On the Co-optation of “Progressive” Politics: Assessing Public Opinion on “the Left’s” Political Agenda

Conservative political officials and right wing media have long sought to turn “liberal” into a seven letter dirty word.  Glenn Beck rails against the “progressive” agenda in his conspiracy theories – echoed by most reactionary media pundits – that warn against Democratic Party “socialism.”  It is unclear, however, how effective this campaign is when it comes to convincing the American public about the dangers of progressive politics. 


Recent polling from the Gallup center reveals that many Americans either hold the “progressive” label in contempt or have little understanding of what it really means.


Gallup finds as of mid July that 31 percent of Americans feel the term progressive “does not” describe their own views, compared to 12 percent who do.  Fifty-four percent say they are unsure altogether about what progressivism means.  Reflecting upon this ambiguity, Gallup summarizes that “the progressive label seems to be gaining popularity in American politics, with numerous high profile political players and groups using it either as a substitute for “liberal” or as a nuanced alternative to it.  Given the high degree of public uncertainty about what the term means – as well as the lack of opposition to it from the political center – that could be a successful strategy.” 


Political labels such as “liberal” and “conservative” tell Americans less about the ideological leanings of the public than do the answers they express on specific policy questions.  It is well understood among most public opinion scholars that the public tends to lean more to the left when it comes to economic and foreign policy issues, and more to the right when it comes to social and moral issues.  Americans explain that they dislike “welfare” because of the negative stigmas attached to it in the media and by liberal and conservative political officials, yet express strong support for specific social welfare programs, such as Social Security, Medicare, and food stamps.  Similarly, most Americans are strongly opposed to foreign conflicts pursued by Republican and Democratic Parties with no end in sight and characterized by high costs (in human and monetary terms) and high levels of violence and destruction.  The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are opposed by a majority of Americans, who support timetables for withdrawal, and have done so for some time now.


Much of the failure to understand the term “progressive” likely stems from its inherent ambiguity and the conflicting signals being sent by those who appropriate the term.  When a term like progressive is adopted by defenders of corporate power like Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, in addition to left radical socialists like Noam Chomsky, the term appears to be rather lacking in substance.  Under such circumstances, Gallup is right to highlight the “ambiguity” of the progressive brand.


On the other hand, any discussion of the rise of “progressive” politics that is tied to the increasingly right leaning Democratic Party should be rejected outright.  As someone who came of age as a supporter of progressive politics, I always associated the term with a strain of left wing analysis compatible with the views expressed by activists such as Howard Zinn, Michael Parenti, Noam Chomsky, Paul Street, Robert McChesney, and Edward Herman, among many others.  I always saw it as a fresh way of thinking outside the box – one that challenged the smug corruption of the bi-partisan system.  My experiences with progressive politics were tied to publications such as Z Magazine, Counterpunch, Democracy Now!, and the Progressive Magazine, among other papers.  It seems that this definition of progressive is increasingly falling by the wayside in the co-optation of the concept by the Democratic Party and its cronies in the mass media (think the Rachel Maddow/Ed Schultze/Keither Olbermann variety). 


Under these circumstances, those on the radical left are right to question just how much utility the “progressive” label has at a time when “progressives” like Obama and his supporters are more concerned with BP’s profitability than with environmental sustainability and the question of whether there will be a human species in light of uncontrolled global warming and the ever increasing environmental destruction brought upon the planet by the corporate “community.” In the end, if the progressive label is to retain any relevance, it will be up to the radicals discussed above (and any others who are truly committed to real left-based change) to either re-appropriate the term, or come up with a new label to reflect our values and our commitment to grassroots democracy and revolutionary political change.


Anthony DiMaggio is the author of When Media Goes to War (2010, Monthly Review Press) and Mass Media Mass Propaganda (2008).  He has taught U.S. and Global Politics at Illinois State University and North Central College, and can be reached at: [email protected]

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