The Democratic Party Presidential primary is now heating up as a two-person race between two evenly matched candidates, both of whom declare themselves and not their adversary to be a “progressive.”

Bernie Sanders has declared that “You can be a moderate. You can be a progressive. But you cannot be a moderate and a progressive.”

Hillary Clinton has expressed amusement that Sanders considers himself the “gatekeeper on who’s progressive,” defending her consistent claim that “I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.”

Which of these public figures is right? Who is truly a progressive? The answer is that both are partially right and partially wrong, and both can lay legitimate claim to the mantle of progressivism.

The term “progressivism” entered American political discourse at the turn of the 20th century. So-called “Gilded Age” America was a very different place from the pastoral republic envisioned by Jefferson and the framers of the Constitution. It confronted major challenges associated with industrial capitalism — rising inequality, displacement, deskilling, and disciplining of workers, and a proliferation of health and safety problems associated with untrammeled free markets. It also confronted major challenges associated with immigration, cultural pluralism, urbanization, and the rise of a science-based economy. Turn-of-the-century progressives sought to harness new technologies and institutions, and also to solve the problems these caused. These progressives were reformist and centrist, and they rhetorically cast themselves as opponents of both conservatism (“backward looking” rather than “progressive”) and radicalism — at this moment the Populist Movement and the Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs were quite powerful, particularly in certain sections of the country.

There is a complex but also fairly straight line linking early Progressives such as Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, Robert M. LaFollette, and Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, to FDR’s New Deal, Harry Truman’s Fair Deal, JFK’s New Frontier, LBJ’s Great Society, and the “third way” pioneered by President Bill Clinton, as inspired by the Democratic Leadership Council and its Progressive Policy Institute. This is the Progressivism extolled by E. J. Dionne, Jr., in his 1996 They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era. It is likely the progressivism embraced by the Obama administration, despite Obama’s early rhetorical flourishes.

Hillary Clinton is a “progressive” in this mold — centrist, moderate, anti-radical but reformist, pragmatist, and mainstream-Democrat. She is the kind of “progressive” who is a corporate liberal — the kind that is not against corporate capitalism but seeks to sand off its edges; the kind that regards corporations and moneyed interests as legitimate interlocutors, and indeed institutions that have what political scientist Charles Lindblom once pejoratively called “a privileged position.”

Bernie Sanders is not a “progressive” in this sense. Sanders has remained outside of the orbit of the Democratic Party mainstream, and indeed he proudly calls himself a “democratic socialist.” Sanders advocates major structural transformations of capitalism, and calls for a “political revolution”—a peaceful revolution to be sure, via the normal institutions of representative democracy, but a revolution nonetheless, based on the mobilization of millions of workers, the poor, and others who have been largely disenfranchised and who have suffered through 30 years of economic insecurity and declining real wages.

But Sanders is a “progressive” in the sense of Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party candidacy for the Presidency in 1948. This is a more robustly left progressivism, which seeks to incorporate the radical legacies and impulses of turn-of-the-century populism and socialism, and the protest movements associated with antiwar struggles, civil rights struggles, and gender and sexual liberation struggles. This “progressivism” is more radical in its critique of the injustices of our society, and in its vision of a more just society. It is not revolutionary in the Bolshevik sense. But it is linked to the radical labor movements of the 20th century, some of which did involve important Communist organizers and surely involved many self-styled socialists and even Marxian socialists. Sanders is a man of what the late Michael Harrington, the founder of Democratic Socialists of America, called “the democratic left.” He represents a political tendency linked to some of the more radical elements of the labor movement, and such journals of opinion as Dissent, In These Times, The Progressive, The Nation, Mother Jones, and Jacobin.

Sanders is correct that Clinton is not a “progressive” in this sense. She is a centrist, a moderate, an establishment figure. A corporate liberal.

Clinton is correct that Sanders is not a “progressive” in the sense of The Progressive Policy Institute. He is a leftist, a radical of sorts — though one who has held elective office for over a quarter-century — an independent and something of an anti-establishment figure. He is a democratic socialist. Or perhaps a social democrat. Or a left liberal.

Thus they are both right. For “progressivism” is a complex identity with a contentious history.

What might we say about this semantic dispute, beyond clarifying history and the meaning of terms?

For one thing, that while in some ways the differences between the two “progressivisms” are important — especially regarding banks and major financial institutions, and on the morality of extreme economic inequality — in many ways the differences are not that great.

Both versions of “progressivism” lay claim to the New Deal, though Sanders places more emphasis on the insurgencies and mass movements that brought it about, and on some the more visionary ideas, such as national health insurance, that never succeeded.

