The “modern” progressive movement is a little over a century old, and is widely credited as beginning in the age of Teddy Roosevelt. They concentrated many of their efforts on “trust busting” and worker protections, and can be widely credited for making the “factory era” of America’s working class safer.
A couple of decades later, FDR is credited with pushing progressivism forward with the “New Deal,” creating Social Security, the WPA, Medicaid, and a host of other programs to get the working class back to work. LBJ’s “Great Society” built on that, creating Medicare and seeking to “eradicate poverty” in our time. The one big difference of the Johnson era was the emphasis on Civil Rights being added, adding African-Americans for the first time to the working class coalition.
There were many great achievements in the mid-20th century by progressives, but we absolutely have to note an inconvenient fact- the addition of Civil Rights to the progressive platform, and later battles about the rights of women, LGBT people, and Latinos, broke apart the progressive coalition that had largely governed American politics for several decades previous. While LBJ held together the coalition in 1964, much of that was a reaction to JFK’s assassination. In 1968 the “solid South” poor and working class voter began their bolt away from the Democratic Party, which lead to Reagan, which lead to Gingrich, which lead to Bush, which lead to Palin and 2010, which ultimately brought us to Donald Trump. At this point the working class voter of FDR is the backbone of Trump’s America.
There are many things I could say positively about Woodrow Wilson or FDR’s Presidencies, but both were absolutely not social progressives. In fact, both were fine letting open bigots into their coalition. Wilson fought giving women the right to vote and was an open segregationist. FDR was nominally better, but completely unwilling to push for Civil Rights and is responsible for the Japanese internment camps. The economic progressive movement of the 20th century mostly showed little to no interest in social justice, Civil Rights, or spreading the benefits of their platform to people who weren’t white and male.
Fast forward to 2018, the height of Trump America. Just about every Democratic candidate in the country is running as a “progressive.” An alarming number of candidates have little to no achievements on their resume to back this up. Some are defining their “progressive” politics in terms of their positions on guns, abortion rights, and Civil Rights- all things that progressives have traditionally ignored. Essentially, 2018 progressivism seems to only have a loose affiliation with progressivism in a traditional sense. In a very real sense, calling a candidate a “progressive” is nothing but a buzzword now, a signal to the public that this candidate is willing to fight, and particularly be anti-Trump.
As I said above, not everything FDR did should be judged negatively for his weakness on Civil Rights, and the same could be said about LBJ in light of the Vietnam War, so there could be value in reclaiming the word “progressive” moving forward. It would be nice if we made the word mean something. Wealthy social liberals in the suburbs are not really synonymous with what the word meant in the past though, and maybe we don’t really want to force them to own that.