What Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton’s “Progressive” Debate Reveals About the Erosion of Meaning in Political Language


The apparently endless episodes of the Republican debate sideshow have commanded the media’s attention ever since the 2016 presidential campaign began, but perhaps the most interesting exchange in any of the candidates’ debates came last week, when Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders argued over the meaning of the word “progressive.” Like a lot of terms that we use in the context of politics, “progressive” is one of those words that, intuitively at least, seems to have a clear meaning — but once you start trying to nail that meaning down, you realize that it’s slippery at best and nonexistent at worst.

Sanders, at least, seems to think he knows exactly what it means, so much so that he’s used it as a key component of his attempts to put distance between himself and Clinton:

This tweet sets up a clear binary: on one side, there’s moderates, and on the other, progressives. In this respect, then, a progressive can be defined as someone who is not moderate, and vice versa. But clearly, that’s a cyclical definition, and thus one that doesn’t actually mean anything. Sanders is, presumably, more progressive by his definition of the word than Clinton is, and vice versa. But beyond that, what does Sanders actually mean here?

It is, in and of itself, an interesting question. These are the sort of nuances of political language that are rarely debated on the public stage, for reasons we’ll soon explore. In the meantime, though, to the larger question of what makes a progressive: Vox, being Vox, published an explainer over the weekend that attempted to provide an answer. It sets up the idea that there are two schools of political thought: the ideological and the practical. “Progressive,” Vox contends, is a an ideological term, while “moderate” is a practical one, and mixing and matching the two is the source of much of our political confusion:

“Progressive” is an ideological term. It refers to a position on an ideological spectrum, namely to the left. A progressive’s opposite is a conservative. “Moderate” is a practical term. It belongs to the second category of assessment. Broadly speaking, it refers to a candidate who focuses on consensus building and incremental progress, someone who doesn’t believe the US political system is capable of sudden, lurching change, or just doesn’t want that kind of change. A moderate’s opposite is a radical, someone who believes rapid, revolutionary change is both possible and necessary.

This is an interesting interpretation, one that frames the problem as one of the incorrect application of terminology. It’s a decent argument, although the best it can do for an actual definition of “progressive,” the most important word at play here, is “a position on an ideological spectrum, namely to the left.” If this is right, Sanders is arguing that he’s further left than Hillary, which is no doubt correct.

But. But. This is not the only sense in which you see “progressive” used. This is the problem with Vox’s argument — the problem isn’t so much that the terminology in question is misapplied, it’s that it’s applied in so many ways that its received meaning becomes entirely contingent on context. And the more the word’s usage becomes diversified, the greater the risk of its meaning disappearing completely.

This points to a more fundamental problem with the way we talk about politics. Without meaning to get all poststructuralist on yo ass: words are effective methods of communication only insofar as they point to a meaning on which we can agree. Linguists and philosophers can amuse themselves for hours (or, y’know, decades) with this stuff — how do we find all conceivable tables in the word “table”? Where does a stool begin and a chair end? Etc.

Generally, when it comes to the crunch, the best — or at least most practicably applicable — answer anyone can give is that you know a table when you see one. You might come across an object that’s ambiguous, but for 99.9% of everyday situations, if I say “the cat is on the table,” you know what I mean. There is an animal called a cat, and it is on an object called a table. A progressive, though? A radical? A moderate? A conservative? These are terms that have, at best, a range of meanings. This comes, I suspect, at least partly from America’s cultural fondness for turning adjectives into nouns — a more important linguistic gripe than it may appear, because there’s a key difference here: adjectives are relative and nouns are not. If we have two red tables, one might be more red than the other, but one isn’t more of a table than the other; they’re tables or they’re not.

In a political context, here’s the difference: Jeb Bush is more conservative than me, but less conservative than Donald Trump. Bernie Sanders is more radical than Jeb Bush, but less so than Rosa Luxembourg. And so on. But if Jeb is a conservative, what’s Donald? A… more conservative? It doesn’t work, and this is why: when these terms become absolute, though, they start to become troublesome. What, objectively, is “a conservative”? Where exactly along do the left-right spectrum — itself an outdated concept in an era where social conservatism coexists with economic liberalism, and vice versa — does someone by that designation fall?

A couple of years ago, I described Barack Obama on this site as a “centrist,” and our comment section was deluged with Republican-leaning types outraged that I could describe a socialist commie pig who wasn’t even born here as a centrist. That particular episode taught me two lessons: a) that the majority of people throwing around the word “socialist” — a word that does have an objective meaning — have no idea what that meaning is; and b) that the idea of a centrist is only relevant insomuch as it relates to the idea of the center remaining static. When the center veers constantly rightward, as it has done in America (and many first-world two-party democracies) over the last few decades, yesterday’s centrist is tomorrow’s pinko traitor.

This brings me onto the other point I want to make here. By any measure, America’s legislature — and, although perhaps so, its electorate — is more polarized now than it has been at any other point in living memory. This has generated plenty of extreme and loaded language, as we’ve seen in the traveling Republican debate roadshow. We tend to assume, I think, that the language follows the politics. But what if it’s the opposite?

The ill-defined nature of our political terminology robs us of nuanced, meaningful language to discuss politics. How exactly, for instance, does one roll the policy differences between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio into a couple of adjectives? The best we can say is that Rubio is more right-leaning on some issues, Cruz on others. As far as adjectives go, the best we can say is that they’re both conservatives, just like Donald Trump and John Kasich. The only difference is a matter of degree.

But what does it mean to say that someone is more conservative than someone else? They’re more strident on the handful of emotive social issues — abortion, gun control, immigration, drug policy — that tend to dominate electoral debates than their opponents? They’re more in favor of Wall Street deregulation than their peers? (In that case, Rubio is the most “conservative” candidate ever, given that he’s apparently in favor of completely abolishing the capital gains tax.)

In the absence of intelligently descriptive language, our political discourse tends to slump back into less advanced, more emotive language: the language of morality, a language of superlatives and invective. Morality, unlike political language, deals in absolutes. You might be more or less conservative than your rivals, but you’re either good or you’re bad. The male Clinton, for instance, is remembered more for getting his dick sucked in the White House than for the fact that he pardoned Marc Rich on his last day in office. Ronald Reagan is lauded by revisionist conservatives as a “good” man, despite the fact that his policies were anything but.

This suits the Republican Party just fine, of course — they’re adept at portraying and exploiting the imagery and language of moral rectitude. It’s also easy to present a candidate as being “good,” at least in the way to which the voters they’re trying to appeal define it: make sure you make a show of being a Christian, don’t get caught cheating on your wife in office, make sure you have a wife, don’t be gay or anything like that. This, in turn, tends to invite a focus on candidates — especially presidential candidates, who already cultivate cults of personality due to the individualistic nature of the job for which they’re vying — as people, rather than as elected officials who serve to advance the policies on which they have run.

We can do better than this, and as the media, the least we can do is make sure that we’re using terminology that extends beyond a) invective and b) woolliness. As George Orwell pointed out in “Politics and the English Language,” which should be compulsory reading for all college freshmen, the erosion of language isn’t something that happens in a political vacuum. It’s something that tends to serve the interests of the people who happen to be in charge at any given moment. It’s no accident that as our political spectrum has shifted rightward, so too has our political language become less specific and more loaded with moralism.