Earlier this month the social media teams for the two Democratic presidential candidates got into a heated—if not quite illuminating—spat on Twitter and Facebook about the meaning of progressivism. The Bernie Sanders campaign tweeted, “You can be a moderate. You can be a progressive. But you cannot be a moderate and a progressive”; while Hillary Clinton’s account replied that “an important part of being a progressive is making progress.” When asked about the exchange the following night, in an MSNBC debate, the candidates did not shed much more light on the question. “The root of that word ‘progressive’ is ‘progress,’” Clinton observed.
In search of nuance, we asked four historians to comment on how Sanders and Clinton each fit within in the context of the Progressive tradition, and what their respective candidacies might augur for its future. —Richard Kreitner
In Search of a Lost Ideology
Historians have long had trouble agreeing on what Progressivism really meant. After all, the various middle-class reform efforts of the early 20th century included Prohibition, labor reform, efforts to make sure that food and medicine were not adulterated, regulations of workplace safety, and the creation of the Federal Reserve, among many others. Even the Jim Crow laws of the South might be seen as one manifestation of Progressivism: an attempt by social elites to “organize” what they saw as the disruptive elements of their society, albeit in poisonously repressive ways. In a 1982 essay, “In Search of Progressivism,” historian Daniel T. Rodgers observed that various efforts to construct a coherent political ideology to characterize the early-20th-century political movement known as Progressivism had failed: As he put it, “progressivism as an ideology is nowhere to be found.”
When presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton spar over which one is more progressive, they don’t have the reality of the Progressive movement of 100 years ago firmly in mind. Each candidate has his or her own reasons for trying to claim the word. For Clinton, it is a way of trying to win over the young, left-leaning voters who overwhelmingly support her opponent, while Sanders uses it to associate himself with a resurgence of democratic populism. Today, the term mostly offers a way of talking about left politics without using the word “liberal” (with its unpopular top-down connotations, and its history of critique by the right) or—even worse—the word left.
Nonetheless, there are some ways in which our own moment does closely resemble that of the early 20th century: in terms of rising income inequality, growing public anxiety about the political role of business, and a widening sense that business interests are cavalier with public safety and hostile to the public good. Although there are many points of commonality between Sanders’s campaign and the Progressive efforts of the last century—the criticisms of business, the advocacy for greater regulation—in one key way, his campaign seems very different. The intense political emotion, the sense of disillusionment with the present, and the idea of the necessity of broad-scale transformation are all at odds with the politics of early-20th-century Progressivism, which was deeply concerned with the threat of upheaval from below. In this sense, although not in others, the Clinton campaign may be more in keeping with Progressivism as it has been classically understood: While her proposed reforms are far less bold than those of the Progressives, she seeks, as they generally did, to channel political unrest, while leaving underlying social inequalities untouched.