Is Hillary Clinton a “Progressive”or Not?

A bunch of Senate Democrats, today, came out in defense of Hillary Clinton and against Sanders, today. Politico identifies, in particular, “13 female Senators” who back Clinton and who bristle at the idea they are “establishment” by association.

The piece raises a question about the meaning of what has become a key term in the Democratic primary: progressive.

Sanders has claimed that Clinton is not a true progressive, where Clinton has said she is. I don’t think anyone is rejecting the idea that Sanders is progressive–something that by itself suggests there is normative or accepted understanding of this term that Sanders fits within comfortably. But what about Clinton? Is she a progressive, too? Or is Sanders right.

The political piece implies–doesn’t come out and say–but implies, that because Clinton garners the support of women seeking to elect a woman to the White House, that this constitutes Progressive bona fides in the form of fighting of the under represented. To be an advocate for women’s rights, a feminist in other words, is to be inherently progressive.

Maybe. I don’t know that anyone can really dismiss that claim.

But I am also not sure that puts us at the basic understanding either because progressive, historically and today implies a certain approach to economics: in particular a rejection of an all powerful big financial industry, an embrace of a tax code aimed at bringing in fair levels of revenue from the very wealthy, and an attempt to regulate the marketplace so as not to let it be controlled by a few players holding all the chips.

Progressives, nowadays, are recognizable because they talk about the problems posed to society by corporations that have become too big.  Progressives talk about breaking up big banks. Progressives talk about restructuring consumer debt and forcing banks to pay for their mistakes.

Given this, Hillary Clinton is probably not a progressive.

The odd thing, though, is that the Clintons have an historical association with the word “progressive” as part their long term rejection of economic leftist policies within the Democratic party.

When the DLC that the Clinton’s set up to advance “Third Way” politics and reject what they saw as problematic leftist economics, among other things, was aligned with a think tank called “The Progressive Policy Institute.”  The DLC was set up in 1985, the PPI was set up in 1989.

If you look at the “About” page for the PPI, it doesn’t sound very progressive by contemporary standards.  Here’s the whole spiel they give to explain their approach to domestic policy–note in particular the last bit about government and private capital (I’ve added the emphasis):

We seek to advance progressive, market-friendly ideas that promote American innovation, economic growth and wider opportunity. Our work focuses on four main areas:

Competitiveness and the “production economy.” We believe in regenerating America’s capacity to produce—ideas and services as well as goods. Our work focuses on removing governmental barriers to innovation, including antitrust, and regulatory reform; tax policy; trade; education and workforce development; infrastructure and telecom

Energy. As supporters of all-of-the-above “energy realism,” we focus on natural gas, nuclear and renewables as keys to greater energy independence and new jobs.

Medical innovation. We believe more innovation—not less—is central to raising productivity growth in health care and bringing down costs. We promote FDA regulatory reform and seek to change the debate around innovation’s role in controlling costs.

Housing and financial services. We believe in a robust housing market and a healthy balance between government and private capital. Our work focuses on housing and homeownership, Fannie and Freddie reform, financial services regulation and retirement security.  (link)

Now, I suspect this was written around 1989 and maybe revised a few times. I suspect very few people who call themselves “progressive” in 2016 actually believe in an idea like “energy realism” or antitrust reform or “removing governmental barriers to innovation” or “regulatory reform” or–the big zinger, here: “healthy balance between government and private capital.”

These ideas are not radical, but they all seem like attempts to move beyond classic Leftist policies. Some of this language seems overtly branded to not sound like what it is: an attempt to get government out of big business.

Remember: the Clinton era was not just marked by a booming tech economy. It was marked by a rise of a certain breed of Democrat who believed in the economic miracle of corporations–who believed that good corporations had the power to do what classical Leftist ideas of good government could not.  And that was the kind of “progressive” that Hillary Clinton was instrumental increasing.

Fast forward 30 years and this stuff seems relatively benign. But the conversation has shifted radically and this is no longer what it means to be a progressive–unless you are buying into the 1980s branding from the DLC.

Progressive, nowadays, means to most people a distinct concern that the economy has been taken over by big capital.

Elizabeth Warren’s critiques of Wall Street are probably the most noteworthy examples of progressivism. As are Bernie Sanders concerns that big money has eroded public confidence in and the integrity of our government.

The missing term, in this discussion, of course is “liberal.”  By most accounts, most people would have no problem identifying Clinton as a liberal and they would be right.

And advocating for a woman to become President is a classic definition of liberalism in America, with it’s emphasis on equal rights.

In this election–in this moment–progressive has come to mean something that runs through ideas of economic justice and a proactive attempt to limit the power of big finance in our world. And to use government to do that.

Hillary Clinton is a fighting liberal in many ways, but it does not seem that in contemporary terms she is a progressive.

 

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