As More Democrats Embrace ‘Progressive’ Label, It May Not Mean What It Used To

Democrats Andrew Gillum and Tony Evers are both carrying the progressive banner in tight races for governor, but their differing ideologies and strategies show how the label has broadened appeal and less definition in 2018.

Gillum is the charismatic 39-year-old mayor of Tallahassee barnstorming the state of Florida in his bid to become the state’s first black governor. His progressive agenda, embraced by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, combined with identity politics is intended to bring together a coalition.

In Wisconsin, Evers is the oft-described “bland” 66-year-old superintendent of Wisconsin schools sticking to kitchen table economic issues as he tries to unseat incumbent Gov. Scott Walker. He has not taken up all the far-reaching policy proposals of Sanders, but they have teamed up nonetheless.

An increasing number of Democrats are identifying as “progressive” this election year, as the party overall moves to the left — and the label is embraced by a larger swath of Democrats.

Strategists say it’s a word that has gained popularity since Sanders’ bid for the presidency in 2016, and it carries different connotations in different states, adapting to the local climate.

In some states, it refers to a $15-dollar minimum wage or Medicare-for-all. In other states, it includes legalizing marijuana, taking on the NRA, or calling to abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). For some candidates, it’s a description of economic populism; for others, it’s an adjective that refers to cultural or social issues.

That ambiguity allows candidates to appeal to different parts of the Democratic Party coalition, something they can afford running in separate races across the country, as opposed to battling for the soul of the party in a single presidential primary.

In the Michigan governor’s race, for example, the Democratic nominee Gretchen Whitmer held off a more progressive candidate on the left, but since capturing the nomination she has campaigned with Sanders and received the endorsement of the progressive political action committee Democracy for America, founded by former presidential candidate Howard Dean.

Research by Elaine Kamarck at the Brookings Institution examined congressional races and found there was a “huge increase” in the number of Democrats who identified as a “progressive” this election year — 44 percent in 2018, compared to 29 percent in 2016 and 26 percent in 2014.

However, many of these self-described progressives lost their primaries to more “establishment” candidates.

But the sheer number of progressive Democratic candidates who ran in the 2018 midterms suggests the popularity of this label isn’t going to disappear after November, when the 2020 Democratic presidential primary fight will quickly heat up.

In Wisconsin, it’s all about the economy

Tony Evers is not a fiery liberal demanding free college for all. He’s a soft-spoken bureaucrat, a former teacher and school administrator, who campaigns on promises to improve basic public services: infrastructure, education and healthcare.

“The average moms and dad and kids in Wisconsin, they care whether their roads are safe, they care whether they have a good education system, they care about having access to affordable healthcare,” he told NPR in an interview. “That is progressivism for me.”

It’s a progressive message that’s tailored to Wisconsin, which has had a long history of a particular vein of populist economic politics. It’s a progressivism that targets big business, not culture wars, guns, or immigration.

“Progressivism means to me solving problems that people have,” Evers said. “It’s not a Republican issue, it’s not a Democratic issue, it’s issues that are facing everyday people in the country, such as healthcare.”

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Wisconsin developed a reputation as a particularly progressive region, in major part because of one man – Robert La Follette. LaFollette took on the railroad industry and fought against the robber barons of the day. The state’s progressive history continued into the 20th century with the development of Social Security. Wisconsinites, including Evers, like to point out that parts of Social Security came out of the University of Wisconsin. That progressive legacy, some say, transcends party politics and lingers to this day.

“There’s a long-standing strand of thinking in Wisconsin that big business can be harmful,” said Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “This goes back to the fights between Bob La Follette and the railroads and the timber industry in the early 1900s, but I think it extends even to concerns about the FoxConn plant that’s being developed in southeast Wisconsin,” said Burden.

The state offered FoxConn a $3 billion tax incentive to lure the tech company to Wisconsin.

Evers has been an outspoken critic of the FoxConn deal and incumbent Gov. Walker. He has said that if elected governor, he would try to revise the contract.

Anti-Walker sentiment is a key part of Evers coalition, but he’s also trying to appeal to populist economic ideas.

“We’re going to give every middle class family in the state of Wisconsin a 10 percent break on their income taxes cause those are the people that have been struggling all along under Scott Walker,” Evers told the crowd at a recent rally with Bernie Sanders on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Where Evers struggles is that even some Democrats aren’t sure how to place him ideologically.

