans experienced both a conservtive campaign that was unusually open about what it was (no hiding those Palin rallies) and a liberal campaign that was actually willing to talk about why it thought the liberal philosophy of government was better than the conservative philosophy of government. Whether that will last, I imagine we'll find out in 2010 and 2012.

This doesn't actually surprise me, and it in fact it absolutely makes sense to me that - given the concerted demonization of liberalism by conservatives from the Great Society onwards - a good number of people were actually left-of-center but wouldn't call themselves liberals. But it does raise a good question - what does it mean to be a liberal, and what does it mean to be a progressive.

This is something that I've discussed and debated a lot with my friends and colleagues over the past couple of years. Daraka Larimore-Hall, whose political thinking I deeply respect, basically argues that, A. there is theoretically a difference between the two, and B. the differences have been blurred by people who are really liberals but won't call themselves liberals, and by people who are actually New Democrats who don't want to admit they're conservatives, and other weird political chameleons. (See also here). I think he's broadly right, although I wish he weren't.

I'd like to make the case that these two things actually do (or at least should) mean different things. If the two have been blurred, I believe that political space should be made for liberalism to stand on its own two feet, and for progressives to have their own turf. To say nothing of social democrats, democratic socialists, socialists, and other ideological formations further to the Left.

So, to explain what the difference between Liberalism and Progressiveism, I'm re-posting something I wrote in response to Matthew Yglesias' post here, which argued that:
But while the historically Progressives did stand for some good things, and are a part of the backstory of contemporary American liberalism, they also stood for some very bad things. Certainly, whatever sins liberalism may have committed in the 1970s as it fell into disrepute were distinctly minor compared to the problems with the Progressives. "Liberal," by contrast, is an important term with a noble history and a contested legacy.

My response was this:

"While the question of "progressive" vs. "liberal" is not the most pressing of debates, in is an important one. How we identify ourselves goes further than issues of terminology; it speaks to who we are as activists and who we think we are, it asks major questions about what it is we seek to achieve and what it means to be on the left in modern America. Moreover, it begs the question as to what use activists should make of history in guiding our thought and action.

On one level, Matt raises a good point. In current political discourse, "progressive" can be a vague term than can be applied equally to the left-most Green Party activist or to the right-most New Democrat. Indeed, the term’s prominence in recent years owes as much to the efforts of New Democrats to elide the differences between themselves and traditional liberals as it does the efforts of liberals to reclaim a right to exist in the political mainstream. It is not by accident that the major New Democrat think-tank chose the name "Progressive" Policy Institute, or that Hillary Clinton described herself as a "progressive" in Democratic debates to muddy the ideological waters between herself, Barack Obama, and John Edwards, as if to say "we’re all progressives now, so let’s not compare agendas."

Historically, it is also true that in the Progressive Era, self-identified progressives supported some vile endeavors: they could be quite elitist, disdaining "ignorant" voters and preferring government-by-experts. Many were ethnocentric or outright racist, thinking of immigrants and blacks as lesser races in need of guidance from the Civilized West. Certainly, Woodrow Wilson thought so when he segregated the federal government and Theodore Roosevelt largely agreed when it came to the invasion of the Philippines or military interventions into Latin America. The Progressive Era was also the era when Jim Crow was established in law through the active disenfranchisement of blacks and poor whites, and the era of race riots. Certainly it is true that a conservative like Jonah Goldberg could take this history, sift out all contrary facts, and present progressivism as the authoritarian forebear of modern liberalism.

However, I would argue that liberalism would not fare much better under the same selective scrutiny. Liberals like FDR accepted and subsidized segregation in the South (and in the North) as the devil’s bargain for southern votes for the New Deal. As Ira Katznelson notes in his book When Affirmative Action Was White, the New Deal’s exclusion of blacks (and women) from Social Security, minimum wage and maximum hours laws, and the Wagner Act, while simultaneously boosting the economic position of whites through New Deal programs and the GI Bill, had a huge impact on racial inequality in America. It is also true that liberals like FDR carried out the policy of Japanese internment during WWII, and that Truman was responsible for dropping the first (and only) atomic bombs, giving official license to Cold War red-baiting, instituting loyalty oaths and purges, and creating the national-security and military-industrial complexes we live with today. The same liberals who gave us the Great Society, the War on Poverty, and the Civil Rights Act also gave us the war in Vietnam. The ultimate point here is not that liberalism is historically illegitimate; but that the study of history admits few pure heroes or pure villains and that a study of conservatism would lead to far more skeletons in the closet than Mr. Goldberg would care to remember.

So what now? Are we to decide who we are and what we stand for by a game of historical hot potato? Absolutely not. More serious issues are at stake, and the difference between "progressivism" and "liberalism" have deeper significances and broader importance than the brand value of a label.

