I’m amused by the debate over whether Gina Raimondo counts as “progressive” as highlighted by Ed Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick’s right that it “depends on what your meaning of the word ‘progressive’ is.” Numerous writers within Rhode Island such as Mark Gray, Steve Alqhuist, Bob Plain, Justin Katz, Andrew Tillett-Saks, and myself, have all taken cracks at definitions of the term. Journalist David Sirota (who has written critical articles about Raimondo) has a piece from 2011 attempting to dissect the difference between “liberal” and “progressive”.
The problem is that it’s all a moot point. The terminology one uses to describe political ideology is entirely dependent on your own views and definitions (as I’ve said before, it’s usually more revealing of your own personal views). Rhode Island’s state legislative Democratic and Republican caucuses may be left-wing when compared against all other state legislative caucuses in the country, but when compared against state legislative Democratic caucuses they’re right wing. So Rhode Island’s left-wing activists will rail against both parties as “conservatives” even though the caucuses would be hard-pressed to find much common ground with the conservatives of, say, Mississippi or California.
Progressive is a popular term. Take the Providence mayoral election. In the waning days of the primary, Tillett-Saks made the attempt to reclaim the label from Jorge Elorza for Michael Solomon. Solomon, Elorza, and Brett Smiley were all willing to to use the label. Fitzpatrick points out that even Buddy Cianci bills himself as “an original progressive” on his website. Progressive parties have appeared three times nationally; twice with Republican figures at their head and once with a Democratic figure. It refers to a massive social movement as well, and today can be used as catchall for left-wing politics.
Political terminology is varied in its origins. The use of “Democratic” as a title for the Democratic Party began as an attempt by Federalists to label them with an insult (a “democracy” as we have today was feared by almost the entirety of Founders) — similar to the way conservatives use the term “Democrat Party” today. The initial term for the party of Jefferson was “Republican”. In the UK, both the terms “Whig” for what became the Liberal Party and “Tory” for what became the Conservative Party were insults used to describe the other group. During the French Revolution, political clubs or groups were named from where they came from, met, or sat during the Assembly. The most fervent supporters of the French Revolution were the “sans-culottes” literally, “without breeches” because they wore pants. The term “communist” seems to have a history stretching back hundreds of years before Karl Marx, and the term “socialism” is defined by multiple thinkers at roughly the same time, and is used negatively today to describe the policies of the current president.
The point is that it all ends up in the eyes of the beholder. Political terminology is useful as a way to describe division, and this is often why it is used to described what it is not. So often there’s a lot of policing of terms, with people claiming so-and-so is not really a communist, or not really a conservative, or not really a progressive.
It all comes down to a matter of perceived authenticity. If we consider ourselves progressive and like or believe in Raimondo, it’s perfectly okay to define her as progressive and sell her as a progressive. If we consider ourselves progressive but dislike Raimondo, we wouldn’t dreaming of calling her progressive, because it’d be an affront to our own political identity. You can do this with any sort of term. For instance, “moderate” is a favored term for people who want to portray themselves as mainstream. But when you look at the opinions of people who consider themselves moderates, you find they often hold pretty extremely radical and inconsistent views.
Depending on where you stand, Barack Obama is a socialist, a centrist, the most left-wing president in U.S. history, or a neoliberal. The end result is the same: Barack Obama is president. Where you believe a politician falls ideologically is ultimately a political Rorschach test: you see what you want to see and you hear what you want to hear.