Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Rectification of Names

Democrats often avoid the term liberal in favor of the supposedly more marketable label progressive. The desire to rebrand is understandable granted the effects of thirty or forty years of the vilification of liberalism, and it may even be advisable from a pragmatic point of view, but observers with some knowledge of American history will take issue with it. Actual progressivism, the attitudes and policies of figures like Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, differed in very important ways from contemporary liberalism. One can argue with some justification, in fact, that its real heirs are the big government nationalists who call the shots in the Republican Party. It’s not just that TR was an unabashed imperialist. The Progressives were almost as cavalier about civil rights as Bush or Chaney. The tender concern for free speech and dissent that we associate with the left of our day was then notably absent. The Progressives also resemble modern Conservatives in their willingness to use government power to enforce their own cultural values: The war on drugs began in 1914 with the passage of the Harrison Act. And let us not forget Prohibition.

Of course many features of the Progressive program were and remain anathema to rightists and are favored by the left along with most of the population of the country: the trust busting, the progressive income tax and the estate tax, and vigorous government action to protect the environment. The liberalism of the 20th Century nevertheless represented a repudiation of much of what Progressivism stood for. What is ironic is that the secession of the liberals from Progressivism took them in a libertarian, Jeffersonian direction. It’s the liberals who actively oppose the expansion of executive power and stand up for the other 90% of the Bill of Rights. The statist elements of the Progressive agenda have been taken up by others. Which is why I prefer to be called a liberal.

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