Friday, June 24, 2005

On "Progressive" Terminology

As Ahab readies to join league with the "Progressive" bloggers (or already has), a few thoughts on the term, and broad political labels in general.

Here's an unfolding story that neatly captures the ideological-laden nature of using such broad terminology - and how Republicans have successfully marshalled it to their advantage. Thanks once again, Karl Rove, for more of your ridiculous posturing and rhetoric that serves at least to clarify the playing field. Excerpts from his speech in Manhattan on Wednesday night:

"Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 in the attacks and prepared for war. Liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers."

Rove also denounced Sen. Dick Durbin's comments comparing interrogation at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp to the methods of Nazis and other repressive regimes. He said the statements have been broadcast throughout the Middle East, putting American troops in greater danger. Durbin has since apologized for the remarks.

"No more needs to be said about the motives of liberals," Rove said.
Not only has Rove managed an incredibly cheap invokation of a terrible tragedy for political points, it is also a patently false observation. Particularly revolting is the link that somehow criticizing torture techniques necessarily involves criticizing the troops. But the disconnect with the "reality-based" universe is not the point here. My favorite aspect of the unfolding story is actually found in the subsequent characterization of the comments by the White House:

"I think Karl was very specific, very accurate, in who he was pointing out," communications director Dan Bartlett said. "It's touched a chord with these
Democrats. I'm not sure why."

So "liberal" is a very specific term, then? Obviously I did not attend the speech and cannot seem to find a transcript online to provide the full context. Bartlett insinuates that Rove was talking only about comments by Moveon.org and Michael Moore, though I have my doubts. That's their defence for the next few days while the storm blows over.

But read Rove's comments again. Remember the Presidential election? How many times did you hear the Democratic ticket described as the 4th and 2nd "most liberal" Senators as if it were a disease? It is truly fascinating how pejorative the term "liberal" has become to our Southern neighbours - if you are a liberal, you are a waffling wimp with no moral compass. A "liberal" voting record is a bad one in middle America, case closed. Conservatives in Canada likely have the same grudge at Liberals for successfully linking the extremist elements to the core of the party, hence its "scary" nature.

How is "liberal" (the non-party affiliation kind) to be distinguished from "progressive"? Is Ahab's Whale progressive? Can you vote Tory or support missile defence and still be progressive? Were Liberals who voted in favour of the definition of traditional marriage in the 1990s not progressive then? Is Pat O'Brien now? Do the goal posts just shift along with popular opinion? Is Andrew Sullivan a progressive? When Tony Blair's campaign slogan is "Forward, not Back", do voters really all of a sudden believe that all other parties don't agree with it? What about Blair's plans for ID cards and House arrests, progressive? And is the opposite to the term "regressive"?

Of course these are questions of semantics. But labels do matter a great deal in politics, not so much for unifying a collection of blogs, but for electoral positioning in an era of talking points and rapidfire debate.

So, back to the beginning. Is "progressive" a label that Democrats could begin deploy effectively as a replacement to the now counterproductive "liberal"? Sure. Simple, effective: and who's against progress? In the campaign for the head of the DNC, Kos used the term "reform Democrat" in supporting Dean, which I also liked (likely not to become popular on the left in this country, for obvious reasons...) Liberal is a deeply ingrained word that Limbaugh will never stop using as if he despises it, but Democrats need to start actively reclaiming ground on this battlefield.

And to conclude with Dean, amidst all the hyperbole surrounding his "hatred", remember that in the dominant March 2003 speech that really launched his surge, it cresendoed with the line "I don't want to listen to the fundamentalist preachers anymore". American politics is full of such powerful reactionaries and Democrats would do well to call them out in debate as the true anti-progressives they oppose.

As I said, I don't necessarily know what truly "progressive" looks like. That's fine - vaguely positive works well. And perhaps people do know what "regressive" looks like when they see it. As did John Edwards when he faced one in the Vice Presidential debate last October:
"When [the Vice President] was one of 435 members of the United States House, he was one of 10 to vote against Head Start, one of four to vote against banning plastic weapons that can pass through metal detectors. He voted against the Department of Education. He voted against funding for Meals on Wheels for seniors. He voted against a holiday for Martin Luther King. He voted against a resolution calling for the release of Nelson Mandela in South Africa."
UPDATE [later] - on the Rove aspect of this posting, Sullivan is bang on when it comes to the wider implications of this particular speech. Money quote:
...instead of leveling with the country about the real difficulty of the war we're in, acknowledging error and sketching a unifying vision for winning, you divide the country into good folk and "liberals" and hope it works as well as it always has. If you want to know how well the administration really believes the war is going, listen to their rhetoric. And start worrying.


Blogger The Tiger said...

Remember the older squirrelling of terminology -- the changing of the word "liberal" from its roots, a person who favours liberty, to being a marker for those who believe the opposite.

As for "progressive" -- what set of political leaders is truly pushing for radical change for good in the world today? The answer depends on one's perspective.

2:22 PM  
Anonymous Michael Williams said...

If "liberal" has negative connotations, whose fault is that? Anyway, that's why I prefer "leftist" to "liberal".

2:41 PM  
Blogger Jason Cherniak said...

It's all about context. In the US, the real liberal allowed the republicans to turn it into a dirty word. However, they used to have the same problem with "conservative" - it can be revived.

9:53 AM  
Blogger The Tiger said...

Jason --

You forget, the real liberals are actually in the Republican Party. (Its libertarian wing.)

2:46 PM  

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