He was not the most liberal candidate in his primary.

“I don’t know if i would call him a progressive,” said Dylan Fairweather, a 25-year-old with a nose ring at the Sanders rally. “I guess if he’s gonna call himself a progressive, go ahead – do your thing. But I don’t know, that’s kind of tough.”

Ever is not as bold as Sanders ideologically, not is he as free-wheeling with promises to revolutionize the system. But Burden says even though many people might not put Evers and Sanders in the same ideological camp, he still thinks there’s a connection between the two self-identified progressives.

“There is a common idea that big business and big institutions can be problematic, that average people need to have a say in their government, (and) providing public services is important,” said Burden.

In Florida, a coalition built on ideology and identity

Hundreds of miles south, in Florida, Democratic nominee for governor Andrew Gillum is mixing economic populism with race.

These days, more Americans think of themselves as “liberal.” White Democratic voters, in particular, are increasingly likely to describe their political views as “liberal” compared to a decade ago, according to data from the Pew Research Center. Black voters are far less likely to describe themselves as “liberal” (30 percent, compared to 54 percent of white voters).

A progressive candidate of color can potentially build a coalition of white liberals and black voters more successfully than a white candidate. Any successful candidate in a close statewide race has to unite diverse coalitions within the party, and what Gillum — and to an extent Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams — are trying to do is build a coalition that is based on ideology and identity. It’s something Bernie Sanders, seen as the most progressive option in the 2016 presidential election, struggled to do. And it might show Democrats how they could successfully win elections in places they never previously thought they could.

Gillum leans into his identity. His supporters like to say that he is unapologetically black.

After a recent Gillum rally, Dorothy Himmelstein stopped the mayor to take a selfie on her phone. Himmelstein, a 72-year-old retired teacher who still faithfully puts on an Obama button every morning, looked amused when asked what attracted her to Gillum. “Oh, besides him being black?” she asked bluntly.

Gillum isn’t shy about tackling big cultural fissures. He has has repeatedly called for the state’s “stand your ground” law to be repealed. Gillum has said the controversial Florida law that enshrines the right of self-defense, even to the point of lethal force, is “vigilantism” that has “no place in civilized society.”

“We didn’t make apologies for it,” Gillum told an audience at the annual Congressional Black Caucus legislative conference in September, referring to his willingness to demand the law be repealed, despite warnings that such a move could be political suicide. “We didn’t run from our stories and our experiences, it informed our public policy.”

In a recent debate, Gillum called out his GOP opponent Ron DeSantis for accepting money from a donor who made an Islamophobic and racist comment about former President Obama.

“I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist,” he said. “I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.”

He then linked to that debate video clip on his twitter profile so it could be shared more widely.

Despite Gillum’s tendency to lean into his identity, when asked about demographics, he dismisses the question. He insists his strategy is to campaign everywhere, even in counties Democrats rarely visit. After a campaign event in Flagler County, a county Donald Trump won by more than 20 percentage points, Gillum said he thought the Democrats’ soul-searching after 2016 over the question of whether to reach out more to white working class voters or people of color was a “false dichotomy.”

“The reason why I’m campaigning in a very, very red part of the state is we got to treat people as individuals,” said Gillum. “I think we have really written off too many parts and too many people, to include folks who would be our natural allies, refusing to go to them, refusing to talk to them, refusing to ask them for their vote.”

And that’s the duality of Gillum’s campaign. It’s a mix of ideology and identity. He believes that progressive ideas will resonate everywhere in his state. And on the campaign trail, he frequently talks about classic economically progressive ideas: the need to solve income inequality, expand Medicaid to over 1 million Floridians, and raise teacher salaries to $50,000.

And while these ideas might be described as “progressive,” Florida Democratic strategist Steve Schale points out the entire Democratic Party has shifted, moving further to the left in recent years. Even the 2016 ideological lines of purity have been muddied with both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders campaigning for Gillum in Florida this cycle.

“Issues like access to affordable healthcare and raising the minimum wage really aren’t seen as progressive anymore, they’re seen as very mainstream,” said Schale. “Candidates 10 years ago who talked about these issues were seen as pushing the envelope. These days, Democratic candidates who aren’t talking about these issues are frankly just not part of the conversation.”

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