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Fighting Words

No, “liberal” and “progressive” aren’t synonyms. They have completely different histories—and the differences matter.

By Sean Wilentz

Tagged Bernie SandersCapitalismHillary Clintonliberalsprogressivismsocialism

What’s in a name? Franklin Delano Roosevelt called himself a Christian, a Democrat, and a liberal. He did not call himself a democratic socialist, or any other kind of socialist. He was, in fact, no socialist at all. Nor was he a conservative or a reactionary, although many on the socialist and communist left charged that he was—including the Communist Party USA, which attacked his New Deal for a time (until Moscow’s political line changed) as American “masked fascization.”

The only Americans who considered Franklin Roosevelt a socialist were right-wing Republicans. “The New Deal is now undisguised state socialism,” Senator Simeon D. Fess of Ohio declared in 1934. “Roosevelt is a socialist, not a Democrat,” Congressman Robert Rich of Pennsylvania announced on the House floor a year later. Roosevelt scoffed at such talk, but in 1939 he paused to present a very concise political dictionary of his own. “A radical,” he told the New York Herald Tribune, “is a man with both feet firmly planted—in the air.” A conservative, he continued, “never learned to walk forward”; a reactionary walked backward in his sleep. A liberal, though, used legs and hands “at the behest—at the command—of his head.” The metaphor was poignant coming from him, but it also emphasized his point: In the face of all adversity, he was every inch a liberal.

In the 1936 election, FDR masterfully ran as an unabashed liberal and at the same time completely outmaneuvered the left and would-be populists like Louisiana Governor Huey Long, who, before his assassination, planned to challenge Roosevelt in the campaign on a “Share Our Wealth” platform. As Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks related in It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States, the Great Depression “presented American radicals with their greatest opportunity to build a third party since World War I.” But Roosevelt’s New Deal, in its improvisational way, offered a triumphant liberal alternative.

The election of 2016 showed how confused these old labels and distinctions have become. The socialist senator Bernie Sanders, for example, rallying his supporters with a speech at Georgetown University in November 2015, offered a surprising definition of socialism, which consisted of a paean to FDR and the social protections ushered in by the New Deal. “Almost everything he proposed, almost every program, every idea, was called socialist,” Sanders said—as if the right-wing name-calling was the rightful definition.

Somewhere the ghost of FDR burst out laughing, while the ghost of one of Sanders’s other heroes, Eugene V. Debs, scratched his head.

In a piece about that speech for The New Yorker, Jedediah Purdy remarked smartly on how Sanders, while waving the socialist banner and proclaiming a political revolution, consistently and conveniently “defined his position from the right flank of history.” That the economic royalists of the 1930s and their defenders called FDR a socialist evidently made it so. Never mind that the socialist leader Norman Thomas, when asked whether Roosevelt had carried out the Socialist Party platform, famously quipped that he had not, “unless he carried it out on a stretcher.”

Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign was hard put to clarify this momentous muddle. Decades earlier, like other post-Reagan liberals, feeling pressure from the right but also from the left, she had abandoned FDR’s term “liberal” in favor of—strange, now, to think of it—the seemingly more electable term “progressive,” which was a label of the left, emphatically anti-liberal. The switch seemed like a good idea at the time—by 1992, fewer than one in five Americans polled identified themselves as “liberal.” But it has proven costly.

With Clinton running as a “progressive,” the Sanders campaign caricatured her liberalism as an apology for Wall Street greed and ruination, despite her detailed program for Wall Street reform. Sanders spent millions on ads—many in the key states that Clinton would lose in the general election by razor-thin margins­—lambasting her for “the art of the steal” and for being bought by “Wall Street money” because she was paid for speeches to Goldman Sachs, which he called “a fraudulent organization.” (Trump would later throw around quotes from Sanders’ ads at “pro-Wall Street Crooked Hillary.”) Leftists have long slandered liberalism in just these terms, but simply forsaking the word “liberal” does not ward off the slander.

There was no way for Clinton to “out-progressive” Sanders in the Democratic primaries, given his socialist rhetoric and his grandiose program. Instead she talked up her pragmatic, realistic effectiveness and scorned his pie-in-the-sky, ideologically dogmatic promises. She sometimes described herself as a proud Democrat (which in closed primary states actually worked, as a large chunk of Sanders’s support came from independents). Unlike in 2008, she made much of being a woman. Yet even when she did these things, she still found herself boxed in and on the defensive, unable to formulate fully her political message, despite her strong liberal platform. Clinton’s campaign made its own strategic and tactical mistakes in both the primaries and the general election, but not a few of those mistakes proceeded from and were abetted by a lack of force and clarity about liberal politics that long predated her.

