When Andrew Cuomo proclaimed at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, “Our progressive government is working in New York,” he was rebuked by some on the left who questioned his progressive bona fides. But Cuomo, ever sensitive to the way political winds are blowing, was merely adopting the language of the moment among Democrats. As more and more of the party faithful lean further left, Democrats like Cuomo are embracing the term “progressive.” But they also feel the need to reassure voters—as Cuomo and even Hillary Clinton did at the convention—that progressivism actually works. No wonder. In its current incarnation, progressivism largely expresses lofty ideals and exalted goals, while saying little about governing. That might not matter much to loyalists, but to voters who care about government picking up the garbage, filling in potholes, and maintaining public order, governing well is pretty important. The question is whether the 80 percent of voters who don’t identify as progressives buy into the Democrats’ avowals or whether those voters hear these reassurances as a case of politicians protesting too much.
In its earliest American manifestation, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Progressive movement sought to create better government. Books like Woodrow Wilson’s The Study of Administration touted a government run by an elite bureaucracy, independent of potentially corrupt elected officials. Theodore Roosevelt set out to demonstrate what progressive reform could accomplish when, as president of the board of New York City Police Commissioners, he instituted widespread changes in how cops operated, such as instituting hiring practices based on merit rather than political connections. The influential master builder Robert Moses entered public life writing studies on how to reduce political patronage in government—though Moses also embodied what opponents feared in progressivism, emerging as a powerful autocrat who steamrolled opposition as he constructed vast public projects in New York.
Progressivism lost some of its momentum during World War I, though many progressives subsequently saw Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal as a 1930s offspring of their movement. In the Cold War era that followed the Second World War, however, many on the left become uneasy with progressivism’s vision of intellectuals “using the state to mold society in the interests of the collective,” as Charles Murray has described it, because the ideology seemed an echo of Communism. John F. Kennedy, a staunch anti-Communist, avoided the progressive label but once said that he was “proud to be a liberal.”
But now the term “liberal” itself, with its emphasis on economic freedom, democracy, and individual rights, has fallen out of favor with many Democrats. They’ve helped give birth to a new progressivism, which emulates its predecessor’s disdain for individual freedoms and its admiration for collective action. But the new version differs from the old in at least one crucial respect, as one left-leaning writer explains: “The almost complete lack of attention being paid by modern progressives to public administration and government structure.” Even progressives themselves, when they’re not pontificating with overstuffed clichés about social justice, environmental harmony, and sustainable economics, worry about the movement’s flimsy track record of achievement. When Bill de Blasio became New York’s mayor, taking over after 20 years of successful governance by two non-progressive mayors, you could sense the anxiety within the movement: “Many progressives believe the best thing de Blasio can do to make a difference for progressive politics is to be a great mayor of New York City,” wrote Salon. That imperative was especially urgent given that New York’s last acknowledged progressive mayor was David Dinkins, whose reign was so disastrous that he became a one-termer. De Blasio is currently making such a mess of governing that he risks being the latest progressive to be one-and-done in Gotham.
Others on the left fret about what actual results this new progressivism, seemingly unmoored from governing realities, could produce. Some left-of-center economists have already worried publicly, for instance, that the rush to raise the minimum wage all the way up to $15 an hour might shrink employment in the country—and how that might spark a backlash against other progressive-minded economic prescriptions.
Hence the drumbeat about progressivism that’s practical and effective. Hillary Clinton spent years as a U.S. senator and then as a cabinet member, but she nonetheless felt that she had to tell voters in her Philadelphia speech that “I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.” What’s the alternative, one wonders—a progressive who doesn’t like getting things done? Hammering home the point, Clinton and her political supporters similarly described running mate Tim Kaine—long acknowledged as a moderate Democrat—as “a progressive who gets results.”
State delegations are pushing the same line. On the convention’s third day, the speaker of the California Assembly boasted at a breakfast that “California is proof that you can be progressive and prosperous at the same time.” The day before, Cuomo had called New York a “progressive bellwether for the nation.” The two big coastal states make poor advertisements for progressive success, however. New York and California rank, respectively, as the nation’s most unequal and seventh-most unequal states. Whole swaths of both states have been left behind by the current economic recovery. Nine of the 10 metropolitan areas with the highest unemployment rates today are in California. In New York, where two Cuomos have led the government for 17 of the last 33 years, large regions north and west of New York City and its suburbs are depressed; former governor Eliot Spitzer, on a visit upstate, compared some areas to Appalachia.
It’s clear, in other words, that modern progressives have a ways to go to persuade us that their governing philosophy really works. But if saying it alone could help make it so, they’d be halfway there.
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