As historians of the Progressive Era like Mary Furner, Daniel Rodgers, Robert Johnson, Eldon Eisenach, John Recchiuti, Martin Sklar, and others have explored, there was something special to the progressives. They were the first generation of Americans to live in an age of corporate capitalism, and they were perhaps the last generation of Americans whose minds were not limited by the acceptance of the resulting social order as natural. Progressives like Theodore Roosevelt or Robert LaFollette proposed far-sighted policies such as universal health insurance, the right to vote for women, the right to an eight hour day, the minimum wage, old age insurance, unemployment insurance, and disability insurance, the right to join a union, industrial health and safety regulations, and the abolition of child labor. In many ways, they defined the agenda that liberalism would pursue.

However, the scope of progressive imaginations was larger than just this. Progressives looked beyond the world they lived in to advocate for a new economic order, something different from either capitalism or communism. In bold, confident terms, Progressivism argued that an activist government should exercise economic sovereignty and engage in economic planning, and regulate, nationalize, or abolish the great industrial corporations of the day. Their vision was a way of life in which cooperation replaced competition as the guiding impulse of economic life, in which human values would be privileged above market values, and in which sweeping inequality would be replaced by a rough equality of wealth, a fair share in national prosperity, something they called "an American standard of living." Their rationale for this vision was not grounded in traditional liberal concerns about the individual or in Marxist ideology that the worker should own the means of production.

Rather, Progressives were animated by a faith in collective action, and a belief that the flaws in society created by humans could be fixed by humans. In a very real sense, the Progressives were the heirs of a rich tradition of American republicanism, a philosophy that saw the sovereign people as the only legitimate source of political and economic power, that believed in the defense of the common-wealth against private privilege, and that demanded the great concentrations of wealth be redistributed to create a "rough equality" among equal citizens, lest inequalities of wealth become inequalities of political power. Ultimately, the vision put forward was that economic sovereignty - the right to decide how each one of us lives our lives in the workplace, in the marketplace, and in the public square - must be taken from the hands of monopolistic corporations and restored to popular government. As Theodore Roosevelt put it:

"The Constitution guarantees protections to property, and we must make that promise good. But it does not give the right of suffrage to any corporation. The true friend of property, the true conservative, is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth; who insists that the creature of man's making shall be the servant and not the master of the man who made it. The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have themselves called into being."

Alan Brinkley and other historians have noted that the political vision of post-war liberalism shied from such challenges to capitalism. After a vigorous and diverse flowering of progressive experimentation in the New Deal – all the way from the economic planning enshrined by the National Recovery Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority to the provision of public jobs in the WPA and the vision of a right to a job, and the price-setting powers of the OPA – post-war liberals were tired of struggle. Abandoning even the modest progressivism of social Keynesianism, liberals looked to accommodate capitalism and capitalists, to use social programs to compensate (not prevent or replace) the shortcomings of the economy, of using interest rates and military spending to manage the economy, rather than expansive investments in housing and infrastructure. Above all, liberals sought safer waters than the issue of reconstructing capitalism. Ironically, liberals looked to civil rights, environmentalism, education, and other "quality of life" issues as safer targets for reform.

In the long run, it is to our great advantage that liberals took the cause of reform in new directions. On another level, it is important that we recognize that a price was paid: a narrow horizon of imagination, a smaller vision of what could be accomplished, and a certain complacency with the status quo. And when the foundations that underwrote that complacency – close to full employment, steady economic growth, a strong union movement, and favorable trade conditions – cracked apart in the 1970s, even liberalism became too radical for American politics.

And here we are today, in what I believe is the beginning of the post-post liberal era. Eight years of the Bush Administration have catastrophically delegitimized and exhausted modern conservativism, conservatives no longer have anything new to offer to each other or anyone else in terms of ideas, and the American electorate is increasingly comfortable and desirous of a more active government presence in their lives. Part of that desire comes from the fact that we are living in a precarious time: deregulation and free trade agreements have diminished the power of government to modulate the shocks of the global market, yet the promised results of a more risk-intensive world order have yet to arrive. Our economic system is badly imbalanced between our means and our salaries, between productivity and income, and between wages and profits. The world economic system seems no better, and instability and uncertainty are the order of the day.

Two things become clear. First, there is a space that will open in American politics for new agendas, new approaches, and new thinking. Second, the consequences of which ideas we will choose are very high. Will we take up the banner of liberalism, and strive valiantly to repair the damage that has been done, and to try once more to make the system we have more livable for the American people, all the while accepting the fact that we live in an age of international finance and globalized production that constrains our options? Or will we instead take up the banner of progressivism, and attempt to construct a new way of life, a political economy that is better suited to the current time and the human condition, knowing as we do that the one we have now is dangerously blind to human need?

For my own part, I would call myself a progressive, and call upon others to take up the label, and the cause. As a historian, I have never felt the kind of doubt that liberals post-1968 have felt – the creeping fear, after McGovern, Mondale, and Dukakis, that maybe we’re wrong, that maybe Americans really hate us and what we stand for. For as Theodore Roosevelt once said, "we stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord."

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