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Are the New Congressional Progressives Real? Use These Yardsticks to Find Out


Are the New Congressional Progressives Real? Use These Yardsticks to Find Out

Ralph Nader

In November, about 25 progressive Democrats were newly elected to the House of Representatives. How do the citizen groups know whether they are for real or for rhetoric? I suggest this civic yard stick to measure the determination and effectiveness of these members of the House both inside the sprawling, secretive, repressive Congress and back home in their Districts. True progressives must:


Not sure how you are defining progressive Democrats, Ralph. If you cut out the number of those “progressive” Democrats who will have the courage to stand up against war and obscene military spending, you might get lucky and get a handful. Moreover, you forgot the biggie on your yardstick list, namely, how they will ultimately vote. Your 10 yardsticks don’t mean squat if your “progressives” can’t deliver on the votes. Experience has taught us that what Democrats advertise and how they vote are too often very different things.


The Democrats tend to find a way to always give the ILLUSION they stand for progressive values . There always seems to be just enough Democrats voting against progressive legislation to ensure it does not pass.


Democrats’ response to calls to support real reform in areas like health care, Social Security and campaign finance are always the same: “We have to do this, but timing has to be right and now is not the time…”

No, at a time when corporate donations are at an all-time high, I suppose it isn’t.


In the US, progressive politics goes way back. In a nutshell, it’s about building a better economy/nation from the bottom up – legitimate aid for the poor at one end, firm restraints on corporate and financial powers at the other. We have nothing like that today. By the time the word was applied to Hillary Clinton, I knew it had lost all relevance to the political discussion.


Ralph Nader for god!

So few have actually articulated explicitly what Progressives stand for.
If we did this effectively, if we communicated what Progressives believe in, if we Acted in concert with these beliefs and values, the electorate would overwhelmingly support a Progressive platform. Always.

When Progressives fail, it’s always because we are unclear about what’s most important, what priorities require our attention, and what processes must be structured to allow important needs to be met. Simply, Progressives stand for what’s best for the people of our nation, and our relationship with the world.

Being clear on what this means, and communicating it effectively is our charge. Nader’s insights for how Congress works and what progressive politics look like make it clear what work needs to be done for Progressive issues to become the work of Congress and our nation.


It is not easy these days to clearly define progressive. Probably where you should start is by showing how progressives and liberals are different. I would think that the majority of Democrats are liberals but because the Republicans have given liberal such a bad name most Democrats refer to themselves as progressives. The basic problem therefore is liberals cannot refer to themselves as liberals so the whole thing on the left has become confusing, at least for the voters.


It’s not hard to look at policy and determine what is desirable and what is regressive. Instead of working so hard to categorize people into groups, let’s just work to elect people who want to increase Social Security, institute single payer health care, take corporate money out of politics, end the profitable wars even if it means some bomb makers will have to retrain into another field, and so on. If others want to label the people dong that work, let them.

Right now the “patriots” call everyone not a facist a “leftist.” Why should that concern me? What do I care what a Trump voter calls me?


The problem in this is that propaganda and “spin” twist these words about and distort usage. It might be nice to delineate a difference between liberal and progressive, but that also means defining liberal.

The initial liberal as the term long existed in and around England derived from the works of John Locke and John Stuart Mill. It involved constitutionality rather than royalist or aristocratic fiat and to some extent favored the displacement or de-centering of the old aristocracy from wealth and government, and the rise of classes of people involved in work and commerce. For these thinkers, a good part of that involved private property rights, in large part because in that day, real estate was by far the dominant means of production. in Locke’s day particularly, little other production existed besides craftwork from mined or harvested materials.

That was interpreted variously as the Industrial Revolution came into fuller swing. In the States, liberal came to be applied to the John Maynard Keynesian approach to the Black Friday market crash of 1929: FD Roosevelt’s New Deal. By the terms of JFK and LBJ, liberal also came to be associated with the race-related Civil Rights movement, in part because a larger portion of the postwar American proletariat was constituted by Blacks and because Kennedy and Johnson responded with relative favor to the movement. This caused an enormous rift within the Democratic Party, which had until that point been the principal party of self-conscious white racism in the traditional South particularly.

There was another split of sorts by 1972, by which time being a “liberal” Democrat as opposed to a Democrat and therefore presumably more liberal than a Republican, generally involved being against the continuation of the Vietnam War.

George HWB, with Ronald Reagan in front, managed to lever White racism, backlash against Vietnam War-driven inflation, and Bush’s deal with the Ayatolla Khomeini to not release American hostages until after the election into the beginnings of a slow-motion corporatist coup de’etat under which we have lived since.

For many, “liberal” had lost its populist roots. This got fairly cemented into place when two Democratic Presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, campaigned as being labor-friendly, but governed in the pro-corporate tradition that had previously been recognized as Republican.

