Liberals and leftists all over the democratic world have often called themselves progressives, because it seems, in a word, to put you on the tide of a better future. (Also because in some countries, the United States most of all, to call yourself any kind of socialist was a route to permanent marginalization.) Progress doesn’t just mean going forward: It means going forward to a better place.
But a better place isn’t currently available, not for the right, and not for the left.
In the past two decades, progressives hitched their wagons to several charismatic individuals who were generally successful, both in gaining and retaining power. Luiz da Silva (Lula) in Brazil; Gerhard Schroeder in Germany; Tony Blair in the UK; and Bill Clinton in the U.S. They improved the lot of the poor somewhat, and, social liberals all, worked to bring in women, gays and ethnic minorities from the cold of discrimination and inequality.
Their personal popularity buoyed them, but success came at a cost. All of them betrayed progressivism in some way, adopting or adapting ideas and programs of their competitors on the right.
Tony Blair’s alliance with George W. Bush in the invasion of Iraq saw him branded as a warmonger by much of his own party – though he won his third victory after it. Lula’s adoption of a moderate economic policy caused the left wing of his Workers’ Party to split in several directions (but it still won after him, and still rules Brazil). Gerhard Schroeder, who developed a program of radical modernization called Agenda 2010, was excoriated by his party for adopting what many of the social democrats thought were right-wing, neo-liberal policies – such as making it easier for employers to fire workers. He called a snap election to show who was boss – and lost, to the center-right coalition led by current German Chancellor Angela Merkel (who must now sometimes wish Schroeder had won).