For many voters, words such as “pragmatic” or “realistic” translated into “cautious” or “wishy-washy” or “smug” or “unprincipled”—all longtime leftist terms of abuse. (“Ten degrees to the left of center in good times,” the folksinger Phil Ochs used to joke with a sneer. “Ten degrees to the right of center when it affects them personally.”) No matter what Clinton declared she would fight for—massive public spending on infrastructure, or raising the minimum wage, or wiping out student debt, or vastly expanding green energy and public access to the broadband economy—the very reasonableness of her proposals, their concreteness compared to Sanders’s ostentation, came across to many voters as faint-hearted, even devious. By vilifying liberal policies on matters such as freer international trade—trade policies that, in his own time, FDR warmly embraced, but that Clinton wanted to toughen with more environmental and worker protections—Clinton’s enemies caught her off-guard and cast her as a betrayer of the working class. And even though she eventually won the overall primary vote by a wide margin—one that in any other electoral contest would have been called a landslide—the progressive damage to her candidacy was done. It unquestionably hobbled her in the general election and contributed to Donald J. Trump’s victory.

These shifts and attempted shifts in vocabulary are not of passing or merely semantic significance. Insisting upon the proper meanings of terms is not divisive or sectarian bickering. The words at stake embody different worldviews. To merge basic concepts that are plainly distinct, such as socialism and New Deal liberalism, is not a useful step toward clarifying our politics.

It is, however, a Republican fantasy.

To merge concepts that are plainly distinct, such as socialism and New Deal liberalism, is not a useful step toward clarifying our politics.

To euphemize a set of principles, instead of explaining them by their proper name, come what may, is merely to abandon them to misrepresentation. This is what has happened to the honorable and once-bracing word “liberal”: Leaving the word unexplained and undefended has helped slacken liberals’ grasp of their own principles and badly enfeebled liberal politics. (After Barry Goldwater’s shellacking in the 1964 election, conservatives resolutely refused to abandon or euphemize “conservative,” despite a lot of self-satisfied talk about how conservatism was doomed in liberal America.) Lest its adversaries on the left as well as the right finally bury liberalism with distortion and contempt and demagoguery, it is time to define clearly and then proudly proclaim the word itself, and all it stands for—just as FDR and nearly two generations of liberals after him proclaimed it, but which was discarded amid the rise of Ronald Reagan and the advent of a new generation of liberal Democrats, including Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Of course, the vocabulary of American politics has always been pliable. Before the Civil War, “liberal” was a broad term that signified individual rights and government based on the consent of the governed, akin to what is sometimes referred to as “classical liberalism,” but with an emphasis on dissolving concentrated privilege. During the Gilded Age, it stood for an avowedly anti-democratic doctrine friendly above all to business corporations and trusts. Finally, it became the twentieth-century liberalism of the New Deal, the New Frontier, and the Great Society.

“Progressive” originally meant the activist reformism of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Croly, until that impulse faded after the failed third-party presidential campaign of Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin on a Progressive Party label in 1924. The term reemerged in the Communist-dominated Progressive Party of 1948, which ran former Vice President Henry Wallace for President on a platform that denounced the liberal Harry S. Truman for creating NATO, proposing the Marshall Plan, and opposing Stalin. Thereafter, “progressive” lingered as a vague but tainted term connoting everything to the left of liberalism, before it became today’s confused catchword for liberal as well as leftist.

Historians come to expect students’ and readers’ perplexity at these shifts, much as we do when we explain why the Democrats were once the party of white supremacy and the Republicans the party of anti-slavery and civil rights. But there is something essentially dishonest about trying to assimilate the New Deal legacy as “socialism,” just as there was something misbegotten about abandoning the term “liberal” in favor of “progressive.”

In FDR’s day, according to socialists at least, socialism meant public ownership of finance, industry, and agriculture. It still does. Pressed on that point, today’s self-styled pro-New Deal socialists protest that, no, they don’t mean that kind of socialism at all: They are democratic socialists, who look to nations such as Denmark and Sweden as their models. But Denmark and Sweden are in large measure capitalist economies, not socialist ones; more properly, they are social democracies, or mixed economies, or, in a drearier lexicon, welfare states. (Denmark and Sweden are also monarchies, but their progressive admirers never mention that.) Social democracy’s admirable policies of redistribution—above all, social insurance programs and progressive income taxes —are chiefly rooted in the reforms of anti-socialist governments, secured by the likes of Otto von Bismarck of Imperial Germany and, later, David Lloyd George of Great Britain. Social democracy is founded on a historic compromise between labor and capital that includes open trade policies and sufficient but restrained taxes on capital gains to encourage growth—precisely the kinds of policies that oxymoronic New Deal socialists attack as nefarious and elitist “neoliberalism.” (“Neoliberal,” wrenched from its roots in libertarian Austrian economics to be applied with broad brush to nearly all American Democrats, has now topped “liberal” as a curse word—the curse word of art.)

