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Has Obama-Era Politics Debased the Meaning of Being 'Progressive'?

Charles Knight

The morning after President Obama's West Point speech justifying his commitment of more troops to the war effort in Afghanistan, "representatives of six major progressive organizations" held a press conference to back the President's policy. The effort was organized by Jim Arkedis of the Progressive Policy Institute and Rachel Kleinfeld of the Truman National Security Project.

This would not be surprising to anyone who follows Democratic politics and policy debates within the DC Beltway. The Progressive Policy Institute has long been a center for centrists and conservatives within the Democratic party doing ideological battle with those to their left. The Truman National Security Project is also a center for party centrists and conservatives to promote iconic Truman Cold Warrior "toughness" as the answer to the Democrat's oft-perceived "political weakness" on national security issues.

What this press conference may signal is that in American politics the label "progressive" is no longer a useful distinction. How did this come to be? Here is my narrative of the debasement of the term "progressive."

In early 1970's I learned to call myself "a progressive." Sixties left activists had a serious critique of the then politically dominant liberals. We wanted to distinguish ourselves from them, although at the time the media discourse only had room for two choices: liberal and conservative. Within the left we had some difference of opinion on whether we should call ourselves "progressives", "radicals" or "revolutionaries". "Progressive" was obviously a "bigger tent" and easily won out, especially after some those identifying as radicals and revolutionaries indulged themselves in marginalizing sectarianism or anti-state violence.

The political fortunes of progressives waned, especially after Reaganites came to power in Washington, but the strength of the label must have been enduring because conservative-centrist Democrats who founded the Progressive Policy Institute appropriated the term in order to challenge the left with their "third way" ideology.

Meanwhile most American leftists I know continue to call themselves "progressives." In 2008 after eight years of extreme right governance, leftists were ready to join liberals and centrists to oust the Republicans from control of the Federal government. I remember saying that "Obama is the most progressive of the major candidates for president", though I would usually add the caveat that, at best, he was a left-inclined centrist. As one Chicago friend later said to me: "If being a liberal Republican was a viable option for a politician in Chicago, Barack Obama would be one."

So left progressives gave their all to the Obama campaign for the presidency and I continue to believe that decision was tactically correct. He was our best option for defeating the rightists.

Along the way Obama was labeled "a progressive Democrat" by some in the press. When he won and established a centrist administration, his association with the term "progressive" had the effect of bringing it into the mainstream. Suddenly nearly everyone in DC wanted to be part of the progressive party.

Today the Progressive Policy Institute is celebrating that the conservative Democratic national security policy they favor is now ideologically associated with the Obama administration. Thus the meaning of "progressive" is more thoroughly debased, to the point of approaching uselessness.

Where does this leave the left? Human beings seem to be very fond of labels. They are part of our practice of politics. They are fundamental to how we sort out who are our comrades and who are not. We could spend hours talking to discover commonalities and differences between us, but very often we feel that we have make quick judgments about who we align with. Thus the ubiquitous question: Is he or she "really progressive"?

I think it may be time for a new term of use for left affiliation and identity. I don't have any suggestions for what that might be, but I do believe that "progressive" has been debased, probably irretrievably.

I do not blame Obama for this. His politics are what they are ... as for each of us our political identity is ultimately defined by our political choices. It is simply an artifact of political change that "progressive" is no longer a useful distinction.

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Charles Knight is co-director of the Project on Defense Alternatives (PDA) at the Commonwealth Institute.

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