07 Aug 2007

They Call Themselves “Progressives”

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After they made us lose in Vietnam, wrecked the US economy, and destroyed the nation’s cities, being identified as a “Liberal” came to be regarded as no longer a compliment. In the late 1960s, leftists like Hillary preferred calling themselves “Radicals.” But, as Jonah Goldberg observes, the favored term in pinko circles these days is “Progressive.”

At the recent CNN/YouTube debate, Hillary Clinton was asked to define what a liberal is and declare whether she was one.

“You know,” the New York senator said, “it is a word that originally meant that you were for freedom … that you were willing to stand against big power and on behalf of the individual. Unfortunately, in the last 30, 40 years, it has been turned up on its head, and it’s been made to seem as though it is a word that describes big government, totally contrary to what its meaning was in the 19th and early 20th century.”

I prefer the word ‘progressive,’ ” Clinton continued, “which has a real American meaning, going back to the progressive era at the beginning of the 20th century. I consider myself a modern progressive.”

Now, when the presumptive standard bearer of the Democratic Party and the political (and matrimonial) heir to the only Democratic president to be elected to two terms since Franklin Roosevelt says she’s not a liberal, it’s actually quite a big deal.

But first, do note how crafty Clinton is being. She makes it sound as though she’s lamenting the unfair transformation of the word “liberal” from lover of individual freedom to champion of big government.

How, exactly, does Clinton think liberal came to mean “big government?” Could it have had something to do with her attempt to nationalize one-seventh of the U.S. economy under her health care plan, or maybe with her book, It Takes a Village, which suggests that the government intrude itself into every nook and cranny of our lives?

Clinton’s answer taps into the common complaint on the left that the word “liberal” has fallen into disrepute not because of the policies of liberals, but thanks to the villainously cynical distortions of conservatives. “The greatest triumph that conservatives ever achieved,” liberal columnist Clarence Page recently complained, “is to make liberals embarrassed to call themselves ‘liberal.’ ”

Right. The failures of the Great Society, bussing, racial quotas, high taxes, the Vietnam War (both its beginning and end), Jimmy Carter’s “malaise,” the nuclear freeze movement, lax law enforcement, speech codes, abortion on demand, bilingual education and, of course, Michael Dukakis: We’re expected to believe none of these things can be weighed against liberalism. Liberalism, after all, is never wrong. It must be those mustache-twirling henchmen Lee Atwater and Karl Rove who are to blame.

One might also ask, if Clinton laments how liberalism has become identified with big government, why it is she wants to revive the progressive label. After all, if liberal is a misnomer for statists, progressive represents a long-overdue return to truth in labeling. In Europe, after all, liberals are the free-market, small-government types. But in America, the same people came to be called conservatives in no small part because they were trying to conserve liberal ideas of limited government amid the riot of social engineering during the Progressive Era that Clinton is so nostalgic for.

Indeed, she’s right that self-described liberals championed the sovereignty of the individual, which is why the authentic liberals were hated by progressives who believed that, in the words of progressive activist Jane Addams, “We must demand that the individual shall be willing to lose the sense of personal achievement, and shall be content to realize his activity only in the connection with the activity of the many.”

As late as 1951, Sen. Robert Taft, “Mr. Republican” to his fans, insisted he wasn’t so much a conservative as merely an “an old fashioned liberal.”

Even so, progressives were more desperate to seize the l-word for themselves because they needed it more. They so ruined the word “progressive” — particularly during the excesses of World War I — that they had to abandon it like a rider leaving an exhausted horse behind. By the late 1940s, “progressive” became little more than a euphemism for a Stalinist or at least a useful idiot for Moscow.

Read the whole thing.

People like Hillary don’t mean Progressive in the sense of free silver coinage and restraints on railroads. They mean Progressive in the Henry Wallace, only faintly concealed Marxist, sense of the late New Deal era.

I just refer to them as “commies” myself.

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