They might seem like empty political talking points, but the recent skirmishes over who or what is a Democrat or progressive actually offer us the opportunity to expand our political discourse and redefine the spectrum of acceptable political opinion.

In a town hall last week, Hillary Clinton once again grossly paraphrased Bernie Sanders’ criticisms of President Barack Obama, alleging that Sanders called the president “weak,” “flawed” and so on. (Apparently, criticizing the current president is unbecoming of presidential candidates.) Clinton ultimately suggested that “Senator Sanders wasn’t really a Democrat until he decided to run for president.” The crowd responded with a mix of boos and applause.

Though he caucuses with the Democrats and supports many of their legislative initiatives, as a matter of fact, Sanders was not a member of the Democratic Party until he decided to run for president. I don’t see why Sanders’ status as an independent or his willingness to criticize President Obama should worry us. In fact, it’s the reason many of us support him. If Clinton’s criticism here amounts to saying that Sanders rejects establishment politics, she is just knocking on the open door.

But let’s allow ourselves to briefly play this language game of putting names to politicians and policies and see who falls in the categories of Democrat or progressive. In 1963, Sanders was being arrested at civil rights rallies in Chicago. He also participated in marches with Martin Luther King Jr. In 1964, Clinton was supporting Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, avowed opponent to the civil rights movement. Clinton would go on to work for other Republicans, such as Gerald Ford and Nelson Rockefeller. In terms of partisanship, Clinton plainly appears to be the least Democratic (i.e. most Republican) of the two.

Though her husband was officially a Democrat, his critics have often pointed out how his presidency blurred the traditional lines between our country’s two dominant parties by supporting policies that were highly conservative. For example, Michelle Alexander frequently talks about how the 1994 crime bill extended and intensified Reagan’s war on drugs, by pouring billions of dollars into the destruction of Black communities across the country.

These labels (Democrat, Republican, progressive, conservative, etc.) don’t literally mean what they used to, as with most other labels in our political discourse. Last I checked, U.S. Republicans don’t believe in the idea of the republic any more than U.S. Democrats do. Liberals don’t believe in open-handedness any more than conservatives believe in conserving anything. Libertarianism in this country usually means market fundamentalism (i.e. letting a few people who control a vast majority of the nation’s capital determine the lives of the less privileged) instead of what it maybe once meant (i.e. something closer to the Thoreauvian notion that people ought to determine their own destinies free from the constraints of big government and big commerce). Point being, these terms either don’t denote much of anything substantive, or their current common usage has perverted their old meaning into its opposite. So let’s not worry too much about how the mainstream media assigns politicians these titles.

If the Sanders campaign ultimately does nothing else, it has forced millions of people, who might not otherwise be inclined, to reckon with the true meaning of these terms. The disagreement between Sanders and Clinton over terms like “progressive” represents a larger ideological disagreement between the two. It is a disagreement between liberals and the New Left (beautifully embodied in Ms. Nina Simone’s song, “Mississippi Goddam”). It is a disagreement today over fundamental political and economic questions, like “Is corruption a symptom of Wall Street when it’s not properly regulated, or is corruption inherent to its very structure?” and “Are health care and college education luxuries, or are they economic rights?” and “Should the government serve the will of the citizens, or just (to borrow a phrase) a handful of billionaires?”

This contrast benefits people whom, by watching CNN, ABC nightly news, MSNBC, etc. before the Sanders campaign, might not otherwise have noticed that there are other — and, in my view, more compelling — visions of progress than the liberal, pessimistic Obama-Clinton vision. While the president and Hillary Clinton say to go slow, Sanders and Ms. Simone say that’s what’s the trouble.

If we want to reinvest signifiers like “progressive” with meaning and efficacy, we should first avoid adopting their common usage. Instead, we should critique this perverse usage and appropriate these terms according to our own purposes. In other words, after overcoming our cultural speech impediment, we appropriate the term “progressive” according to what we ourselves declare progress to be.

In this postmodern era, when the signifier has apparently lost all connection with the signified, it’s tempting to conclude that we have no hope of using language effectively (especially political language). But this conclusion overlooks the fact that words have the meaning that we invest in them in order to serve our individual and communal interests and concerns. Investigating the meaning of words not only improves our ability to communicate; it improves our ability to think, expanding our political horizons beyond the binary of liberal and conservative and into a whole field of potential political opinion, which might include socialism, to anarcho-syndicalism, to #BlackLivesMatter. That’d be what I’d call progress.

Zak Witus can be reached at zakwitus@umich.edu.

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