When today’s progressives redefine liberal capitalism, which has genuine affinities with social democracy, as socialism—or, more exactly, when they claim liberalism’s social provisions as a kind of socialism—they tend to warp political reality to fit the abstraction. They feel compelled to render liberalism nothing more than a soulless, even callous politics of economic growth, while assimilating the reforms that define liberal politics as somehow not really liberalism. This is not simply incoherent, it is fraudulent. And it reduces the freedom-loving and compassionate and soulful tradition of liberal thought and feeling to an arid, self-satisfied proceduralism, best personified by wonks, lawyers, and narrow-minded bureaucrats.

So there is a rumor abroad in the land that only progressives care about the powerless and the poor, whereas liberals are just vaguely left-of-center fig leaves for plutocrats and globalizers. This was certainly one of the premises of the Sanders campaign, to which it added thrilling promises that betrayed little or no consideration of economic revenues or consequences. As a key to his program, for example, Sanders promised to raise the top marginal tax rate on capital gains to 64.2 percent, substantially higher than in Europe and more than double the rate in the social democratic Sweden he says he admires. (Sanders also proposed a significant hike in the taxation of financial transactions, a tax Sweden abolished in 1991 as a failure.) This was edifying and improbable pandering. Forgetting the core tenets of social democracy, some American progressives seem to think that economic inequality can be conquered only by confiscating as much as possible from the evil rich. The model they implicitly adopt is the reactionary Malthusian one of zero-sum economics.

Reversing the reactionary, regressive, uncompromising policies initiated by Ronald Reagan and accelerated by George W. Bush and now Donald Trump, especially on taxes, anti-trust enforcement, and financial regulation, should become the nation’s top priority. An increase in the marginal tax rate of the wealthy and a repeal of Trump’s easing of estate taxes ought to be at the center of any effective political agenda. But when Democrats promise the moon, Republicans respond with the smear that higher taxes and government programs are “job killers,” a smear that has hobbled American workers for decades.

Beyond that, many of today’s left-wing progressives elide history. In their own way, they, too, would make America great again. They are nostalgic for a post-World War II America that prospered through the 1960s, where private-sector unions were strong and marginal tax rates much higher than they are now. Like Trump, they condemn “globalism” and trade, and were as enthusiastically opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiated by President Obama, which Trump jettisoned, drastically undermining U.S. influence and opening the door for China throughout Asia. Longing for an America before Reagan happened will hardly bring it back, especially in a transformed world with China as a rising great power. Here again is another problem with liberalism: acceptance of complexity.

The trouble, moreover, is that Reagan did happen, not least because the liberalism of the New Deal and the Great Society fragmented and faltered due to its own shortcomings and contradictions. The New Deal relied politically, in part, on the support of a white segregationist Solid South, which was infuriated by Truman’s civil rights policies and Lyndon Johnson’s embrace of civil rights, until it finally defected to the GOP. Johnson’s catastrophic involvement in Vietnam—backed by some liberals, opposed by others—led to lasting breaches among liberals over foreign policy and the United States’s proper role in the world. The stagflation of the 1970s defied liberal Keynesian common sense, and battered liberal assumptions that a strong central government, led by expert technocrats, could quiet economic turbulence and guide stable economic growth.

The politics of the last 40 years and more may be regarded as a series of continuing struggles over liberalism’s fate, after the debacles of the late 1960s and 1970s. Those struggles have come to involve two distinct points of view: one is liberal, seeking to update the New Deal-Great Society tradition in the wake of its defeats; and the other is progressive, fed chiefly by ideas and images of the social radicalism of the late 1960s and its successors. At their best, as in the 1930s and 1940s and through much of the 1960s, creative liberals and radicals managed to converge, and even collaborate, whatever the tensions among them, helping to complete dramatic reforms ranging from Social Security to the Voting Rights Act and the War on Poverty. The convergence has sometimes persisted, as in making reforms like the Children’s Health Insurance Program or Obamacare. Even sharp differences did not negate mutual respect and cooperation. Outstanding, politically effective figures such as Walter Reuther helped bridge the gap.

