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Progressivism Fails Because Democrats are Afraid to Advance a Progressive Agenda

WI: Sen. Feingold speaks in support of Barack Obama in Eau Claire, August 24, 2008 by aflcio


USA Today/Gallup poll based on "telephone interviews conducted June 11-13, 2010, with a random sample of 1,014 adults, aged 18 and older, living in the continental U.S." suggests a majority of the American population does not know if the term "progressive" describes their political views. The poll represents the possibility that many Americans have no idea what it means to be "progressive" or why one might enjoy anointing one’s self with the label of "progressive."




One conclusion from these results could be that this provides an explanation for why progressivism has failed so far in the United States. However, that idea seems to ignore the fact that those responsible for advancing progressivism through the passage of legislation, for example, are politicians. Politicians in this country are most certainly aware of the presence of "progressives" and what they stand for, as they are a potential constituency to be won (and divided) in elections.




A failure of understanding among Americans of what a "progressive" is might have more to do with a political failure among Democrats to articulate specifically what a "progressive" stands for. And, is that necessarily a bad thing? In the "Bottom Line" section of the poll results, the analysis reads, "Given the high degree of public uncertainty about what the term means — as well as the lack of opposition to it from the political center — that could be a successful strategy, at least if the goal is to avoid being pigeonholed."




In an article posted on titled, "Does the left even know what "progressive" means?" Ned Resnikoff, an NYU student, further illuminates the results of this poll. First, he addresses what the term means noting that, after the left allowed conservatives to turn "liberal" into a slur, "progressive" has replaced "liberal." Essentially, "progressive" has been a political faction’s attempt at re-branding in this country.




Resnikoff looks at how progressives have failed to define what a "progressive" is and suggests asking what is a "liberal" in order to gain some insight into what a progressive’s worldview happens to be. He highlights the modern conservative movement’s ability to articulate their worldview and how progressives have quite often been "a morass of factions and interests that sometimes work in harmony and often don’t. A ragtag group that can never seem to find a consistent frame for the policy proposals it puts forth."




Glenn Beck and President Obama, as Resnikoff also points out, have offered definitions of the progressive worldview. Beck’s definition of the progressive worldview is unfortunately, for those wishing to become informed, much easier to find than Obama’s definition (that’s likely because he hasn’t talked specifically of progressivism in any interviews or speeches).




Beck thinks, "Progressivism is a cancer in America" and "it is meant to eat our Constitution." Beck delights in offering his own version of the history of progressivism in America and never hesitates to set his sights on President Woodrow Wilson and the progressive ideas he believed in.




This could be part of the reason progressivism has failed. Those who articulate and explain what progressivism is often have as much of an idea of what progressivism is as the people who have no idea what the label "progressive" means. Also, there’s a tendency for people like Hillary Clinton to anoint themselves with the label "progressive," which masks real views and can be confusing because it appears progressive just means a willingness to support progress and move forward; to a certain extent, that is progressivism but really it’s a lot more than that.




The Center for American Progress (CAP), a progressive think tank, has published reports on "The Progressive Tradition in American Politics" seeking to articulate the originations of the progressive worldview in America. This report points to the slow transformation of Woodrow Wilson into a national progressive president as what "solidified progressivism within the Democratic Party." CAP also notes that "the most distinctive progressive faction" happened to be "within the Republican Party and most fiercely advocated by prominent voices such as Theodore Roosevelt and Robert La Follette of Wisconsin. (Both Roosevelt and La Follette formed outside Progressive Parties to promote progressive ideas after failing to transform the Republican Party from inside.)




