In the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was the king of Republicans, he and other GOP leaders were remarkably successful at demonizing the word "Liberal." By 1988, the American public had come to have negative associations with the word, thinking it reflected a namby-pampy attitude toward both foreign policy and social issues. Liberals were blamed for the decline in American power in the world, for all manner of social problems, and for the failures of government. The word, and the ideas that is seemed to summarize, was decidedly out.
Bill Clinton, who was really a middle-of-the-road Democrat, didn't try to revive the idea. For one thing, he wasn't a Liberal in the sense of the Democratic leaders who had preceded him ----- Clinton was no Walter Mondale or Ted Kennedy. And, Democrats, just happy to be in the White House again, never really had a discussion of what they were or what they should be called. That meant that there was no real discussion of the ideology that informed their beliefs.
In a way, that was okay because we avoided the dreaded L-word. But it meant that we lacked a description of our guiding principles. Republicans called themselves Conservatives and this conveyed a range of ideas: limited government, fiscal responsibility, investment in traditional social values. But Democrats were just Democrats. And what did that mean?
Lately, I've heard the Democratic candidates for the presidency refer to themselves as Progressives. It's a nice substitute for Liberal, invoking the progressive reforms of the early 20th century; ones that created greater democracy and effective government. It's bi-partisan in a way that Liberal and Conservative are not. Progressives from back in the day were both Democrats and Republicans and they brought us such things as direct election of the U.S. Senate, child labor protection laws, the start of environmentalism, food and drug safety, the income tax (which really was a good thing, I promise), and perhaps most famously, progressives took on the power of large monopolist corporations.
It's fitting that Democrats have finally begun to define themselves, especially now when the nation seems so deeply troubled by who we are and what we believe in. We're fighting a so-called war on terror, with no notion of what kind of society we are defending. But if we can agree to be Progressives, then we will truly have something to defend. It's a way of thinking that looks forward, filled with the promise of making our collective national life better in very specific and meaningful ways.