Since the late 1960s, though, progressive politics has commonly fallen into condemning liberalism and the liberal tradition as a shill for capitalist injustice and inequality, the palliative that blocks real social change. These progressives seek not to cajole and even encourage liberalism but to demonize it. Some liberals have reacted by disavowing the left. Others, from George McGovern to Gary Hart to Bill and Hillary Clinton, have tried to reinvent liberalism while sustaining ties across the spectrum. Yet amid these reinventions, having given up the word “liberal,” too many liberals have lost sight of their own tradition.

Let me present one liberal’s view of some of the distinctions between progressive and liberal. Progressives are generally hostile to capitalism. The system itself, for progressives, is not simply rigged, it is defined by its exploitation and its dysfunctions. Under the rubric of “neoliberalism,” conservatives and liberals are conflated, John Maynard Keynes forgotten, and Democratic administrations falsely equated with Republican ones. Consorting with institutions or individuals of great wealth, consulting them for their knowledge of how very complicated things work, and, even worse, seeking their support for greater liberal objectives, is, to progressives, proof positive of one’s corruption.

Some progressives, deep down, harbor the hope that one day, perhaps through some catastrophic event, American capitalism will indeed be replaced by socialism—a system of public property and social ownership that, this liberal notes, has been discredited through all of modern history. To other progressives, the New Deal is praiseworthy as a step in the right direction, but not so much because of anything FDR and the liberals set out to do. Rather, according to a familiar progressive interpretation of history, all reform is attributed to left-wing pressure, pushing the liberals farther to the left than they ever would have gone on their own. Once freed of the stigma of the liberals who actually created it—Harry Hopkins, Rexford Tugwell, Eleanor Roosevelt, et al., not to mention FDR—the New Deal can be jimmied into the progressive heritage.

Liberals prefer that social equality be fixed in universal principles of justice and human rights, distinct from racial, ethnic, and gender identities.

Liberals—and this truly is a matter of historical record—have never been blind to capitalism’s flaws and excesses and cruelties. They see enormous openings for exploitation, thievery, favoritism, monopoly, spoliation, corruption, and plutocracy, all of which undermine the system of innovation and opportunity. They also believe that these economic ills can be politically corrected. The inevitability of capitalism’s dysfunctions demands vigilant political regulation and continuing transfers of private wealth if the system is to survive, let alone flourish. The hard part is to balance capitalism’s functions with the struggle against its dysfunctions —a task now made onerous by the right’s successful 40-year campaign to convince the country that capitalism’s dysfunctions, above all its inequalities, are perfectly natural and desirable.

Liberals understand the logic and benefits of markets, they just don’t make a religion out of them. They recognize that, even after the Reagan years and the turbo-charged Reaganism of George W. Bush’s presidency that largely produced the financial crisis of 2007-09, the United States remains a mixed economy, which can be reformed to prevent such crises and serve as an engine of greater opportunity. But for public policy to work, they believe, there must be vigilant government oversight—and, crucially, there must also be, as nearly as possible, security for all citizens in the essentials of life, including education, housing, employment, and medical care.

Progressives and liberals also differ over the social and cultural implications of the Second Reconstruction of the 1960s. Progressives are inclined to think that justice derives from authenticity. They bow to a pessimistic romanticism that gripped the left following the political crack-up of the late 1960s, when particularism became at once an emotional refuge and a political bludgeon. A succession of social movements, from civil rights to feminism to gay rights, followed similar paths, triumphing as brave and audacious efforts to end ancient bigotries and proclaim human rights, but also finding themselves drawn into equating freedom with the bonds of group identity, which led easily to a conflation of politics and inner feelings. Progressives kindle to an America where this sort of identity—or, currently, the intersectionality of several identities—defines both individuals and social relations, where the differences between groups of citizens are regarded as more significant than the similarities. The equality that is sought and often found is to be experienced by all of us in our bubbles.

Liberals prefer that social equality and civil rights be fixed in universal principles of justice and human rights, distinct from racial, ethnic, and gender identities. They honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s declaration that his dream of a nation emancipated from the nightmare of American slavery and racism was itself “deeply rooted in the American dream.” For King, the civil rights revolution entailed forcing America to grasp its own principles of citizenship and equality more profoundly than it ever had and then to act upon them. In then correcting for generations of violent injustice and the burden of race, the ultimate goal would be what he and others described as a beloved community, an America in which differences abound but are also offset by human and civic interconnection and finally rendered insignificant in public life.

Liberals agree. They are do not regard universalism simply as a disguise for power and oppression. They look forward to a day when color and gender and all the other categories are neither the dominant markings of the individual nor bestowals of social virtue or vice. And, in the meantime, toward that goal, the struggle for women, African Americans, and, now, immigrants continues.