CAP claims (in the above cited report) progressives were responsible for: the 8-hour work day and 40-hour work week, civil service tests to replace political patronage, worker’s compensation for on-the-job accidents, national supervision of banks and the creation of a flexiblenational currency, unemployment insurance, regulation of the securities industry, prohibitions against child labor and workplace exploitations, federal insurance of bank deposits, the legal right of people to organize within labor unions and engage in, bans on speculative banking practices collective bargaining for fair wages and benefits, the constitutional right to vote, full legal equality, and the elimination, refinancing and foreclosure protections for home and farm owners of formal discrimination for women and minorities, national infrastructure including electrification, railways, airports, the graduated income and inheritance tax bridges and roads, and the Internet, protections against contaminated food and medicines, Social Security and Medicare to aid the elderly and Medicaid and CHIP to help low-income families and children, hundreds of millions of acres of protected wilderness areas, waterways, minimum wage laws and income support for the working poor and national parks, antimonopoly and anticompetitive regulations of corporations, public education, college loans and grants for students, and the GI Bill, direct elections of U.S. senators, direct primary elections of political candidates, and the initiative and referendum process in the states.




With a list like that, it’s not hard to figure out what a progressive might stand for: workers’ rights, unions, bank regulations, social programs, equality, the building and re-building of infrastructure, economic protections, antitrust laws and the abolition of corporate personhood, and the strengthening of democracy.




Ask yourself: How many of those issues do you hear Democratic Party members discussing openly? What in that list is taboo to the interests and campaigns of Democratic Party politicians either because they fear Republicans will out-message them or they will alienate interests they must court in order to be re-elected?




If that’s what progressives stand for, then progressives should be ready and willing to go out and sell their visions for the future to the people of America. According to an April 2010 Gallup poll, support for regulating Wall Street banks was at 50%.A poll conducted as part of Gallup’s annual Work and Education survey in August of 2009 found that "48% of Americans now approving of unions" (and while that represented the first sub-50% approval since Gallup first asked the question in the 1930s" that could easily be reversed if there was more defense of unions in this country by political leaders).A 2009 New York Times/CBS poll found that "59% [of Americans] say the government should provide national health insurance, including 49% who say such insurance should cover all medical problems."




Social Security continues to enjoy wide support (although President George W. Bush’s push to privatize Social Security four years ago planted doubts in the minds of younger people). Another Gallup poll conducted in 2009 found 68% of Americans think major corporations should have less influence in this nation.A Pew Research Center poll from 2007 found a surge in support for the social safety net with 57% saying they were in favor of helping more needy even if debt would increase. (Interestingly, the poll found 48% of all conservatives were willing to accept deficit spending to help those who could not help themselves.).




In the face of conservative, libertarian, and free enterprise/free market think tank campaigns perpetuated through media and by the politicians of this country, the levels of support for "progressive" ideas and programs, which progressives started, is still high. Those who believe in these "progressive" ideals now need to speak to Americans about progressivism in a way that will lead them to support such a democratic, socially responsible, and much more egalitarian agenda.




A big problem is Democrats’ failure to connect the reality they and others are experiencing to the reality the Obama Administration is perpetuating. Gallup published a poll on July 16th that showed Democrats’ score on Gallup’s Economic Confidence Index at -14 (down from -3 in June and +3 in April) yet no "meaningful change" in approval of President Obama. Such a disconnect may be conscious to Democrats — perhaps, deep down they no longer wholeheartedly support Obama but say so publicly to not get lumped in with Tea Partiers. Whatever the case may be, progressivism cannot become more understood and rise in popularity and support if what the Obama Administration has done or failed to do is not connected to the situations we all face in society today.




Progressivism has likely failed because of fears that pushing progressivism may result in debate that tarnishes "brand Obama," a brand that managed to excite the grassroots without diminishing the possibility of influence and support from boardrooms and American CEOs (who Democrats depend on for re-election). Much of the left still cling to a belief that, despite his inability to incorporate progressive agenda items into legislation, Obama is still can bring real progressive change to the country.




Robert Scheer, Truthdig editor-in-chief and journalist, said in a Live Chat last week, "criticism of the president will only strengthen [the Obama Administration] if it comes from the grass roots and the people around him have to deliver to the people who vote."




That Americans are not supportive of progressivism is largely a conjured up fear to excuse a failure to advance a progressive agenda and win support from Democratic Party leaders for progressive change. The American people support progressive ideas. They just need real progressive leadership that, independently from Democratic Party interests, promotes a vision and future where these progressive ideas are indeed viable and practical.


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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."