The transformation of “progressive” from a proudly worn badge of honor to a pejorative comes as a sign of progress.
Eight years of Barack Obama has that effect on a word.
“I am someone who is no doubt progressive,” candidate Obama said on the campaign trail in 2008. The use of an anachronistic term to describe a forward-leaning outlook struck as an oxymoron. Whereas Bill Clinton called himself a “New Democrat” and Michael Dukakis embraced “liberal,” Obama borrowed a word dramatically spiking in usage a century earlier and on a precipitous decline for 35 years prior to his election.
If you purchased stock in the word a decade ago and sold today, your portfolio would have enjoyed substantial progress.
“Progressive” did not sound so 1908 eight years ago, if only for the lack of sentient centenarians to recognize the déjà vu. After its Tourette’s-like use on MSNBC and its function as an open-sesame password among Democrat candidates trolling for votes, “progressive” surely sounds so eight years ago now. Had the Obama presidency ended with an electoral affirmation this might not be so.
An Affordable Care Act whose premiums just exploded by more than 20 percent despite massive deductibles, a Nobel Peace Prize-winner meddling in Syria, Libya, and points beyond, and a post-racial presidency coinciding with Ferguson, Baltimore, and Dallas all give lie to the promise of hope and change. For progressives, the going-away present of a President Donald Trump, a GOP House and Senate, just 18 Democratic governors, Republican control of more state legislative chambers than at any time in the party’s history, and a pending Supreme Court nominee likely to tilt the balance rightward on the high bench combine to give the Obama presidency a bitter aftertaste.
“Progressive” soon goes away. The belief behind it? Never able to rethink principles, liberals radicals progressives instead reset labels — new bottles, old Mad Dog 20/20. Drunk on ideology, firebrands dump the buzzword. They never kick the habit.
Stubborn ideologues blame the messenger or the marketing, never the ideas. This stands in contrast to how Donald Trump recalibrated the Republican Party. He condemned past Republican adventurism abroad, championed the working man at home, and de-emphasized social issues in response to the waning influence of religion. He reoriented the position on borders 180 degrees from the last Republican president. His law-and-order rhetoric and promise to repeal and replace Obamacare came from a familiar playbook. But this was not George W. Bush’s Republican Party or George W. Bush’s father’s Republican Party. It adapted to overcome.
The hard Left fantasizes over soft ideals. People who pine for social brotherhood, the perfectibility of man, and complete equality make politics the art of the impossible. Concrete reality can’t wake them from this dream. Ideas faltering in the world does not rebut them in the imagination. The failure to attain the unattainable inspires rather than dissuades. So enamored with the dream and divorced from the reality, idealists never let go of the beautiful idea.
If you promise lower taxes, more jobs, and better wages, barometers can show success or failure. But when airy platitudes — “hope,” “change,” “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal” — pass for a platform, one can never quite succeed — or fail, either.
“The first essential in the Progressive programme is the right of the people to rule,” Theodore Roosevelt told the Progressive Party convention 104 years ago. This was not true then, and it is not true now. The infidelity to this ideal helps explain why progressivism’s sell-by date expires sooner than other programs.
More than a century ago, progressives sought to empower experts in the bureaucracy, Federal Reserve, and judiciary to take decisions away from the electorate and their representatives. They pushed eugenics, prohibition, and federal safety measures to protect the people from themselves. The current incarnation of progressivism suffers from this elitist mindset. But this manifests itself mostly in making noise over issues that few care about (transgender bathroom access) and far removed from the average voter’s concerns (global warming). Trump connected to people at rallies, on Twitter, and through a simple slogan. Progressivism increasingly disconnects itself from regular people.
Progressivism wiped out populism in the late 19th century. One hundred twenty-five years later, populism has returned the favor.