Historians refer to the period between 1890 and 1920 and the Progressive Era, but the Democrats frequently and currently use ‘progressive’ as a prefix to ‘Democrat’. Interviewed by Chis Matthews, candidate Hillary Clinton referred to herself as a Progressive Democrat when asked to distinguish herself from self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders.
FDR succeeded in replacing the term ‘progressive’ with ‘liberal’. Liberal became a substitute for progressive and the classical liberal label became a modern conservative. As the rise of right wing media made the term ‘liberal’ increasingly toxic we have seen a shift back to the use of ‘progressive’.
Part of the second phase of modern progressivism, the period from FDR through Jimmy Carter, was defined by Civil Rights Era. Women’s rights, and Black and minority rights were largely achieved in this period. Gay rights did not come to fruition until much more recently but the trend began during the Civil Rights Era.
The victory in civil rights is one of the significant headwinds to progressivism. Young women today make up over half of the college graduates, and are equally represented in the accounting, financial, medical and legal profession. Black leaders have risen to the highest offices in politics and commerce. To the extent they are not as well represented as they could be we examine factors beyond mere discrimination. In Coming Apart Charles Murray demonstrated that social pathologies (drug use, teen pregnancies, failure to graduate high school) have the same effect on white communities as they do on black communities.
The success of the Civil Rights Era has made it a much less potent political tool. This underlies the failure of identity politics to aid Hillary. By slinging accusations of misogyny and racism so loosely it became defamatory rather than unifying. The intolerance of speech and ideas was justified on such false moral grounds. The ultimate safe space for the true liberals, those who still take the bill of rights seriously, became the voting booth.
Outside of the black community Black Lives Matter is deemed underserving of the civil rights legacy of Martin Luther King; it is deemed a perversion of that progress. The Civil Rights movement was embraced strongly beyond the black community by a broad spectrum seeking justice.
Without identity politics, there were few new ideas. It became clear that the word ‘progressive’ has less to do with its root ‘progress’. Higher taxes, more regulation, and bigger central government was a rehash of the ideas of the 1930s. Progressives have become the enemy of progress. The Uberization of America, the sharing economy, and the rapid scaling of new ideas defies the ability of government to control and regulate. Their clumsy attempts to do so infuriates the youth who would otherwise identify with modern Democrats.
The new barons of industry; Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Sergin Bin, and many other internet billionaires wear t-shirt and jeans and are valued by every voter with a lap top and a cell phone. They do not fit the villainous foil that served the early progressives.
To overcome the failure of identity politics, the Democrats have to embrace the changes that we should welcome. Trump may have ended the short third phase of progressivism (Bush II through Obama), even though he displays many progressive tendencies in his style. It happened more suddenly than I expected, but these forces would have weighed down the third phase even if he lost.
The Democrats will struggle to become relevant without identity politics