In these last gasping weeks before the Iowa caucuses, Hillary Clinton has settled upon a political identity, declaring herself ‘‘a progressive who likes to get things done.’’ The label reassures left-wing Democrats that she shares their values while also signaling to the party’s centrists that she is above all pragmatic. Clinton introduced the phrase in October, at the first Democratic presidential debate, where it produced whoops of joy from the live audience: Here was Clinton striking back at the supposedly pie-in-the-sky Bernie Sanders. The Clinton campaign was so enthused by the response that it printed up bumper stickers with the phrase, and in early December, Clinton repeated it in an email to Howard Dean’s grass-roots group, Democracy for America, pleading for an endorsement.
Sanders supporters, unsurprisingly, tend to view Clinton’s bid for the ‘‘progressive’’ label as the height of hypocrisy. They tick off the many ways in which Sanders easily out-progressives his opponent: He voted against the Iraq war, while she voted for it; he voted against the 2008 bank bailout, while she voted for it. This message — that Sanders is the true ‘‘progressive’’ in the race — has shown impressive staying power, especially among left-leaning Democrats. A few weeks ago, Democracy for America rejected Clinton’s email appeal, endorsing Sanders with 87.9 percent of the membership’s vote.
This sniping is standard practice in a polarized primary race. But the question of whether Hillary Clinton is truly a ‘‘progressive’’ rests in part upon the contested definition of the term. Does ‘‘progressive’’ suggest an uncompromising fealty to a set of values, like universal health care, abortion rights and opposition to the Iraq war? Or does it mean something more general — say, the belief that government, carefully and wisely guided, can actually do some good? In the long and untidy history of American politics, there has never been a single meaning of the word, and there has never been a surefire way to deploy it.
The word ‘‘progressive’’ came into widespread use in the early 1900s, a moment when many Americans believed democracy was failing. Over the previous generation, industrial titans like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie amassed huge fortunes. At the same time, millions of Americans — many of them immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe — were huddled in urban tenements and yoked to the factory clock. Middle-class people began to worry that great wealth would bring corruption, while extreme poverty would prevent workers from acting as independent citizens. They went in search of a new politics that would enable both the government and the citizenry to rebalance this distribution of power.
The ‘‘progressive’’ movement was, at first, a big-tent enterprise, a ‘‘remarkably good-natured effort of the greater part of society to achieve some not very clearly specified self-reformation,’’ in the words of the historian Richard Hofstadter. The general impulse to do something inspired a bewildering array of social movements that had little in common by today’s standards. At its height, progressivism produced moralists, cynics and social engineers, with some progressives seeking to liberate humanity from its benighted superstitions as others sought to impose strict rules about sex, alcohol and racial intermingling. Urban reformers and pacifists and trustbusters and suffragists all called themselves ‘‘progressives.’’ So did prohibitionists and segregationists and antivaccinationists and eugenicists. Historians still refer to the first two decades of the 20th century as the Progressive Era, a time when the nation enacted its first federal income tax and food-safety regulations and women won the right to vote. But during that period, progressivism’s darker side emerged, too: the creation of the Jim Crow system and the passage of viciously exclusionary immigration restriction. ...