More And More Democrats Embrace The 'Progressive' Label. Here's Why The current divisions in the Democratic Party and its ideological shift can be explained, in part, by tracking how the word "progressive" became the chosen label for so many on the left.

More And More Democrats Embrace The 'Progressive' Label. Here's Why

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Joe Biden has been known as a moderate Democrat for a long time, but he has embraced more liberal policies than past Democratic presidents. Part of the reason why that has worked is that Democrats have found new ways to talk about being liberal, and that's exemplified in the rise of one particular word. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: You might have noticed something that happened in American politics over the last few years. The word progressive crept into pretty much every discussion of Democrats. A few news database searches showed me that the term started to pick up around 2016 and 2017, just during and after Bernie Sanders' first run for president. I asked Faiz Shakir, Sanders' 2020 campaign manager, about the word. And he gave me a surprising answer.

FAIZ SHAKIR: I'll be honest with you; I don't use the term progressive. I don't like it as much. If somebody calls me a progressive, I'm fine. Like, I'm not going to run away from it. But I just - I do tend to think it has lost a lot of meaning.

KURTZLEBEN: In U.S. history, the word often refers to the progressive era in the early 20th century, when activists advocated for a variety of causes like greater regulation of industry and social reforms like women's suffrage. But these days, everyone seems to have their own nuanced definition. To Shakir, economic policies that prioritize individuals over corporate interests are progressive. But Shakir also thinks the term has been stretched beyond its roots.

SHAKIR: Over time, what has happened with the word progressive - it became so popularized (laughter) and people's notion, they all wanted to be part of it, that basically it encapsulated everything in the Democratic Party. It almost became synonymous with, in my mind, the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party is progressive. Progressive is Democratic Party.

KURTZLEBEN: That still leaves the question of why progressive gained steam. I asked Nicole Holliday, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania.

NICOLE HOLLIDAY: I think there was a lexical gap, basically meaning that we had need of a word that we didn't have.

KURTZLEBEN: Holliday happens to work on Barack Obama's presidential campaign as a college student in 2008, and she saw a bump in the usage of the word back then.

HOLLIDAY: I started to see a lot of people that I knew get frustrated because they felt like he wasn't as far to the left as they had expected. And so I think there were, on the ground, just some sort of people saying, you know, I don't really identify so much with what I think the Democratic Party stands for or what mainstream liberals stand for.

KURTZLEBEN: That frustration with Obama, in part, set the stage for Bernie Sanders to run a liberal, anti-establishment candidacy, expanding the debate on a raft of issues to the left. He and Hillary Clinton sparred over the meaning of progressive at a 2016 debate after Sanders said you couldn't be both a moderate and a progressive.


HILLARY CLINTON: In the very first debate, I was asked, am I a moderate or a progressive? And I said, I'm a progressive who likes to get things done.

KURTZLEBEN: To Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the center-left Brookings Institution, one big reason why a candidate like Clinton was trying to embrace the word may have been very practical.

ELAINE KAMARCK: Let's face it. America is not a liberal country, nor is it a progressive country. And if you want to win elections and win hearts and minds, you had to come up with some better way to talk about it because you're outnumbered.

KURTZLEBEN: About one-quarter of Americans define themselves as liberals, according to Gallup, while more than one-third identify as conservative. And so, Kamarck says, Democrats need majority-moderate coalitions to win nationally.

KAMARCK: The Democratic Party has a harder time when it plays to its base than the Republican Party does when it plays to its base. In the Republican Party, the conservative base is simply bigger than the liberal base in the Democratic Party.

KURTZLEBEN: That base of Democrats is growing, and the word progressive has become a tool to appeal to them without alienating the moderates and independents who reject the liberal label. That full coalition has only delivered Democrats razor-thin margins in Congress as the party tries to pass an infrastructure bill crafted by moderates and a larger budget package championed by further-left Democrats like Faiz Shakir.

SHAKIR: Literally all of the benefits that will go out will go almost entirely to, like, working-class and lower-income and middle-class families across America. You know, that, to my mind, is - that is, like, a major progressive era accomplishment.

KURTZLEBEN: But only if it passes. And right now it's threatened by the huge power wielded by moderates. West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin says he wants his Senate colleagues to pause that bill, and they need every Democrat to get it done, no matter how progressive they are.

Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.


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