Both value science, human rights, and a democratic state that addresses the public problems of society.

And both represent a serious commitment to public reason, and public life, that is anathema to the Republican Party and the right-wing forces that control it. Indeed, “progressivism” in either variant can be defined in part by the fact that it arouses the vehement hostility of the conservative movement.

It is a good thing that the debate about the future of the Democratic party centers on the claim to being a “progressive.” That a major Democratic contestant for the presidential nomination is a woman is surely something to celebrate, and for some it is even a sufficient reason to support Clinton. And indeed, in very complicated ways, Clinton has thus far been able to capture much of the support of feminist and African-American activists (though this is being contested: see the many critical responses by African-American leftists to recent pieces by Ta Nahesi Coates in The Atlantic, and by left feminists to Katha Pollitt’s recent piece in The Nation).

But the fact that the leading “establishment” candidate of the party is a self-styled “progressive” is nothing new, and in recent history, at least since the 1990’s, Democrats have followed the lead of Bill Clinton in claiming the mantle of “progressive.”

What is novel is that this candidate faces an opponent who lays legitimate claim to the more radical version of progressivism, and who celebrates the history of democratic socialism, and the labor movement, and poor people’s movements, and other protest movements of the past, and who calls for a “political revolution” against a system “rigged” by money and power.

The Sanders campaign did not arise out of thin air. It draws on a history of ideas and networks on the Democratic left, and also draws on the rhetoric, and some of the impulses and networks, of the Occupy movement. At the same time, it has taken the punditry by surprise, and it has succeeded, at least for now, in shifting public discourse to the left. This is a major accomplishment, and represents something very novel indeed, something that this country arguably has not seen for at least a half-century.

For this reason, I support Sanders. It is doubtful that he can be a viable candidate in the general election, even given the extremism and idiocy of the current Republican primary. It is even doubtful that he can defeat Clinton in the Democratic primaries. But indeed to some extent it is because I consider the latter doubtful that I am comfortable supporting Sanders now. I prefer either version of “progressivism” to the reaction that is promised by the Republicans, and I can comfortably support Sanders now, since I believe that his campaign can strengthen the party in the general election to come, and can also have long-term effects on its future. And if the campaign picks up steam, who knows where it might lead?

Can either version of “progressivism,” or more likely some combination of them, bring about major reforms of the current system, or ambitious responses to climate change, or a more fundamentally egalitarian or just society? Here I remain deeply skeptical, for reasons outlined in my 2002 book The Poverty of Progressivism. The Sanders campaign would seem to give the lie to that book’s arguments, by demonstrating the vitality and richness of a left progressive revival. But appearances can be deceiving, and I remain skeptical. At the same time, the Sanders campaign offers a unique and precious opportunity for left progressive ideas to shape public debate, and perhaps even for these ideas to propel a decent, intelligent, and passionate democratic socialist to the White House. It is an opportunity worth supporting, and at this moment in time, a “risk” worth taking.

And so while I do not agree with Sanders that Clinton is no progressive — and while I believe that in most ways Sanders is more “moderate” than some of his rhetoric indicates — I prefer his progressivism, now, to Clinton’s. This may change as the things unfold (if Hillary Clinton wins the primary, as I expect she will, I will support her with enthusiasm — she is the first woman in the history of the United States to approach the presidency). What will not change is my belief that, however one interprets “progressivism,” and whatever its limits as a political label or vision, it is infinitely preferable to the regressivism that is promised by the Republicans.

4 thoughts on “Clinton vs. Sanders: Who’s the real progressive?

  1. This is accurate as far as it goes but it still elides the difference between the two. Hillary is a progressive in the early twentieth century sense– she is an opponent of “class struggle”and a believer in objectivity, political correctness and the middle class virtues. Sanders is a New Dealer, not a progressive. He understands as the Progressives did not that we live in a society dominated by capital, not a “middle class society,” and that working people need government to even begin to balance the books. Sanders really is a “liberal” in the New Deal sense. In the eighties the Republicans attacked Democrats as liberals and the Clintons– gutless as they were and are– bent to the attack. They dredged up the long-superseded word “progressive” to avoid calling themselves New Deal liberals. Sanders can’t fight every battle so he uses the term but he is what he always called himself– a democratic socialist, which is to say someone from the left wing of the New Deal.

