Alonzo Hamby: Why liberals now call themselves progressives

Roundup: Historians' Take

The resurgence of "progressive" is an interesting semantic phenomenon.

In the days of Robert La Follette, Sr., Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson, it meant a middle-class reformism that favored honest government, the employment of professionals and experts in administration and policy-making, and a more equitable society characterized by justice and opportunity for all classes and groups. In those days, more often than not, "liberal" still meant small government and laissez-faire, connected vaguely with the Jeffersonian tradition.

From the 1930s on "liberal" began to displace "progressive" as the preferred term for the reforming groups of the century. I think the rationale was a far broader definition of the "term liberty" to include material well-being, as in Roosevelt's Four Freedoms.

By then also "progressive" was taking on a somewhat different usage. The Communist party of the United States (and the Comintern) after 1935 sought unity with (and influence over) "the progressive forces" of Western nations in a "Popular Front" against fascism (a term the CPUSA interpreted very broadly after 1945). One US result was the Progressive party of 1948, a vehicle largely controlled and manipulated by the CPUSA in the interests of the Soviet Union. The Progressive party of 1948 was, appropriately enough, rejected by the political heirs of the the leader of the Progressive Party of 1924, the elder La Follette.

After 1948, "progressive" fell into disuse among reformers. Today, a good many. e.g., E. J. Dionne, want to resurrect it because "liberal" has taken on a bad odor in the larger political dialogue.

My own sense is that neither term is very good. The controlling impulse of today's Democratic party is akin to European social democracy, pressing more toward equality of condition than equality of opportunity.

I don't expect, however, to see our President-Elect, Speaker of the House, Senate Majority Leader, or assorted Democratic intellectuals adopt the term "social democratic" any time soon.

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Christopher Fee - 11/16/2008

Social Democrats? Communists ? What else should one call them ? The redistribution of wealth hardly conjures visions of Adam Smith.

E.J. Dionne and the rest are simply trying to make the anti-free market forces more palatable to the average working American.

It is hard to imagine Progressives such as TR or Woodrow Wilson sitting down to discuss domestic or foreign policy with bomb throwing anarchists or supporters of the PLO bent on destroying a free democracy such as Israel.

The true Progressives worked within the confines of the Constitution to regulate the economy and to address other societal ills. Never did they try to change society by throwing bombs at institutions that they disagreed with as attempted by some during the 1960s.

Liberal is another term thrown around by Dionne and his brethern. Organized labor's support represents the only current Democratic Party tie to the old Liberal coalition. The prevailing wage issue and the GM bailout are the main links currently uniting the unions and President-elect Obama. We shall have to wait and see how BHO handles the right to work states and Detroit. There is some discussion of a "car czar". I hope that this proves more effective than either the "drug czar" or the "energy czar" did.

Just who is this Hamby fellow ? Perhaps you should add Beyond the New Deal , Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman , and For the Survival of Democracy to your reading list.

Lorraine Paul - 11/15/2008

I cannot believe that this person, Hamby, still refers to 'progressive groups' as communists!

Is he so rooted in 1950s McCarthyism that he checks under his bed every night for a 'you-know-who'?? Possibly he has a bumper sticker which reads...better dead than red!

Who is this reactionary piece of flotsam and jetsam. Can he be found on Foxnews?

Randll Reese Besch - 11/14/2008

He speaks of progressives and regressives. Progressives are liberals who do things to progress toward an egalitarian society of social justice. Regressives like the hierarchical and elit control as defined by the wealthy and powerful if not ruthless to dominate all with a Godly mandate. With the tautology of their social and economic position being an example of their God's annointing of them!

Craig Michael Loftin - 11/14/2008

This article explains nothing.