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More And More Democrats Embrace The 'Progressive' Label. Here's Why

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders had a heated debate in 2016 about what "progressive" means. Even now, it's not totally clear.
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders had a heated debate in 2016 about what "progressive" means. Even now, it's not totally clear.

A particular question had been quietly rolling around in my head for years — one that I finally started thinking harder about lately: When did the word "progressive" creep into my news stories?

More specifically, I started thinking more about it when I covered an Ohio Democratic congressional primary last month — a primary in which the candidates and voters talked a lot about who was more "progressive" (and whether being "progressive" is a good thing).

"If you ask someone that's a little bit farther to the right, they may say I'm a progressive," said Shontel Brown, the winner of the primary. "If you ask someone who's a little more further to the left, they'll say I'm a moderate."

And, to be upfront, I myself used the word "progressive"...er...liberally throughout the piece.

But then, the word is so widely used that its meaning depends on the user. To track its recent rise is to tell a story about the divisions currently within the Democratic Party, as well as how far it has (and hasn't) shifted leftward in recent years.

According to a quick NPR archives search, the network's usage of the word to describe Democrats really skyrocketed in 2018, after picking up in 2016 and 2017. That's also the trend that major U.S. newspapers followed, according to my own news database searches. And it's not just that left-leaning politicians became more plentiful — the word "liberal," for example, didn't pick up in the same way in descriptions of Democrats. In fact, "progressive" virtually caught up to it in the last few years.

Not only that, but a 2018 analysis from the center-left Brookings Institution found that Democratic candidates identifying as "progressive" picked up then — and the word has held on since then.

All of which led me to hypothesize that Bernie Sanders and his 2016 presidential campaign might have something to do with it. So I asked Faiz Shakir, Sanders' former campaign manager in 2020, about the word. And he gave me a surprising answer.

"I'll be honest with you, I don't use the term 'progressive,' " he said. "If somebody calls me 'progressive,' I'm fine; I'm not going to run away from it. But I do tend to think it has lost a lot of meaning."

To Shakir, economic policies that prioritize individuals over corporate interests are progressive. That means there's nuance in his definition: for example, he says he would consider the relatively moderate Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester a progressive.

But Shakir also thinks the term has been stretched beyond its roots.

"Over time, what has happened was the word 'progressive' became so popularized that it started to basically encapsulate everything in the Democratic Party," Shakir continued. "It almost became synonymous with, in my mind, the Democratic Party — the Democratic Party is progressive, progressive is the Democratic Party."

The word means different things to different people

In U.S. history, the word often refers to the Progressive Era in the early 20th century, when activists advocated for a variety of reforms — some were economic, like the fight for greater regulation of industry, and some were social, like the fight for women's suffrage and prohibition. But even then, the movement contained a variety of beliefs.

These days, it's not hard to find a range of definitions of the word. Consider two D.C. institutions located just blocks from each other: the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist think tank founded in 1989 by the also-decidedly moderate Democratic Leadership Council, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, an advocacy organization that backed Elizabeth Warren in 2020.

To Adam Green, co-founder of PCCC, "progressive" has valences of populism, boldness, and fighting the establishment.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was a favorite among further left Democrats in the 2020 presidential primaries.
Mark Ralston / AFP via Getty Images
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was a favorite among further left Democrats in the 2020 presidential primaries.

"Progressive means challenging power, whether that means challenging corporate power on behalf of workers or whether that means challenging systemic racism," Green said. "It fundamentally boils down to being willing to challenge power on behalf of the little guy."

For Michael Mandel, chief economic strategist at the Progressive Policy Institute, progressivism also has something to do with growing the economy.

"One strand is anti-corporate and anti-corruption. But at the same time, progressive also has a strand meaning pro-growth, pro-innovation and pro-jobs," he said. "Progress is both social progress, but it's also economic progress."

Mandel, for example, thinks that the antitrust bills that passed a House committee this summer impede economic progress and therefore are not "progressive." (Further complicating this, however, is the fact that prominent self-proclaimed progressives, including Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, supported those bills.)

