First the dodo, then the liberal, now the progressive? Will flightless bipeds see yet another of their dwindling kind fall into extinction? Such is the implication of a recent USA Today/Gallup poll suggesting that "progressive" has become almost as unappealing a moniker south of the border as "liberal."
Some cynics will tell you that politics is all about interests. Others will tell you that it's mostly about words. (Consider the recent fad for assessing parties in terms of the effectiveness of their "brands.") Canadian Liberals have not repudiated the L term, but then they own it (or it them), so they have no choice but to live with it.
American politicians, however, have widely junked "liberal" in favour of "progressive." Example A: Hillary Clinton. Asked point blank by a voter whether she was liberal, she replied that she preferred to think of herself as a "modern progressive."
Any port in a storm. According to the recent poll, however, "progressive" may not be a safe one. It just doesn't light Americans' fire. They react as they do to "liberal" because they figure that they know what it means, and most of them are agin it. Many self-described conservatives (48 per cent) say "progressive" does not describe them. However, 45 per cent were unsure, and the remaining 7 per cent actually embrace it.
The pollsters' most surprising discoveries concerned self-described liberals. Of these, just 26 per cent would call themselves progressive. Seventeen per cent rejected the epithet, and a hefty 57 per cent were unsure whether it described them. If liberals aren't sure they are progressive, who will be? And if conservatives aren't sure that they're not, who will be?
This is pretty confusing stuff. The ever-helpful pollsters spin it as an endorsement of "progressive." Politicians, they say, should describe themselves as progressive more often. Since no-one seems to know what the term means, they'll be able to avoid being pigeonholed. This is like advising a baseball hitter to just keep fouling off pitches.
It's just a poll, of course, accurate to within 5.9 percentage points 147 out of 183 times, except on Thursdays. Still, it does make you wonder about the future of political terminology. After all, no American party (and no Canadian one hoping to form a federal government, therefore including the Liberals) will describe itself as on the left these days. (Even Barack Obama doesn't describe himself as being on the left.) If they can no longer find refuge in "liberal," and if "progressive" just confuses most of those whom it doesn't annoy, then what next? Mr. Obama favours "pragmatic."
Why do people step back from "progressive" as a political term? Why do so many, liberals and conservatives alike, balk at applying it predictably? Perhaps because they grasp that progressivism, whatever exactly it may signify, is too widely distributed to serve as a meaningful political distinction.
Consider, for instance, Ms. Clinton's description of herself as a "modern progressive." It's redundant, isn't it? Does "progressive" add anything to "modern," or "modern" anything to "progressive"? Could she have described herself as an "outdated progressive"? How about as a "modern regressive"? Let's face it, there's nothing more inherently progressive than the modern, unless maybe it's the "postmodern." (Like the Energizer Bunny, "posties" have just kept going, and going …)
In a recent column in The New York Times, John McWhorter protested the unfairness of denying the accolade "progressive" to (so-called) "conservatives" like himself. He should have glanced north of the border. In his progressive conservatism, Mr. McWhorter resembles all Canadian provincial Conservatives except those in B.C. (although few Canadian federal ones).
In fact, however, even the Harper Conservatives are every bit as modern, and therefore no less hell-bent on progress, than those of Joe Clark ever were. (Just look at Tony Clement's Muskoka riding, before the G8 meeting and after. Now that's progress.) At most, Mr. Harper disagrees with Mr. Clark (as he does with Michael Ignatieff) on some fine points as to what progress entails. And despite having colluded in dropping "progressive" from his party's marquee, he would be as indignant if you accused him of being as regressive as any Canadian politician on the left.
The bottom line? Politicians of all stripes, above the border and below it, will continue to promote their versions of progress. Voters of all stripes will remain confused as to the bearing of the term. Some conservatives will persist in shunning it, finding it a little too pink for their taste, while others will embrace it defiantly: "Onward and upward" is their motto, too. The quest for a substitute for "liberal" will continue. "Pragmatic," anyone? Let's take a poll.
Clifford Orwin is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and a distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.
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