Sometime in the 1960s, conservatives began using “liberal” as an epithet and, after a while, liberals gave up trying to defend its honour. When pressed for a self-description today, many prominent liberals choose “progressive”. Then they explain that they don’t like labels.
There’s no shame in ideological change. In its modern American context, liberalism - the belief that government should intervene in society to solve problems that individuals cannot solve alone - began with Franklin Roosevelt. American progressivism (championing workers’ rights and social justice in the age of industrialisation) has older roots and different emphases. But yesterday’s liberals haven’t become today’s progressives to evoke a different intellectual tradition; they have become progressives to escape intellectual tradition. With the flip of a label, they have cast off decades of disappointment and failure. Unburdened by the past, they can now define themselves on their own terms.
Except that they cannot define themselves, precisely because they are unburdened by the past. Progressives want to tell a story about what they believe: something large and unifying, something that explains their creed to the nation and to themselves.
But such stories are not born in test tubes; they are less invented than inherited. Before today’s progressives can conquer their ideological weakness, they must first conquer their ideological amnesia.