OK, I have now heard the word ‘progressive’ used too many times. You can stop saying it now. Please…


For many years, the word was “conservative.” It was said so often — generally by a politician seeking to ingratiate himself with people who don’t think much about words but for some reason love clinging to that one — that it was like fingernails on a blackboard for me.

It still is. It’s still hugely popular here in S.C., waved as a proud banner by people who have no business associating with the word — people who identify with Donald Trump or the Tea Party or the Freedom Caucus or some other phenomenon that bears no relationship to the sobriety of actual conservatism.

It gets used as a password. It is brandished to say, “I am an acceptable person, like you.” It performs a function like that of the word “Christian” in the early 19th century — referring not to a set of religious beliefs, but to a state of being a normal, acceptable person of reasonable breeding and education, someone who knows the ropes of life in Western civilization. Patrick O’Brian used it to mild comic effect in his Aubrey/Maturin novels. The sailors in that world would lament the fact that the perpetual landlubber Stephen Maturin never could learn to board a ship “like a Christian,” which was to say, like a normal person of basic good sense. He was always contriving to fall into the water instead.

Anyway, “conservative” gets used kind of like that, only it’s more obnoxious.

I’ve tried dealing with it with humor, but sometimes it’s just not funny. Sometimes it’s downright nasty, used to try to separate the world into people who are acceptable and those who are not. In any case, it continues to occupy a lofty position on my list of peeves.

And now, another word is laboring mightily to catch up to it: “progressive.”

Again, it’s a slippery word. It’s meant many things, sometimes apparently contradictory things. It’s been attached to muckraking authors in the early 1900s, and Teddy Roosevelt. I also associate it with a sort of early- to mid-20th century form of pro-business boosterism, connecting capitalism with human “progress.” Then, 30 years or so ago (did it predate Reagan, or follow him?), it became something liberals called themselves because the rise of “conservative” came with a denigration of the otherwise innocent word “liberal.”

At that point, it seemed to be trying to suggest a particularly mild, moderate, nonthreatening form of liberalism, as in, “Don’t be scared! We’re not liberals; we’re just progressive!”

Now, it’s gone in another direction. Now, it’s used to refer to people for whom liberalism — certainly the beleaguered postwar liberal consensus — is not enough. It attaches to socialists, and socialist wannabes. It suggests a fierce, uncompromising leftward march. (And ominously, it suggests the element in the Democratic Party that seems determined to blow the nation’s chance of turning Donald Trump out of office in 2020.)

And it’s reached its saturation point with me.

This happened suddenly, while I was listening to a podcast while on a walk yesterday.

I was listening to an episode of “The Argument,” the NYT podcast featuring opinion writers David Leonhardt, Ross Douthat and Michelle Goldberg. It was one that I’d missed a couple of weeks ago, featuring an extensive conversation with Pete Buttigieg.Buttigieg

I recommend you go listen to it. I learned some things about Buttigieg and formed a fuller opinion of him. In short, here’s what I’ve decided thus far: I like the guy, but when he talks specifics about policy, I disagree with him on one thing after another. (Which is bad from his point of view, since he likes to project himself as a substance-over-style guy.) And not just the wacky stuff, like expanding the Supreme Court, or (the horror!) the size of the U.S. House of Representatives. (Did I hear that last one right? I’m finding proposals to do that on Google, but not associated with Mayor Pete…)

Also — and I’d heard this before about him — while he talks a good game on getting past the Culture War, time and again it sounds like he believes the way to end the conflict is for everyone to accept that his side has won the arguments. He does this on a number of issues, but one that sticks in my mind is his bland assertion that the nation, and even folks in Alabama, are closer to his doctrinaire pro-choice position on abortion than they are to the recent anti-abortion measure passed there.

That one sticks in my mind because just that morning before hearing this, I had conincidentally read something by one of the hosts of The Argument, David Leonhardt. It was about the fact that polls show we are as divided as ever on abortion, that “Public opinion isn’t where either side wants it to be.” Look at the numbers. Clearly, no one — neither Buttigieg nor someone with a diametrically opposed position on the issue — should be congratulating himself or herself on having won that national argument.

But let’s get back to my point. Time and again, whenever the mayor wanted to speak of ideas or proposals or attitudes or people that were agreeable to him, he used that word: “progressive.” It seemed to sum up rightness and goodness for him, very neatly.

