Forward into the Past: The Regression of Progressive Democrats

Ronald Reagan — aided unintentionally but repeatedly by Jimmy Carter — so stigmatized the word "liberal" that Democrats in the 1980s sought a substitute.  I heard them begin to settle on "progressive" early in the decade, when famed economist, diplomat, and party stalwart John Kenneth Galbraith spoke to the House Democratic Press Secretaries Association, to which I then belonged.  Whenever the "l" word was called for, Galbraith arched his formidable eyebrows and said "progressive."

The "p" word eventually took hold.  Now often invoked approvingly though typically without definition by The Washington Post among many others, "progressive" has become a god-word for Democrats, perhaps nowhere so blatantly, even in unconscious self-parody, as in the party's June 11 Fairfax County, Virginia primary.

Fairfax, one of Washington, D.C.'s most populous, prosperous suburbs, full of  government employees and contractors, has moved politically from reddish-purple to cobalt.  So dozens of people seek the Democrats' nominations for county supervisor, supervisor chairman, and commonwealth's attorney.

Candidates' flyers, in full-color, glossy profusion, choke the mailbox.  They proclaim nearly every candidate a progressive.  Most include the de rigueur multicultural photo of the office-seeker surrounded by supportive blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and whites.  The words "liberal" and "moderate" do not appear — perhaps because, in part, liberals, as often noted, increasingly became neo-conservatives as  Democrats moved left with Sen. George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign and after.

Writer Kevin Williamson recently observed that Sen. Adlai Stevenson, the party's 1952 and 1956 presidential nominee, defined a free society as one in which "it's safe to say what's on your mind, especially when everyone disagrees.  Where it's safe to believe what you believe, especially when everyone else's beliefs stand elsewhere."

Stevenson, like fellow Democratic senators Hubert Humphrey, John F. Kennedy, and Henry Jackson was a mid–20th century liberal — the kind of person who would have scoffed at identity politics, laughed at "social justice warriors," and scorned Twitter mobs.  He was also the kind of politician unlikely to win in the coming Fairfax County Democratic primary.

Jeff McKay, candidate for chairman of the board of supervisors, says he has "a progressive vision for Fairfax."  He knows that "diversity is our strength" and "by working together we can make Fairfax a more inclusive place for everyone."  Policy specifics are lacking, but we do have that large picture of the candidate with visually diverse supporters.

Opposing McKay — who has been endorsed by the county employees' branch of the left-of-liberal Service Employees International Union and the county firefighters' AFL-CIO organization — is Tim Chapman.  Chapman claims backing "by working progressives" including American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 20 and the SEIU's National Association of Government Employees.

Dalia Palchik, a student in my Hebrew school class on Jewish values about 20 years ago — and a good one, if memory serves — is in a hotly contested race for an open district supervisor's seat.  Now 35 and finishing her first term on the county school board, Palchik promises "to be a progressive voice to ensure everyone in our community is heard."

Likewise Phil Neidzielski-Eichner.  A former school board member, he claims to be "the proven, progressive champion we need on the board."

Edythe Frankel Kelleher claims to have been "progressive before it was cool."  To prove it, one of her flyers shows her adorned with campaign buttons proclaiming "Kennedy '80," "Dukakis-Bentson," "Bernie 2016," and so on.  

Erika Yalowitz is yet another supervisor hopeful with "progressive solutions to strengthen Fairfax County."  It is, she says, "time to ban single-use plastic, make our community carbon-neutral and preserve open spaces[.]"  Fairfax's population is nearly 1.2 million people.  Its highways include Interstates 95 and 495, "the main street of the East Coast" and the feared Capital Beltway, respectively.  Carbon-neutral?  With paper straws and coal-fired electric scooters?

Steve Descano, challenging incumbent Democratic commonwealth's attorney Raymond Morrogh, is a West Point graduate and former Army helicopter pilot who bills himself as "a progressive leader to keep us safe."  He's a former board member of the Virginia branch of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League who also vehemently opposes the death penalty.  George Soros, international money man of the farther left, has pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into Descano's race and that of another left-of-liberal challenger for commonwealth's attorney next door in Arlington County.

Morrogh, originally more of a law-and-order Democrat, apparently worries about progressive Descano.  So Morrogh has appropriated Frankel Kelleher's line, saying he too was progressive before it was cool.

So was Vice President Henry Wallace, dumped by Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 in favor of Sen. Harry S. Truman.  FDR thought Wallace too left.  Wallace proved it in 1948, running against Truman and Republican Thomas E. Dewey as the Progressive Party's presidential nominee.  Wallace called for nationalization of the energy industry (a greenish New Deal?) and saw Stalin's Soviet Union through rose-colored glasses.

A few questions for Fairfax's progressive candidates:

- An investigation into whether Virginia governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, appeared in racist photographs as a medical school student ended inconclusively.  Should the governor resign or step aside until the matter is settled?

- The governor said he favors giving mothers the option to let their babies who survived an attempted late-stage abortion die.  Do progressives favor "fourth-trimester" abortion?

- Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, also a Democrat, has been accused by two women of rape, charges he denies.  Should he resign or step aside until the cases are settled?  Fairfax is black.  Does that make the question racist?

- Amazon is placing one of its new headquarters in nearby Arlington.  Its founder, Jeff Bezos, is reportedly the world's richest person.  He also owns The Washington Post, which calls itself "an independent newspaper" but tends to endorse progressives.  Weren't the state tax breaks granted to Amazon an unsupportable example of corporate welfare, as progressive starlet Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) labeled those suggested for a now nixed Amazon headquarters on Long Island?

Progressive avatar Sen. Bernie Sanders says he wants to have a revolution.  But you know, should we not want to free our minds instead?

The writer is author of Jews Make the Best Demons: "Palestine" and the Jewish Question, published last year by New English Review Press.  Any opinions expressed above are solely his own.

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