“Progressive” is our nation’s most popular political term, but at the same time, most Americans don’t really know what it means. If we play our cards right, the Democratic presidential primary season can help us define our ideology. This is an exercise in branding.
While we wish that voters considered their electoral choices with a spirit of idealism and a dedication to the common good, that’s not a realistic expectation. Partisan politics requires some elements of marketing. We need swing voters to have a positive general impression about progressives because they will never really understand the details behind progressive policy.
We start the branding process with a distinct advantage, described in two polls. The first one, conducted by the Pew Research Center, asked whether Americans had a positive or negative view of common political terms. This was the result:
Reaction to… Positive Negative
“Progressive” 67 22
“Conservative” 62 30
“Liberal” 50 39
“Capitalism” 50 40
“Libertarianism” 38 37
“Socialism” 31 60
That poll is great news. While “conservative” is a strong brand, “progressive” is more popular. At the same time, “liberal” not nearly as well-liked. This straightforwardly explains why many Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, are grasping for the mantle of “progressive” champion.
The second poll, by Lake Research Partners, looked a bit more deeply into voters’ feelings about political terms. Here’s how they answered when asked to rate, on a scale of 0 to 100, how they felt about a candidate described as “liberal,” “progressive,” “moderate,” or “conservative.”
Feelings about “progressive” “liberal” “moderate” “conservative”
Democrats 66 61 57 46
Swing voters 57 44 55 54
Republicans 47 27 52 73
Democrats, Republicans and persuadable voters all like a progressive candidate better than a liberal one. But the big advantage in the progressive label comes not so much from the Democratic base, but from conservatives and swing voters. “Progressive” has not been sullied with mud the way “liberal” has.
That’s probably why so many left-of-center groups use the word, including Progressive Democrats of America, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and the Center for Progressive Reform. The slogan of the Center for American Progress is “Progressive Ideas for a Strong, Just, and Free America.” And of course, there is no Liberal Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives—it’s called the Progressive Caucus.
“Progressive” works in part because it sounds positive; it comes from the word progress. It suggests that progressives want to move forward, promote innovation, and focus on the future—all popular ideas. Also, when progressive is compared side-by-side with conservative, we have an advantage because it sounds like pro versus con.
However, another poll, by USA Today/Gallup, found that average Americans don’t have a good idea of what “progressive” means. After then-Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan called her views “generally progressive,” these pollsters asked respondents if the term “progressive” describes them.
Respondents Describes me Doesn’t describe me Unsure
All adults 12 31 54
Liberals 26 17 57
Moderates 11 23 65
Conservatives 7 48 45
In this poll, only 12 percent of Americans identify themselves as progressive. That’s a big problem! We know that progressive policies poll well, one-by-one. But voters don’t tend to connect those popular policies to the brand “progressive.”
Part of the reason for that is the media rarely use the term. They tend to call us “liberals.” (For all other groups, the mainstream media have a policy of using the term that the members of the described group prefer. So there’s not much excuse for their continued use of “liberal.”)
Here’s the opportunity before us. The entire Democratic primary season is going to be a tug-of-war between progressives and centrists. Hillary Clinton will have to gradually take sides on issue after issue. And because Democratic primary voters are overwhelmingly on our side, she will have a strong incentive to move to the left.
As each issue is debated, and as Clinton’s policy positions take shape little-by-little, we all need to use the word “progressive” over and over. On every issue, we need to consciously educate Americans about which side is “progressive.” That’s how they’ll come to realize what “progressive” is—and that, in fact, they are themselves progressives.
Over the years, the Campaign for America’s Future has been at the vanguard of the effort to define the term progressive and show voters, activists, candidates and lawmakers that “progressive” is popular. In coming months, all of us should join in that effort, explaining to our fellow Americans what it means to be "progressive."