And at some point — I don’t know know exactly how many times he’d said it when this happened — I reached my saturation point. I’d heard the word too many times.

So, everyone do me a favor: If you want to propose an idea, argue the idea on its merits. Tell me why it’s a good idea. Telling me it’s “progressive” or “conservative” gets you nowhere with me, and in fact will dig you down into a hole you’ll have to work to climb out of.

Words should encourage people to think. But these two are used too often now as a substitute for thought, as a signal to members of a tribe that they shouldn’t bother straining their brains, because this idea has the official seal of approval.

I just thought I’d let y’all know where I am on this now…

15 thoughts on “OK, I have now heard the word ‘progressive’ used too many times. You can stop saying it now. Please…

  1. Bob Amundson

    I am in total agreement, but I do understand why these “buzzwords” exist. We live in a sound bite, tribal culture; most people who vote don’t give a hoot about policy. These words are like fingernails on a chalkboard to many on this blog, but not so much for what I derisively would call “low information” voters.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      “We live in a sound bite, tribal culture”

      And that is what is wrong with this country. Particularly the “tribal” part. We have got to get over this crap and get back to thinking of each other as Americans…

      1. Doug Ross

        It’s not going to happen. We’ve gone past the tipping point. And the media has figured out that the greater the divide, the higher the profits.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          No, Doug, that’s not what the media have decided…

          I know you find it impossible for anyone to be motivated by anything but money, but you do NOT understand this.

          There are a lot of really stupid reasons why media reinforce polarization, but I assure you that the people who make news decisions are the sort you who don’t think about such things as how much money the people who own their outlets are making.

          The two biggest reasons are intellectual laziness, and an affinity for simple, black-vs.-white conflict. Actually, I suppose that’s kind of one thing…

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            That said, there is ONE insidious factor involved in journalism today that was not a serious consideration as recently as my own time as an editor.

            That’s the fact that journalists now live and die on clicks. We see a LOT of stupid stuff in media today that we didn’t see 10 years ago because of that.

            But the actual journalists deciding what to write and how to write it aren’t thinking about money attached to those clicks. They’re just thinking about the clicks.

            And this is a bad thing…

          2. Doug Ross

            I don’t find it impossible for anyone to be motivated by anything but money… but I do find it impossible to believe that you don’t think the media — which is a business and not a non-profit public service – are measured on ratings, clicks, subscriptions, advertising. I think you reside in a place where you think because YOU don’t care about money in business, that nobody else does. I hate to break it to you, but as Liza sang, “Money makes the world go around”. Ratings = higher ad revenues. Clicks = higher ad revenues.

            I heard that most of the cable news programs that are shown live now get instantaneous feedback to know if they need to change the content, tone, etc. on the fly. If they see viewers dropping, they drop in the “Breaking News!” mantra.

            Trump has made big bucks for plenty of cable stars (that’s what they are – not journalists).

  2. Doug Ross

    Progressive: Excessive deficit spending to pay for social programs that don’t work
    Conservative: Excessive deficit spending to pay for military programs that don’t work

      1. Doug Ross

        Me too. But only with a balanced budget. I’ll take a lot more of the former and very little of the latter. And THAT’S what politicians should be debating. How much to spend of a FINITE pot of money.

  3. Harry Harris

    I believe that most of the posters here, like me, resist the heavy use of labels for many of the same reasons. They dumb-down our discussion and our understanding, contribute to polarization, and as Brad pointed out, are stretchy and unclear in meaning. Usually when I refer to common labels, I put them into quotes to reflect my disdain for their overuse and abuse. If a “progressive” candidate or voter wishes to classify a position using that label, I want an explanation as to how it represents progress – as I often ask self-labeled “conservatives” just what it is they want to conserve. Often their answer falls somewhat into line with my own thinking, and then we are set-up to talk about our different thoughts about ways to achieve that conservation.
    The intellectual laziness that I agree spurs the overuse of labels also makes us terrible, short-sighted problem-solvers as a society. We’ve allowed our discourse to be both dumbed-down and coarsened to the point where we call each other names over policy solutions that have no basis to recommend them other than they are short, sweet, and uttered by someone whose label we tend to support. We’re getting a big dose of what we’ve evolved into wanting.


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