Commentary Magazine


The Myth of the Progressive Movement

When the last of the GOP’s viable conservative alternatives to Mitt Romney had been dispatched, a sense of fatalism briefly consumed the right’s ideological stalwarts. They knew that, eventually, they would be compelled to pull the lever for the technocratic father of socialized health care in America. Those who did not engage in a process of self-delusion designed to assuage their own guilt over this condition raged futilely against the prevailing winds.

Reason’s A. Barton Hinkle scoffed that it would not be “easy” for conservatives to justify supporting Romney. “And it’s especially hard because it requires them to do the one thing they most revile Romney for: change positions for the sake of political expedience,” he wrote.

The conservative movement that had appeared ascendant amid the tea party wave of 2010 had run out of steam just 18 months later. Some wondered whether the conservative insurgency was a mere figment in the first place.

Similarly, the political commentariat is forever touting the progressive populist movement that they claim is today only just dawning. Though the voices in print and on television that foresee a great progressive tide on the horizon are also surely cheering on its arrival, they are not without evidence to support this contention. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s popularity and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s progressive manifesto, compiled with the support of luminaries like Susan Sarandon and Van Jones, validate the notion that the Democratic Party’s lurch to the left is a broad-based phenomenon.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spent an inordinate amount of time appealing to the supposedly ascendant left wing of her party, even despite the absence of a viable presidential primary challenger. But just as the Republican Party’s base was not convinced by Romney’s unctuous claim to have governed “extremely conservative” as the Bay State’s chief executive, the progressive wing is justifiably skeptical of Clinton’s liberal bona fides.

In opposition to a proposed free trade agreement with a variety of Asian nations, Senate Democrats demonstrated just how lame of a duck President Barack Obama had become when they denied him trade promotional authority earlier this month. In response to progressives’ suspicions of this proposed trade deal, Clinton has adopted a cagey stance on the matter. Though she has taken $2.5 million in speaking fees from pro-trade groups and has called the Trans-Pacific Partnership the “gold standard” of free trade agreements, she would have her left flank believe that she is now deeply conflicted about the potentially negative effects free trade will have on American labor.

On what the progressive wing now regards as the defining civil rights issue of our time, the legal right of gay and lesbian couples to wed, Clinton was suspiciously slow to embrace the consensus position. She came out in favor of same-sex marriage only after President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden did the same. When probed by NPR’s Terry Gross about her evolution on the issue, Clinton lashed out defensively. It was an understandable fit of pique on her part; Clinton’s husband signed the Defense of Marriage Act and a travel ban for individuals infected with HIV into law, both of which the gay community has long regarded as betrayals from the last Democratic president.

On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Hillary Clinton’s close aides at the State Department attempted to withhold politically sensitive documents from being revealed to the public as a result of successful FOIA requests. This Machiavellian approach to governance is hardly surprising from Clinton’s team, but the documents they were attempting to suppress should raise eyebrows. Some of them pertained to the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, a project vehemently opposed by the environmental left. One of the emails uncovered was addressed to Paul Elliott, a lobbyist for the firm seeking approval for that pipeline and a former staffer on Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid.

“In one email, the [Ottawa] embassy official sent Mr. Elliot a message saying “Go Paul!” after he circulated some potentially positive news on the pipeline plan,” the Journal revealed. “She also complimented an appearance by the CEO of the company seeking to build Keystone XL.” The Friends of the Earth, the environmental group that successfully secured the release of these documents, called it the “smoking gun” that revealed the Clinton State Department’s pro-pipeline bias. Clinton has refused to take a position on Keystone, leading many environmentalists to draw their own unflattering conclusions.

There is a reason why President Barack Obama will attempt to link the trade promotional authority he wants to the threat of climate change in a report released on Wednesday morning. However dubious the link between these two issues, the White House is gambling that the progressive left’s near religious devotion to the cause of reducing carbon emissions will trump their antipathy toward free trade. But outside of the U.S. Senate, where a handful of committed ideologues can derail just about any initiative, is there any evidence to suggest that the progressive movement is worthy of this kind of deference?

If the Democratic Party’s far left was going to advance a truly liberal candidate for the presidency, that window is rapidly closing. There is no shortage of prospective usurpers who might assume the mantle of progressive champion ahead of 2016, but they have been largely cowed by Clinton’s stature within her party. As Republicans acquiesced to the inexorable Romney juggernaut in 2012, Democrats are apparently forced to come to terms with Clinton’s predestined ascension to the nomination.

A truly dominant political force would extract more concessions from Clinton and Obama than halfhearted mollification and lip service. At the moment, neither of them seems to think that more substantive concessions are necessary. For all the self-serving television presenters who are forever presaging the progressive moment that is about to dawn, there is precious little evidence to support that conclusion.

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One Response to “The Myth of the Progressive Movement”


    The term “Progressive” is a misnomer. It implies that those who aren’t are reactionaries. It’s more appropriate to call them what they are—Leftists. Worse, the use of the word progressive allows them, the Leftists to define the terms of political discourse.

    For its distorted purposes, the administration calls terrorists, ISIL. Others call it ISIS. Some,IS. The Arabs, Daesh. It’s time for us to use the proper terms, not to accept theirs.

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