by Henry Oliner

As Bernie Sanders was beginning to gather traction as an avowed socialist running as a Democrat Chris Matthews on his MSNBC show, Hardball, asked Democratic Party Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz if she could articulate the difference between a Socialist and a Democrat.  She was either unable or unwilling to make the distinction, and in her common fashion just talked rapidly around the question without ever delivering an answer.  Matthews and MSNBC is certainly not hostile territory for a top Democratic official and one would expect such a question, but not from a friendly source.

A few weeks later Chris Matthews asked the same question to Hillary Clinton in a personal interview.  Hillary deferred the question and simply stated “I am a Progressive Democrat who likes to get things done.”

If I may so bold as to assist the two Democrats.

“A true socialist believes in much greater government control of the economy. As a Democrat we believe in a free market system as the primary driver of the economy, but we acknowledge that the market can fail to deliver social outcomes that we as a society value, and in those cases we believe the government has a fitting and proper role.  Socialists believe the government should be the primary driver of the economy and allocator of resources, and that government should only trust capitalism if it is deeply and broadly regulated. We believe regulation should have a more pragmatic objective.

“Conservatives believe that great inequality is an acceptable outcome or bi product of free market capitalism. We Democrats believe the government should take a greater role to reduce inequality and to ensure that every citizen is able to meet certain minimum needs of health, education and financial security.  We do not believe this requires a wholesale assumption of the economy, but it does require some government power to extend the benefits of the economy and our political heritage to everyone.”

Those are the words I believe Debbie and Hillary wanted to say but either could not find at the moment or could not seriously or publicly acknowledge the benefits of a free market system in any degree. Given Bernie’s rise I am surprised they still have trouble making the distinction.

Progressivism as a movement originated in the Republican Party under Theodore Roosevelt, largely driven by Wisconsin Governor Robert De Follette. Roosevelt was McKinnley’s VP and became president after his assassination,  completing McKinnley’s term and winning another term on his own in in 1904.  Roosevelt had some reservations about the aims of progressives but evolved to enact significant Progressive legislation.  He was succeeded by his close friend, William Howard Taft.

Taft proved a disappointment to Roosevelt and he returned to run for the GOP nomination in 1912.  Teddy pushed for a more democratic primary, became frustrated with the Republicans and formed the Bull Moose Party with a fully formed Progressive agenda. He lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson who extended the Progressive platform over two terms to embrace greater democracy and a stronger central government.

There was push back and Republican Warren Harding won a landslide election against James Cox and his VP, Teddy’s young cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Harding’s campaign slogan , “Return to Normalcy” indicated the public’s exhaustion with Wilson’s progressivism. Harding and his successor Calvin Coolidge returned to the stronger constitutional basis from the progressive trend of Wilson. Herbert Hoover followed a more progressive involvement of government, dramatically raising taxes and tarrifs, which was continued by the election of Franklin Roosevelt.

FDR, perhaps remembering the election loss of 1920, managed to shift the term progressivism to liberalism.  Liberalism which before had indicated an orientation toward smaller government and individual rights was now used to replace progressivism, possibly to mute the toxic effect that term had absorbed.  The older definition of liberalism became identified by conservatism, or as some called it classical liberalism.  So Progressivism came to be liberalism and liberalism came to be conservativism.

When Frederick Hayek’s classic Road to Serfdom was released in the United States his introduction felt the need to distinguish the ‘classical liberalism’ of his use from the ‘modern liberalism’ as it was now understood in the United States.

This new liberalism was identified with the Democratic Party until the term liberalism also became toxic in the political lexicon.  After the inflation and stagnation of the 1970’s Reagan was able to run against liberalism much as Harding had run against Progressivism.  Progressivism made a comeback as a less toxic label and so Hillary has chosen the term Progressive Democrat.

The Progressive trend of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson has continued in spite of the alternating terminology.  The growth of the administrative state had its genesis in the progressive state of Wilson and it has birthed the Regulatory State and Welfare State as well. We now consider it a fourth branch of government strongly at odds with many of the constitutional constraints of the founding fathers.

The inability to articulate a difference from Socialism may be a political effort to assemble an electable coalition, much as the ‘big tent’ of the Republicans has maintained fragile relationships for the same purpose.  The challenge for the modern Progressives is to articulate a limit to the welfare state or the ability of the Federal government to serve the expectations of so many political clients.

The young who seem so enamored with Bernie’s socialism probably do not understand it.  They cherish their iPhones and other products of capitalism, and the independence furnished by the Ubers with their direct challenge to the regulatory state. They just haven’t figured out where all this comes from or how to pay for it.

Progressivism may be on the verge of exhausting itself as it did before Harding and Reagan. Stay tuned for what is to follow.