Column: Progressivism, liberalism and the Democratic identity crisis

In this Feb. 11, 2016 file photo, Democratic presidential candidates, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, and Hillary Clinton argue a point during a Democratic presidential primary debate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, File)

In these recent stages of the 2016 presidential election, the focus seems to have turned away from policy and instead towards identity. On the Democratic side, candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and their campaigners have been tossing labels at each other with a slew of political jargon, including “moderate,” “liberal” and “socialist,” among others.

However, the most striking moment of this identity crisis occurred during the Feb. 4 Democratic debate in New Hampshire, when both candidates deviated from policy in attempts to prove that each was the more “progressive” of the two. And who was right? Well, neither.

In the rush to put forth the image of being the most “Democratic” candidate that inevitably accompanies all primary elections, Clinton and Sanders have joined today’s Democratic Party in redefining the terms “liberalism” and “progressivism” - while at the same time disregarding their original meanings.

While liberalism was initially founded upon the ideas of individual freedom, civil liberties and equality, progressivism has never been properly defined. Its most prominent period in American history was during the Progressive Era from around 1890 to 1920, most notably under the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, while some extend the period to encompass the presidency for Franklin D. Roosevelt as well.

The era was characterized by the assertion of government power for the sake of progress, whether that resulted in Theodore Roosevelt’s “trust-busting” of large corporations or FDR’s implementation of social security. In this sense, progressivism is less of an ideology and more of a political method.

According to an NPR report, it has “historically been associated with science, rationality, and [an] approach to government and society reliant on knowledge and empirical methods.” It is rational process of change for the sake of progress, while modern liberalism is better defined as an ideology that promotes change in a break away from traditional policies.

I can think of no better example of this than President Obama’s campaign slogan in 2008: “Yes, we can.” In a Heritage Foundation report written by Charles R. Kesler, a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College, Kesler wrote about the implications of this slogan, “the openness to change, the willingness to remake ourselves – but apparently for no particular purpose.” The progressive response to this, he argues, was represented in comedian Jon Stewart’s reply to the slogan: “Yes, we can… But… should we?”

This is not to say that liberal policies do not yield progress and improvements. In fact, on many occasions, progressivism and liberalism have worked toward common goals, despite the subtle differences between them. Progressivism has expanded to include activists from muckraker Ida Tarbell and settlement house worker Jane Addams in the early-20th century to Occupy Wall Street and women’s rights activists of the past few years.

This has led the movement to venture outside of its original top-down approach of government intervention and extend to a grassroots, bottom-up approach. And this is where today’s Democratic Party has been able to pull the term “progressive” onto its platform.

For years, to be described as “liberal” was enough to be considered a viable Democratic candidate, but when the word was given a negative connotation by conservatives, Democrats scrambled around for a new word to instill confidence in the party. They landed on “progressive,” and recycled the term while leaving behind some of the key features that define it.

And thus begins a game of word association with the American public. Any Democratic candidate described as progressive can now be associated with the successful policies of Theodore Roosevelt and FDR, in the same way that any Republican candidate who can compare him – or herself to Ronald Reagan can be associated with the “golden age of conservatism.” It does not matter whether his or her policies actually parallel Reagan’s or not.

The fact is that “progressive” has become the new “liberal,” but it cannot be accurately associated with the successful progressive platform of the early-20th century, because fundamentally it is still liberalism.

In an attempt to prove their progressivism, Clinton and Sanders will put forth policies of “change,” but whether or not that change will be oriented toward progress remains to be seen. For now, Clinton cites Sanders’s votes against gun control and immigration as proof that he is not progressive, and Sanders points to the funds Clinton has received from Wall Street to dismiss her claims to progressivism.

But until their policies reflect new, creative approaches toward progress rather than games of liberal “catch up” and one-upmanship, we will have to patiently await the modern progressive candidate.