  2. HRC disowning the New Deal: “Unfortunately, in the last 30, 40 years, the word ‘liberal’ has been turned up on its head, and it’s been made to seem as though it is a word that describes big government, totally contrary to what its meaning was in the 19th and early 20th century.” She continued: “I prefer the word ‘progressive,’ which has a real American meaning, going back to the progressive era at the beginning of the 20th century. I consider myself a modern progressive.”

  3. Isn’t it a little strange to link Robert M. LaFollette with a progressivism described as “centrist, moderate, anti-radical but reformist, pragmatist, and mainstream-Democrat”? And to place Hillary, rather than Bernie, in the tradition of LaFollette with the argument that Bernie “has remained outside of the orbit of the Democratic Party mainstream,” “proudly calls himself a “democratic socialist”’, and “advocates major structural transformations of capitalism”?

    LaFollette ran for President in 1924 as third-party candidate, against the Democrat as well as the Republican. So by definition he chose a path “outside the orbit of the Democratic Party mainstream”. (Moreover, of course, he was a Republican before he turned progressive, and never in his life was a Democrat.) Netting 17% of the popular vote, it was the most successful third-party presidential run in the whole eighty-year era between Teddy Roosevelt and Ross Perot. He ran as the clearly the most left-wing candidate in that election, well to the left of the Democrat. The second largest partner in his presidential coalition was the still-powerful Socialist Party, which had just come off an impressive result for Eugene Debs in 1920. The coalition’s platform advocated major, structural reforms to the capitalist system.

    So how does Hillary, rather than Bernie, get to claim LaFollette’s political mantle in this piece? That seems ahistoric, or at best counterintuitive. When Bernie says that you can’t be a moderate and a progressive at the same time, I am reminded exactly of “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, at least as much as of Henry Wallace.

  4. What this article does — very nicely and very precisely — is draw attention to the way in which “progressive” is a “floating signifier” which means very different things in different contexts, and then to supply those contexts. That said, I am not sure that “progressive”, like “populist” and perhaps even “democratic socialist”, does not obscure more than it illuminates in the current context.

    Isaac does well to connect Clinton/Obama “progressivism” with the movement in the Croly/Lafollette/Lippmann mold. Chief among their beliefs was their suspicion of “the public” and the belief that political problems are now basically technical problems best dealt with by a cadre of experts. (This is the mindset that gave us, among other nice things, Vietnam, the arms race, the repeal of Glass-Steagall, among other things.) Interestingly enough, this ersatz “pragmatism” was expertly challenged by John Dewey, the genuine pragmatist, for whom a revived sense of public and democratic life was essential to, because constitutive of, genuine political reform, “change you can believe in.” I think that Prof. Zaretsky is correct to locate Bernie Sanders as a New Dealer rather than a Lippman-esque progressive, but I think that the New Deal lies somewhere between the earlier Progressives (and by extension the Clintons and Obama) and the sort of left-progressivism championed by Dewey and his political allies like Eugene Victor Debs. Which is why I myself prefer to eschew “progressive” for “Social Democratic”, “Democratic Socialist”, “left”, or even better as Dewey put it “radical democratic”. Signifiers matter, even if they do inevitably “float” away at some point, and I think these capture the kind of reinvigorated sense of a democratic public that Dewey consistently championed. It evades the idea that “progress” is inevitable and basically technological, as well as the “populist” idea that just any old public, rather than one educated and steeped in the virtues of democratic citizenship will do. (A populace is not a public, so I am happy to cede the term “populist” to Trump and his ilk.)

    I also am on board with Isaac’s coining the term “regressivism” to characterize the current crop of Republican ultra-right ideologues (what, pray tell, do they actually wish to “conserve”, other than existing tendencies in the upward distribution of wealth?). Like Isaac, I am supporting Sanders, and should he lose, be prepared to vote for Clinton (though far, far from enthusiastically), because I believe the sort of American Exceptionalism and Possessive Individualism that has infected the Republicans is poisonous to a democratic polity and common decency. But I remain skeptical whether this go-round, if it results in a win for “progressives” of either stripe, will be the sort of bellwether that liberals, progressives, and other leftists are yearning for. I suspect a round of disappointment similar to that post-2008, and not just because a hostile House of Representatives will shoot all manner of “progress” down. As the great political theorist George Carlin once said, “everybody complains about politicians. Everybody says they suck. Well, where do people think these politicians come from? They don’t fall out of the sky…” We have a problem of “the public” in the United States today, a lack of responsible and intelligent citizenship, a very widespread acceptance of the Exceptionalism and Possessive Individualism that is destroying the grounds for Social and Political Hope. Until we relinquish these very “American” traits, I fear more of the same. But I hope not…..

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