Populist v. progressive: Deciphering political jargon

The presidency of Donald J. Trump is bringing a slew of emotionally-charged jargon to headlines and talk shows, but do you know the difference between progressive and populist?

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WASHINGTON, February 21, 2017 – The presidency of Donald J. Trump is bringing a slew of emotionally-charged jargon to headlines and talk shows. Terms most Americans remember vaguely from high school civics classes are creeping back into daily conversation, often with the wrong connotation or even denotation. To avoid further head-scratching over terms recently re-discovered by pundits and wanna-be pundits, following is a basic primer on what these words really mean, and what the users are actually implying.

Populist. Since Trump came to town, this is a word hitting the headlines a lot. “Trump’s Populist Promise is a Fiction” (The Atlantic) “Donald Trump, the Perfect Populist” (Politico). Of course, there is also, “Bernie Sanders and the New Populism” and “Bernie Sanders, the Populist Prophet,” both from The New Yorker.

In an America that tries hard to slot people into neat little packages, this term “populism” causes heartburn. Americans like their politicians packed in clarity, and the idea that a populist can span all sides of the political spectrum is puzzling.

Starting with the dictionary definition, populism is simply “support for the concerns of ordinary people.” As a movement, it means going against the elite, or the establishment in the case of Trump. It is not about leftist, rightist, liberal, conservative, green, blue or red. That’s the first part the trips up voters.


The second problem is that “populism” does have a certain connotation because of its history. The term emerged as a nick-name for the left-wing People’s Party that was born in the 1890s to champion “the little guy.” The party was pro-union, pro-nationalizing railroads, anti-trust, and anti-big business, whose slogan was “The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few.” They were absorbed by the Democrat Party in 1896, becoming the very left wing of the party, and then faded into oblivion.

But populism came back into public vernacular on the other side of the political spectrum with Joseph McCarthy’s “Red scare.” One of the primary targets of that rabid crusade was the intelligentsia, which meant McCarthy – at least to many academics – was leading a populist movement.

Both the People’s Party and McCarthy were richly embroiled in conspiracy theory and massive paranoia, which also tainted the term “populism.”

The 1960s and 1970s saw counter-culture movements against establishment and elites, a for the people flower power love in that was also deemed populism.

The bottom line here is that “populism” can span the width of the political spectrum.

Progressive. Another term bandied about in the new political era is “progressive.” The dictionary definition seems pretty straight forward: “favoring or advocating progress, change, improvement, or reform, as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are, especially in political matters.”

But that’s the only place the word progressive is clear cut. Say it in casual conversation and you are likely to face a barrage of retorts. Even Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders couldn’t really agree on the definition. Clinton said she was progressive, but Sanders said she’s not. In his world, any member of the establishment can’t be a progressive. Although it has a liberal kind of bent, “progressive” and “liberal” are not the same thing, at least not to progressives or liberals.

In America, the term “progressive” administration refers to the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, from 1890 to 1920. Roosevelt ran on the Progressive Party ticket after the Republicans picked William H. Taft – who wanted to reverse Roosevelt’s anti-trust initiatives – as their candidate.

Ready for this? “Progressive” politicians historically are the opposite of “populist” politicians. “Progressives” were originally the educated class, those focused on science, rational thought, logic, and empirical methods. The basic idea with progressives is to institute change to bring about something better, based on scientific proof or evidence.

The historic political term “liberal” means those focused on individual personal freedoms and rights. The original liberals looks a lot like today’s libertarians.

There is also some difference between liberals and progressives regarding the economic side of the world. In general, liberals want to use government spending for social improvement. They want taxpayer money to go toward programs to improve our society. On the other hand, progressives tend to support increased government power in setting and enforcing how money is spent. This generally means more legislation and more regulation.

The textbook meanings may differ, but the terms “liberal” and “progressive” are becoming intertwined in general conversation, and the meaning varies by generation. Millenial liberals are more likely to label themselves “progressive” with no clear understanding of its meaning, to differentiate themselves from their middle-aged liberal counterparts. All that is rather paradoxical since they are following the lead of a 75-year-old Senator from Vermont.

Of course, the irony is that regardless of the true definition, as long as journalists, pundits, and the general public use the terms incorrectly, truth is irrelevant. Enter the reality of alternative facts…

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Lisa M. Ruth
Lisa M. Ruth is Editor-in-Chief of CDN. In addition to her editing and leadership duties, she also writes on international events, intelligence, and other topics. She has worked with CDN as a journalist since 2009. Lisa is also President of CTC International Group, Inc., a research and analysis firm in South Florida, providing actionable intelligence to decisionmakers. She started her career at the CIA, where she won several distinguished awards for her service. She holds an MA in international relations from the University of Virginia, and a BA in international relations from George Mason University. She also serves as Chairman of the Board of Horses Healing Hearts, and is involved with several other charitable organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, The Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and AYSO.