“Progressives” became “Liberals” and are now “Progressives” again

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

— LEWIS CARROLL (Charles L. Dodgson), Through the Looking-Glass, chapter 6, p. 205 (1934). First published in 1872

Liberal and Progressive are two words that have been used by leftist thinkers and doers to mean just what they want them to mean. But they’ve lost control over what they want these words to mean because their actions don’t live up to what these words have traditionally been understood to stand for.

Historians refer to the years 1900-1917 as the “Progressive Era” of “muckrakers” like Ida Tarbell (McClures Magazine) and Upton Sinclair (The Jungle), and reformers such as Senator Robert “fighting Bob” La Follett of Wisconsin and Senator William Borah, the “Lion of Idaho.” Teddy Roosevelt was also considered a member of the so-called progressive movement.  Herbert Croly was a leading intellectual of the Progressive Era with his book, The Promise of American Life, and the founding of The New Republic magazine, with financing from his patron, heiress Dorothy Payne Whitney. Journalist Walter Lippmann (A Preface to Politics) was a co-founder of that magazine.

The movers and shakers of the Progressive Era called themselves “progressives” in order to capitalize on what that word was popularly understood to mean, namely modern, advancing, forward thinking, enlightened, dynamic and bold.

Later followers began to call themselves liberals in order to expand the definition to include tolerant, unprejudiced, broad minded, open minded, lenient, indulgent, free and easy, and most of all —  compassionate.  Certain antonyms were mandatory to make sure everyone understood what was meant, and to imply that political opponents were to be thought of as narrow minded, close minded, bigoted, reactionary, miserly, selfish, uncaring and even stupid whenever they could pull that one off.

Then something went wrong. The actions of liberals and the  leviathan government they built began to create cracks in their wall of compassion and self rightousness.  People began to see that many liberal policies touted as the elixir to the good life were actually making life more difficult for too many people. Those not under the spell of liberalism lost confidence in the promise of liberal compassion because the results of liberalism were decadent and destructive. Soon the word liberal became pejorative and liberals began to seek ways to shed that connection.

Thus came the return of the word “progressive” to describe what always was and remained leftist thinking and acting. This occurred roughly sometime in the 1980s. I was in College in the late 1960s and early 1970s when American History was still being taught to college freshmen.  It was taught in two semesters, 101 being from the colonial period to the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction, and 102 being from where 101 left off to the present.

The Progressive Era was taught to college students as the era that defined modern 20th Century America. You couldn’t come away from it without a certain amont of awe and respect for all the wonderful things done by the “progressives” between the turn of the Century and America’s entry into World War I.

Thus, when the word “liberal” came to be a word of revulsion to many, liberals sought to escape any connection to it by co-opting the word “progressive.”  When I first heard Jane Mayer refer to herself and her associates as “progressives” it sounded as wierd to me as if she had called herself a Jacobin, which actually would have made more sense. The Jacobins beheaded Robespierre to keep him from beheading them. Liberals had to behead “liberal” to keep it from beheading them.

By the time I first heard liberals calling themselves progressives I had escaped the indoctrination of my college days and knew that lefitsts first started hiding under the word liberal in an attempt to escape what progressivism had come to mean after the Second World War. Shortly thereafter the word “liberal” began to stink when Tom Hayden and SDS trashed  in the Port Huron Statement.

I wondered if Jane Mayer had any idea what she was doing. But the national memory of the progressive era had so faded from collective memory she must have thought it would be effective to save liberals from crticism for their failures.

But now they need a new word because just as they made liberal a bad word, they’ve pretty much done the same to progressive. There used to be a rock band that called themselves the Teddy Bears. It just might work. There was a really good folk group calling themselves “The Seekers.” How about “The Shriekers?”

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