It does seem true that "progressive" in popular usage has come to mean something closer to "relatively-left-leaning" than what Mandel is saying — often in today's politics, "progressive" and "liberal" are often simply used interchangeably. (Relatedly, there's some imprecision in how the word "liberal" is used, as Graham Vyse argued in the Washington Post earlier this year.)

When and why it became such a popular label

Clearly self-proclaimed "progressives" had been around for a long time: the Progressive Policy Institute launched in 1989. The Congressional Progressive Caucus started in 1991. The PCCC was founded in 2009.

But the question is why "progressive" gained steam in recent years.

"I think there was a lexical gap, basically, meaning that we had need of a word that we didn't have," said Nicole Holliday, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Holliday also happened to volunteer for Barack Obama's presidential campaign as a college student in 2008. And she saw a bump in the usage of the word around that time.

"I started to see a lot of people that I knew get frustrated because they felt like he wasn't as far to the left as they had expected," she said. "And so I think there were on the ground just some sort of people saying, 'You know, I don't really identify so much with what I think the Democratic Party stands for, or what mainstream liberals stand for.'"

That means the word "liberal" has been assailed over the years not only by the right, by Republicans who effectively made the word into an insult, but also the left, by anti-establishment left-leaners who wanted to distinguish themselves from other Democrats.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., is chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. She has backed anti-trust legislation opposed by some centrists in her party, as well as sweeping climate actions in the framework of the Green New Deal.
Shannon Finney / Getty Images for Green New Deal
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., is chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. She has backed anti-trust legislation opposed by some centrists in her party, as well as sweeping climate actions in the framework of the Green New Deal.

The frustration with establishment Democrats like Obama — the sense that they were insufficiently leftist and insufficiently bold in their policymaking — in part set the stage for Bernie Sanders to run a liberal, anti-establishment candidacy, expanding the debate on a raft of issues to the left. He and Hillary Clinton sparred over the meaning of "progressive" at a 2016 debate, after Sanders said you couldn't be both a moderate and a progressive.

Clinton responded by claiming the progressive mantle: "In the very first debate, I was asked, 'Am I a moderate or a progressive?' And I said, 'I'm a progressive who likes to get things done.'"

Attempting to embrace the label was, for one thing, likely an attempt to latch onto the fervor for change that Sanders tapped into.

But to Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the center-left Brookings Institution, one big reason why a candidate like Clinton was trying to embrace the word may have been very practical.

"Let's face it: America is not a liberal country, nor is it a progressive country," she said. "And if you want to win elections and win hearts and minds, you had to come up with some better way to talk about it because you're outnumbered."

About one-quarter of Americans define themselves as liberals, according to Gallup, while more than one-third identify as conservative.

That may not seem like a huge difference, but it's meaningful in a key way, Kamarck says: Democrats have simply needed majority-moderate coalitions to win nationally.

"The Republican Party doesn't have to be quite as afraid of its conservative base as the Democrats have to be of their liberal base, because their conservative base has for the last four decades been much bigger than the liberal base," she said.

That said, the share of Americans who consider themselves "liberal" has grown, and the Overton window of policy ideas has stretched leftward, bringing ideas like "Medicare for All" into the mainstream.

While Democrats have embraced the term "progressive" and more liberal policy positions in recent years, their thin majorities in Congress give moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., lots of influence over the party's agenda.
Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images
While Democrats have embraced the term "progressive" and more liberal policy positions in recent years, their thin majorities in Congress give moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., lots of influence over the party's agenda.

The word "progressive" has become a tool to appeal to those further-left-leaning Americans without alienating the moderates and independents who reject the "liberal" label.

Saying "progressive" dodges that L-word, Kamarck says: "It's an effort to shed a bad label. That's why, pure and simple."

That full coalition has only delivered Democrats razor-thin margins in Congress as the party tries to pass an infrastructure bill crafted by moderates and a larger budget package championed by further-left Democrats like Faiz Shakir.

"You know, literally all of the benefits that will go out will go almost entirely to like working class and lower income and middle class families across America," he said. "So, you know, that to my mind is a major progressive-era accomplishment."

But only if it passes. And right now, it's threatened by the huge power wielded by moderates. West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin says he wants his Senate colleagues to "pause" that bill ... and they need every Democrat to get it done, no matter how progressive they are.

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