Consider also the matter of America’s place in the world. Progressives tend to assume that the exercise of American power abroad, especially military power, is almost always malevolent. In this view, there is no significant difference between any U.S. policy at any time and imperialism. The isolationist streak on the American left dates back well before the Cold War. Alongside Charles Lindbergh’s America First Committee, for example, the Socialist Party and its leader Norman Thomas (also an America Firster) formed an element in support of the “Keep America Out of War” Congress from 1938 to 1941. They attacked FDR’s friendliness toward Britain and insisted that building a new socialist society required American neutrality in the European struggle. Thomas joined with most Republicans in opposing FDR’s Lend Lease of old destroyers to Britain in its darkest hour, calling it “a bill to authorize undeclared war in the name of peace, and dictatorship in the name of defending democracy.” From the Vietnam War, some progressives drew the lesson that the United States had always been and would always be an imperialist oppressor. President George H.W. Bush declared euphorically after the Gulf War of 1991, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all!” But President George W. Bush revived it in spades with the fiasco of the Iraq War.

Liberals, however, see how crucial American military power has been to defending freedom in an interconnected world. From FDR’s proclamation, a year before Pearl Harbor, that the United States would be the “arsenal of democracy,” through World War II and the Cold War, American military power was indispensable in defeating fascism and containing Soviet communism. Working in conjunction with NATO, American power at its finest succeeded in, among other things, halting genocides in the Balkans.

The liberal attitude toward American military power is hardly uncritical. Liberals of course must not be naïve in failing to recognize that it has also been misused with disastrous results, by liberals as well as conservatives, in coups and interventions too numerous to mention, quite apart from Vietnam and Iraq. But neither the abuse of power nor the failure of policy is an argument for flight from the world. On the contrary, it requires careful thinking, nuanced policy, and sophisticated understanding of rapidly changing trends. Liberalism now must deal with what Senator J. William Fulbright called, during the unfolding disaster of the Vietnam War, “old myths and new realities.” That task of rethinking takes place in response to the greatest threat to American democracy since the Civil War.

The presidency of the racketeer Donald Trump, as long as it lasts, poses special problems for liberals. At one level, there is an imperative to lay aside the differences between themselves and progressives in the face of a clear and present danger. At another level, though, Trump’s success has fostered the impression among some progressives that his pseudo-populism has a point, that the liberalism he rails against deserves contempt, that the only way to fight right-wing populism is with left-wing populism—not least to win over the frustrated white working class left behind by the globalizing elites.

The convergence of some on the left with the Trump saturnalia of illusion—most visibly the filmmaker Oliver Stone, moving on from his work as an apologist for Stalin in his recent historical documentary to his work as an apologist for Putin in his recent interviews on Showtime—ought to give liberals pause. Wherever possible, obviously, everyone opposed to Trump must cooperate against the continuing onslaught of his and the reactionary Republicans’ proposals, exactly as they did (no one better than Bernie Sanders) in fighting the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act. But this should be the occasion for enunciating liberal principles all the more clearly—by pointing out, for example, how the Republican reaction cruelly hurts poor and working families, how Trump dupes his voters with smoke and mirrors and pipe dreams. (The condition of our economy and of the working class will not be dictated by trade policy, and coal is not coming back in an age of automation and natural gas.) More than that, though, liberals need to specify that it is not only the poor and the workers who will be injured by Republican economics. A plutocracy will be good only for plutocrats. And contrary to agitprop, plutocracy is not liberalism’s fulfillment. It is liberalism’s antithesis.

Populism under Trump is politics as seduction, and it must be resisted by means of reason—by an idealism that is also empirical. Liberals have always been mocked for their love of complexity. But who can honestly say that the world in which we now find ourselves, at home and abroad, is not fiendishly complex? The simplifiers only loosen our sense of reality and make it slack.

It may be that the future of the Democratic Party will be determined by the extent to which men and women to the left of the right learn to appreciate the differences between liberal and progressive—and, as an important first step, to appreciate the difference between liberalism and the progressive travesty of liberalism. For now, though, the Democrats can reverse their own fortunes only by turning back the designs and the effects of the darkest and ugliest and most ignorant Administration in our history, which happens to be supported by virtually the entire Republican establishment. As in crises past, liberal politics with a big tent are the surest weapons to win that fight, and will be the surest instruments for exercising power. But all of that will come to pass only if liberals proclaim the principles that undergird their policies—principles that have been clouded and caricatured on all sides for far too long.

Read more about Bernie SandersCapitalismHillary Clintonliberalsprogressivismsocialism

Sean Wilentz is the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University and the author of, most recently, The Politicians & The Egalitarians: The Hidden History of American Politics.

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