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Commentary By John H. McWhorter

The Dreaded P-Word?

IT’S no surprise that in recent years some on the left have embraced the term “progressive” as a substitute for “liberal.” The right has so demonized “the L-word” that during a Democratic debate in 2007, Hillary Clinton, asked by a voter whether she was a liberal, said that she preferred to identify herself as — of course — a “modern progressive.”

But she doesn’t have as much company as you might expect: a recent USA Today/Gallup poll found that only one in four liberals would go by the label “progressive,” while 17 percent rejected the term and 57 percent were “unsure.” Even stranger, 7 percent of conservatives considered themselves progressives, and nearly half said they were unsure if the label applied to them.

Why is America so unclear on what progressive means as a political position? “Progress,” it would seem, is pretty meat-and-potatoes as words go — moving ahead, we assume. Shouldn’t it be clear who is committed to moving ahead?

Part of the problem with “progressive” comes from the bastard nature of English vocabulary. We know what transgress, aggressive and progress mean. But if someone asked us, “Gress much?” we’d draw a blank. Gress, like “mit” in transmit, isn’t a word. Gress comes from Latin gradus, for “go,” and thus “progress” breaks down as “forward-go.” Or at least it did to an Ancient Roman. Latinate words’ meanings are often less immediately precise to us than those from English’s original Anglo-Saxon rootstock. If our word for progressive were something like “go-forward-ive,” Gallup pollsters would find people less ambivalent.

But only somewhat less. Even when words’ meanings start out clear, they drift like the blob in a lava lamp, inevitably distorted by the vagaries of human cognition and cultural evolution. “Liberal” is a case in point. On this page last year, the writer Timothy Garton Ash called for liberalism to reclaim its traditional meaning as “liberty under law, limited and accountable government, markets, tolerance, some version of individualism and universalism, and some notion of human equality, reason and progress.”

But this would hardly clarify things: few on the left or the right would disavow “liberty under law” or “some version of individualism and universalism”; and Mr. Garton Ash’s espousal of “markets” brings to mind today’s conservative. This antique meaning of “liberal” is of little use in our modern politics.

We must simply accept that liberal, as the result of a particular coalescence of positions that drifted together under its name in the 1960s, is associated with an espousal of “big government” and of possibly envelope-pushing social values. The word has morphed, via the same process that makes it seem odd to us that King James II is said to have described St. Paul’s Cathedral as “amusing, awful and artificial,” all of which were compliments in the 17th century. Liberal is about as likely to regain its original meaning as awful is. “Wow, ‘Mad Men’ is awful!” — dream on.

Politics is fertile ground for this sort of linguistic shape-shifting. Both “radical” and “reactionary” are now useful more as epithets than as descriptions. Radical, from the Latin “radix,” technically refers to a commitment to root-and-branch transformation. However, because upending is commonly associated with anger and destruction, “radical” has acquired a miscreant odor that will never wash off. “Reactionary” is similar. A reaction can be positive or negative, but “reactionary” has come to be associated with only the latter kind, and implies a tantrum.

Likewise, the label “black conservative” has far less to do with an adherence to the politics of William F. Buckley than to something much narrower: a lack of interest in stressing racism as an obstacle to success. Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader, preaches black self-reliance and propounds traditional codes of behavior, but because he also denounces whites as racists, he does not appear on lists of black conservatives. On the other hand, I am often called a “black conservative” because, despite being a pro-choice Obama voter who opposes the war on drugs, I consider racism an inconvenience to be conquered.

As for that 7 percent of conservatives who told Gallup that they consider themselves progressive: now that liberals seem to have rejected their rebranding, is it so counterintuitive that conservatives might embrace the label in its “go-forward-ive” sense? After all, conservatives do not typically see their views as urging us backward. Friedrich von Hayek, the Austrian economist revered by American conservatives, argued that democratic socialism threatened a form of brutal tyranny that all supporters of a free society would view as primitive and unenlightened — retrogressive, as it were.

Thus to deny “progressive” to the right is inaccurate and even disrespectful. And, instead of messing around with rebranding, the political left would be best advised to stick with “liberal” — and to hunker down and defend the positions to which the word now refers. They’d better hurry, since the nature of words is such that “liberal” will have an entirely different meaning sooner than they think.

This piece originally appeared in The New York Times

This piece originally appeared in The New York Times