In the era of blogs and the relative collapse of commercial news as a mechanism of reporting, discourse has become relatively international–a first for most Americans. Whereas in the 1970s I had to peddle a bicycle across downtown Los Angeles to the Fairfax District to get an international newspaper, then battle at deciphering anything but English, now no one has any need to take such trouble. If I discuss the nature of this world liberal with my son,. he is equally likely to send me a link to show the usage of a British as an American commentator, with no feeling that there ought to or is apt to be a difference.

The procedure by words are bent is strange. People use the words to refer to people, things, and policies that they do not refer to in order to twist things or create “spin.” This “spin” depends both on the new application of the words and on their prior assumed meaning. However, no usage can survive such treatment forever. So we have young people who understand terrorist to mean something like insurgent and liberal to mean someone willing to abuse Constitutional protections on free speech.

For the moment, the best I can imagine is that we all just take a lot of care with all of these terms. We really do not much understand the same things by them at all.


I liked your post (though I think the October Surprise may have happened, it doesn’t look like a provable event like the CIA overthrow of Mosaddegh - you might think if Iran had any clear evidence held on its side, it would release it spinning it as how they manipulated the US and brought down a president they didn’t like). I still like the term Progressive which I continue to use, but it is a very old term and I hardly think I have much in common with Woodrow Wilson. Liberal seems like almost a useless term at this point. I would divide Democrats into Progressive (true or faking it to which Nader is speaking to) and Corporatist (rarely faking it). I skimmed https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-35467470 which gave my flashbacks of Clinton’s “I’m a progressive who likes to get things done”. So I’m perfectly aware that any term we can come up with will get abused - so may as well stick with progressive which seems to be the most popular term for the goals most commonly aspired to on this site.


So here’s Ralph Nader once again directed right at the key point. We are hearing some noise about progress (thankfully!), we have been taken in badly by such things in the past, we have to have a way of benchmarking these terms and validating these claims by groups and candidates.

Perhaps these are implied in Nader’s list, but I would prefer to see them explicit:

  • Active support for a regenerative green economy, including regenerative agriculture
  • Willingness to criticize horrendously cruel and wasteful Democratic votes as well as Republican, and by the same standards
  • Willingness to vote against military funding, bases abroad, and foreign intervention (as a function of the point immediately above)

I don’t own the word, obviously, but if it does not mean something a bit like this, why the interest?


Very well.

Progressive has become popular. But I doubt that it is any clearer; it is not to me, but that is likely a personal matter. I feel pretty convinced that I know what Ralph Nader means by it, but I would know what Nader meant by most things.

I wonder about goals. Consider–the readership of this site strongly supported Bernie Sanders in 2016, though editorial and managerial opinion appeared (from a distance) to be less clearly aligned, with lots of articles about why people unaligned with Clinton should vote for her. When Sanders was bum-rushed from the race, the readership split deeply between supporting Clinton and those preferring other options, taken as a bloc. Posts gave various considerations for this, including a remarkably wide range of opinions over just what HRC’s politics were. But all this leaves me wondering just what the general goals of the readership and the editorship here are. That is not a complaint, but it does mean that I cannot get away with just regarding progressive as whatever mostly floats at CD.

I would like to put these questions to our general usage:

  • Does _progressive prominently include an antiwar stance? I would characterize that, generally, as being against most or all US interventions, US black operations, the large military budget, US bases abroad, torture under the rubric of “advanced interrogation,” drone bombings, support for “regime change” coups d’etat, and so forth?
  • Does progressive prominently include being against opacity in government, including universal NSA and 5-eyes or Phoenix-style surveillance, persecution of journalists and whistleblowers, telephone-based targeting for drone assassinations?
  • Does progressive involve being against the rise in violations of 1st and 4th Amendment rights (particularly)?
  • Does being progressive involve ferreting corporatist pork-barrel aspects out of social programs, most notably healthcare?
  • Does progressive involve being against neoliberal globalist finance and trade hierarchies including so-called “trade” so-called “agreements” and the usual galloping odious debt?
  • Does progressive involve a position against inequality of income and wealth? If so, how does that delineate (for example, if I say that workers should own the means of production, is that no longer progressive by virtue of being communist, or is it more progressive for that?)
  • Does being progressive involve a distaste for steep hierarchy, or does it rather prefer a practice of placing historically oppressed demographic groups within a hierarchy without thereby making it more shallow or egalitarian?
  • I gather that _progressive involves favoring some response to ecological catastrophe, perhaps particularly climate disruption. Are there particular ways forward that are regarded as more or less progressive?
  • How are the above factors and things like gender equality to be weighted, generally?

I suppose that this definition business gets passed by just because there really are so many questions that it raises and because clarity does not always serve all of the professional players.

As usual, I am curious as to what everybody thinks here.


Pretty words

Or the dirty work of democracy?


I heard some Democrats recently; NPR on the Saudi/Khashoggi issue.They were as mealy mouthed as the Republicans. We need Saudi Arabia? No we don’t. As an Iranian deterrent? Really? Why did we go out of our way to anger them? And after that puppy dog glad handing Putin laid on the Saudi Prince at the G20, we have been had big time and president Putz doesn’t have a glue.


