The term “progressive” has become the focus of a new struggle of rebranding at a time when the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are in tatters on both sides of the Atlantic. Hillary Clinton identified herself as a “modern progressive” in 2007 in preference to the exhausted term “liberal”. However to the surprise of many her new label was rejected by the Democrats on their ascent to power in the White House.
Given that the hard-core “liberalism” of President Obama has apparently put off mainstream America, a review within the Democratic leadership now seems likely. The Republicans could also take the opportunity to rebrand themselves as progressive, though a recent poll with USA Today Gallup found that just 7% of Republicans would describe themselves as progressive.
Despite its current attractions, the progressive “brand” was already utterly discredited after World War I. That unprecedented disaster of mankind destroyed the Enlightenment mantra of the inevitable progress of humanity, which had served radical Hegelian reformers in late 19th century on both sides of the Atlantic who strongly believed in state welfare interventions. A. J. P. Taylor described their role in Britain, arguing that “the state established a hold over its citizens [that] was never to be removed … The history of the English state and the English people merged for the first time.”
This unholy grip on our very lives has remained to the present day, thwarting our freedom to dispose of our own destiny. The influence of progressivism for more than a century was forgotten only because after World War I the term was replaced by the transatlantic Left with “liberal”. And right now a reversal of this brand bungling seems to be underway.
David Cameron has already taken the transatlantic lead with rebranding since the think-tanker Phillip Blond adopted the label “progressive conservative”. This is a rare example of political understatement and is somehow confusing since the new Tory policy attempts nothing less than the undoing of a century of progressive politics. It actually aims to give power back to the citizen: education administered by parents, healthcare by GPs (and their patients) and policing by citizens who elect their local chief.
The Labour term devolution comes probably closer to what is meant here but, more importantly, this fundamental sea change in British politics would indeed only return to the people what the Hegelian progressives once usurped.