During the July 23 CNN/You Tube “debate,” Hillary Clinton was asked if she is a “liberal.” She said she prefers the word “progressive.” These terms liberal and progressive have long and complicated histories and various meanings [See my Political Keywords (Blackwell’s, 2007)]. It would be impossible for anyone to say much that is helpful about all this in the minute or so she had to explain. Even so, Clinton’s account was, to put it mildly, unenlightening; and not just when she said that “progressive” is “more American.” But it was revealing.
Clinton said that, by “progressive,” she means “twenty-first century progressive,” a qualification she didn’t explain. But she did connect her progressivism with the Progressive movement of the early twentieth century. That doesn’t help. The Progressive movement had many strains and few common threads. On issues of war and peace, it was all over the map – from bellicose (Teddy Roosevelt) to almost pacifist (Robert LaFollette). Some Progressives were proponents of Empire, some not; some were more hostile to Big Business than others; some acceded to nativist prejudices while some welcomed immigration; some were more racist than others. If we want to know what Clinton had in mind, her historical allusion is of little use. But it is worth recalling more recent usages.
After the Second World War, the Right made a concerted effort to undo the legacy of FDR’s New Deal by dismantling the handful of welfare state institutions the New Deal established. For the most part, they were successful in blocking further progress, but they were not able to undo what had already been done. This was still the case, decades later, when Ronald Reagan was President. The Reaganites had what George Bush’s poppy called “the vision thing.” At that level, they labored tirelessly against the vestiges of New Deal liberalism. But, at an institutional level, they weren’t able to change very much. Neither was Poppy Bush. Thus it fell to Hillary’s husband to complete the so-called Reagan Revolution – a task he might have carried even further had not his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky distracted him. Clinton, as a Democrat, might have been able to privatize social security had he set his mind to it; something that George W. Bush could not do, even before he lost the “political capital,” as he called it, that he got from getting more votes than John Kerry in 2004. But thanks to “the Lewinsky matter,” it never happened. Thus the intern Monica had a more salutary effect on public policy than the wife Hillary, notwithstanding the experience in governance she claims to have acquired as First Lady.
In the early years, anti-Communism was the Right’s main weapon. They wielded it crudely. Still, McCarthyism flourished under both Truman and Eisenhower until, at long last, the Wisconsin Senator blatantly overreached – by going after the army. Meanwhile, Democrats had picked up the ball, transforming New Deal liberalism into the Cold War variety. They were so successful in shaping the political agenda that, over the next several decades, nearly everyone, including Republicans, declared themselves “liberals.” Back then, “progressive” meant not anti-Communist; in some circles it was even a euphemism for “Communist.” Thus it was not something that most people wanted to be. This all changed during the Vietnam War.
The Right supported that war, but it was concocted and, at its inception, led by liberals. Thus “liberal” became a dirty word for the anti-war Left. “Radical” was then the favored self-representation; but, with “liberal” out of the question, “progressive” caught on too – without its earlier connotation. [For most people involved in the struggles of the time, Communism had long ago become a non-issue.] This is why, when the Reaganites took power, they found few self-declared liberals remaining. In these circumstances, it was easy for them to make “liberal” a dirty word for almost everyone.
This was a linguistic development with significant consequences. The Reaganites used the term in the sense it came to have in the New Deal and its continuations, Harry Truman’s Fair Deal and LBJ’s Great Society. The programs associated with these names comprised the last great liberal policy configuration in American political history; there had been other configurations in earlier periods. Liberalism’s defining feature, as some influential political philosophers have made clear, is neutrality with respect to competing ideologies and rival conceptions of the good. New Deal (and Fair Deal and Great Society) liberalism’s way of implementing this principle was to use state power to ameliorate pressing social and political problems. For these liberals, the state’s role is not to promote a particular conception of the good society, but to remove unfair (unjust) obstacles that impede the free and equal expression of conceptions of the good in the political arena. To do this, it is necessary, of course, to eliminate legal and political impedances, but it is also necessary to act in more affirmative ways to empower the disempowered and, as it were, to level the playing field – so that justice can be served. [For elaboration, see the entry on “liberalism” in Political Keywords.] This was the liberalism the Reaganites attacked. The Right had always despised liberalism in this sense; by the late 1960s, the Left, having identified its seamy, imperialist side, opposed it too – at least in name. Under Reagan, the center moved far to the right. Therefore “liberalism” in name and in fact went into eclipse. This is how matters have stood for some time. It may not be how they now stand for John Edwards and perhaps even for Barack Obama; the jury is still out. But it is plainly how they stand for Hillary Clinton.
Meanwhile, “progressive” has followed it own curious trajectory. Having long ago lost its links to Communism and fellow traveling, the Left still uses the word to refer to itself and its objectives. But as the political center moved to the right, and as Clintonism came to supersede the New Deal- Fair Deal-Great Society liberalism Reagan sought to undo, another meaning took hold. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, in certain Democratic circles, “progressive,” came to mean “Clintonite.” This is the meaning it has, for example, in the name of the (Clintonized) Democrats’ “think tank,” the Progressive Policy Institute.
The old Cold War liberals, for all their faults, were still within the New Deal, affirmative state tradition. Clintonitism, being of a piece with Reaganism, does not. There are shades of difference, of course, but, in the end, the Democrats under (Bill) Clinton, as much as the Republican Party in its Reaganite and post-Reaganite phases, put themselves at the service of the globalizing corporations that have become the main centers of economic power in today’s world. They may “feel the pain” of those who call out for justice but, unless their demands are to their paymasters’ liking, they will not lift a finger to help.
Thus when Hillary Clinton eschews liberalism to don a “progressive” mantle, she is not identifying with the Left. Rather, through the obfuscation of vague and ambiguous political words, she is declaring what she is: a Clintonite – a kinder, gentler, more competent proponent of the post-Reaganite politics that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney also advance.
In recent months, with the Democratic electorate forcing political candidates to take more progressive positions – in that term’s non-Clintonite sense -- even Hillary Clinton has been obliged to follow suit. Unabashed Clintonism is not much of a vote-getter in today’s political climate. But that doesn’t mean that a Hillary Clinton victory will not betoken a Clintonite Restoration. Quite the contrary. Being nothing if not opportunists, Clintonites can change course on a dime. But they seldom change their nature. [Al Gore seems to have become an exception, but only after leaving electoral politics to become a “public citizen.”] Clinton ‘s “progressivism” is the progressivism of the Democratic Leadership Council. That is the progressivism she hopes to revive and continue. This is emphatically not the kind of progressivism we desperately need.
Note: There’s a new Washington Post-ABC News Poll (July 23). The results show, yet again, that you can fool ever larger numbers of people most of the time. Thus Hillary the “progressive” is holding her own against Obama – 39% versus 28%. On June 1, it was 35% versus 23%. John Edwards is still doing poorly – 9% on 7/21; 8% on 6/1; down from 14% on 4/15. Though he isn’t in the race, Edwards trails Al Gore who got 14%, down from 17% in both 6/1 and 4/15. Dennis Kucinich is still at 1% which is one percent higher than Mike Gravel.
65% of the electorate now disapproves of how George Bush is “handling his job” – 52% strongly disapprove. This is a new low for Bush; indeed, in the entire history of polling only Nixon got worse approval ratings – and that was just a few days before he resigned. [Oddly, only 59% disapprove of Cheney’s job performance.] 51% of the poll’s respondents disapprove of the Democrats in Congress. The Pelosiites can take heart: that’s a lead over the Republicans; 64% disapprove of them. As in 2006, the Democrats are in the lead thanks to the Republicans. If present trends hold, they’ll sweep into office in 2008. But then what??