On your progressive qualifications:

Antiwar - yes. I wish Nader had brought this up. I agree with all your points tough I do like Tulsi Gabbard who I consider progressive but she does support limited drone strikes against groups like Islamic State. She is more anti-war than many Democrats though.

Transparency in Government and no invasion of privacy - yes. A big reason why Obama cannot be considered a progressive.

Respect for a Free Press and Limits on government search and seizure - yes. Progressives have supported net-neutrality, lamented the loss of the fairness doctrine, want checks on corporate monopolies of TV and radio stations and newspapers.

Wanting an efficient government (no pork) - yes. This is pretty important when trying to convince people to go for government solutions.

Wanting fair trade and reforms to finance - yes. Being concerned about the debt - sometimes. I tend to think contrary to @JoanRobinson or Dean Baker that though it’s true the government is not a household and borrowing doesn’t have the same meaning, I still think it is better (at least in years where you aren’t trying every stimulus you can to get out of an economic disaster) to run more or less low deficits.

Wanting less crazy wealth inequality - yes (this seems pretty universal among progressives)

Sorry I’m not following your hierarchy point.

Wanting a generally green economy for many reasons, averting the worst of climate change being one of the biggest - yes. I think there are disagreements on how to get there - I am a big proponent of a steep carbon tax (which can be revenue neutral to help poorer people paying the tax). I am a proponent of government research and investment in targeted technology (e.g. we really need the grid battery problem solved).

As you say, all progressives are going to be for gender equality. How progressives weight goals is gong to differ, but I’m guessing most of us believe in the walk and chew gum at the same time idea. No reason to not move forward on gender issues as the same time as others. Unless the person believes as Ralph may (I seem to remember him complaining about gender or gay issues getting in the way of other things he wanted to talk about), that going overboard on gender issues is going to to have more cost (alienating some people) than benefit.

You didn’t ask about this, but another part of defining a progressive might be what are they willing to compromise on in order to get most of their agenda. For me, the main one is abortion. I buy @Trog 's argument that by stopping short of fully unrestricted choice to have an abortion, but still staying at a spot that should cover most people (i.e. only restricting around the third trimester in cases where there is no medical risk to the woman), is a reasonable stance to take if it means achieving a lot of other progressive goals. There is a case to be made that this is the trade we find ourselves in now still.

There are other things I’d consider compromising on, but there are things I don’t think we should compromise on including the move to single payer (the litmus test for which would take a while to detail, but at a minimum the 800k employees in the private health insurance industry must do something else - whether we allow for-profit delivery still with cost control is not a litmus test for me, but I want the simplest no-paperwork or payments by the end user system). The other big one is war and and any unjust foreign policy. Listening to better obituaries of Bush (e.g. at Real News), I am reminded how often we have acted illegally as well as unethically in this area and we just can’t tolerate that. Nobody voting the wrong way on the Yemen war deserves to be called a progressive by anybody. Likewise on related issues in many other countries.


O.K. guys, here’s what we do. First, we split with that Progressive Caucus, then we form a Left/Right coalition in congress. How could that be wrong?


I think the word “Progressive” is used to distinguish Liberal Democrats from Conservative Democrats. Yes, there are conservative Democrats, even though there seems to be universal acceptance that all Democrats are liberals. Not so fast, I do believe. The 2016 primary showed us that Bernie is a liberal, while Hillary is a conservative. Yes, she supports the liberal value of equality, but taxing the super-rich, not so much. So, let’s just use the word “Conservative” to describe Democrats who vote with Republicans, all of whom are conservatives. Then, we can simply dispense with the word “Progressive.” It’s the KISS theory of naming things. “Keep it Simple, Sweetheart.”


Explain the logic as to why you are in favor of that.


I suppose part of it is an engineer’s bias for steady state systems. But another part is not really liking all the California bonds where we end up spending a quite a lot on interest. If we aren’t recovering from a bad economy or trying to address too low infrastructure spending then all of government expenditures are ongoing (everything wears out). In this sense borrowing makes more sense for a younger family then it does for the government which (hopefully) goes on a lot longer.

I like Baker and I’ve been listening to him for at least 10 years but he hasn’t convinced me. That said things are really whacked now on infrastructure and quite a lot of other things so the right answer might be to tolerate another decade of significant deficits but I think the long run is better off without them.


But the state of California cannot create our physical currency, the federal government can. The federal government only has to issue bonds, after spending has been determined and already injected into the economy, because the Federal Reserve Act requires us to. That is different than the state of California. I also don’t think that deficits should be low if there isn’t enough money out in the economy. To the extent that it goes to the rich, gets sent offshore, retained by companies, sits in tax shelters, is horded, used for things like acquisitions and stock buybacks, deficits are the only thing between a functioning economy and a collapse.