“Hard Left”, Not “Progressive”

Today’s “progressives” aren’t progressive at all.

Back when I was in politics (I was retired by the voters exactly a decade ago) “progressive” was just what liberals called themselves. Ronald Reagan had done such a thoroughgoing job of destroying the word “liberal” (not without a big assist from liberals themselves) that liberals needed to find another name. So, they pulled one out of the past.

Teddy Roosevelt was a real progressive. Today’s “progressives” are no Teddy Roosevelts.

I thought that was a little disengenuous, so I kept calling myself a liberal. My idea was that we should stand and fight for that word. What we did instead was cede the field. We let conservatives redefine “liberal” to mean something like, “axe murderer with a bad attitude” and then we denied being one. The public could see right through that.

Better, I thought, to say, “Hell, yes, I’m a liberal! And why aren’t you?” And then go on to a stirring recitation of liberal values and accomplishments. Liberals believe that anybody who works hard for a living should get a fair break. You like a forty hour work week? You like Social Security and Medicare? You like clean water and clean air? You like good schools for your kids? You’re welcome!

But I was a small boat in a big ocean of rhetoric and my little effort never caught on. Besides, especially in Madison, there was always the far left, which hated liberals even more than they hated conservatives. After all, we were just enabling the whole corrupt, unjust machine. By making things incrementally better, we were only putting off the inevitable people’s revolution. It was right around the corner.

With the election of Donald Trump in 2016 things changed. The left became so enraged that it threw off any pretense of moderation. The far left and more moderate wings of the Democratic Party became so distinct that new names needed to be developed. So, moderates became “liberals” and the far left became “progressives.”

That worked for a little while until it became clear that there was nothing progressive about the progressives.

Progessivism, as defined by the founder of the movement, Teddy Roosevelt, is optimistic and forward-looking. Roosevelt championed a “Square Deal” for the American people, meaning that everyone should have an equal chance to earn their own way to success. TR’s progressivism was about throwing off the musty ideas and superstitions of the past and embracing reason, science and an openness to new ideas. Progressivism is the anti-ideology. It throws open the intellectual windows.

None of that describes what so-called progressives stand for today. What’s progressive about making college tuition free for families earning $50,000 just the same as those who pull down $500,000? What’s progressive about paying off everyone’s college debt when those who didn’t go to college earn only 62% as much as those with a four year degree?

And today’s progressives are obsessed with the past, scouring molding newspapers to find offenses committed by inanimate objects. (I’m not making that up. See the Chamberlin Rock.) Far from removing barriers to personal initiative, modern progressives want to obliterate the whole idea of individual agency. We succeed because of our “privilege.” We fail because we have been “oppressed.” We are guilty or blameless based solely on who we are at birth.

If TR’s progressivism could be described in one word it might be “possibility.” Today’s progressivism might be captured by “grievance.”

And as for those intellectual windows, they must remain tightly shut. Any deviance from the orthodox view will be harshly punished. As a group of respected writers and intellectuals lamented in what’s known as the Harper’s Letter, “Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.”

All of which is to say that “progressive” has lost its meaning, so I’ve stopped using it, unless I’m referring to the likes of Teddy Roosevelt. I have substituted “hard left” for today’s self-described “progressives.”

I like “hard left” because it connotes the kind of dogmatic, humorless, rigid posture of that group, much like the phrase “rock-ribbed Republican”, which for some reason, has fallen out of use.

Now, to be fair, I also use “hard right” instead of “conservative” to refer to people like Senators Josh Hawley or Ted Cruz or Ron Johnson. Well, now that I consider it, hard right applies to most of the Republican Party these days. The few people remaining who I might describe as conservative would be folks like columnists Jonah Goldberg and Peggy Noonan and politicians like Mitt Romney.

Words are important and honest words are most important. The kind of current politics that is being described as “progressive” isn’t that at all. It’s hard-edged, unyielding and negative. It’s more aptly described as hard left.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

5 thoughts on ““Hard Left”, Not “Progressive”

  1. Well said. My idea of a progressive was Robert LaFollette. Your analysis hits the mark. What should we put on the t-shirts?


  2. Peggy Noonan?!?! I think your objection to the term “progressive” is based on being called out by a few for your inability to recognize your own privilege in writing about topics where it’s clear you haven’t done a lot of empathizing or research into why many progressives have adopted a harder edge. It’s easy to be polite and moderate when life has gone pretty well, as it has for you.


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