Many people are regrettably confused about what gets passed off as “leftism” in the USA. Historically, the original “left” were the classical liberals of the 18th century who favored republicanism over absolute monarchies. In this sense, virtually all Americans are “leftists” even Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones. In the 19th century, “leftism” came to be associated with European socialism, communism, and left-anarchism in their various forms. Very, very few Americans actually subscribe to these ideologies in any serious way and never have. America has always been the epitome of a “liberal” nation and still is.
What gets called “leftism” today in the US is progressivism (or, alternately, progressive-liberalism or reform-liberalism), which has nothing to do with historic socialism except in the incidental sense of simply being interested in “social reform.” American-style progressivism is about using the public administration state (see the post adjacent to this one) as a means of achieving social ends. An exploration of the ideas of classical progressives from 100 years ago shows that they have essentially the same ideology as today’s progressives, except they have done an about-face on race and immigration by shedding the eugenics-influenced pathological racism of the past and embracing pathological anti-racism (which often ends up resembling traditional racism) in its place.
The modern progressives have also embraced elements of the sexual revolution that came out of the 1960s, although only selectively so. A current that is common among modern progressives is to embrace the “gender fluid” aspects of the sexual revolution (like rejecting “traditional” gender roles, and embracing gay liberation and transgender identity) while continuing other aspects of the social purity elements of classic progressivism (for example, anti-porn/anti-sex worker feminism, sex trafficking hysteria, TERFs, SWERFs, hysteria about affairs between students and teachers, etc.). Also, classical progressives typically supported alcohol and drug prohibition, and today’s progressives often include anti-smoking crusaders and food police, and while some progressives support marijuana legalization, they’ve always been weak on opposing the war on drugs unless they can some racial mileage out of the issue. The Libertarians have typically been much, much better on these issues. In fact, I’d say the Libertarians are far to the left of progressives on “social issues.”
The big question is how American progressivism relates to the wider phenomenon of “totalitarian humanism.” Most of today’s progressives are totalitarian humanists (with some honorable exceptions like Ralph Nader, Kim Iverson, Jimmy Dore, and Kyle Kulinski), but this is only one sector of totalitarian humanism. The leading sector is the left-wing of the capitalist class which is represented by neoliberals (like the tech-oligarchs, MSNBC, or the DNC). Progressives are the middle-class sector of totalitarian humanism (“woke” professional class and suburban soccer mom types, for example). There is also a harder left sector of totalitarian humanism that is concentrated mostly in academia and sectors of the “ideas industries” which is more explicitly influenced by neo-Marxist concepts like critical theory and the postmodern/deconstructionist rejection of Enlightenment liberalism. The most fringe sectors of totalitarian humanism are the SJW/Antifa/and feral supposed an-com “activists” that are clearly influenced by Maoism but who also resemble interwar European fascism in many respects as well as theocratic religious revolutionaries like the Khomeinists or Taliban.
However, the insidious element in all of this continues to be the neocons, who are now recolonizing the Democratic Party, and working to co-opt totalitarian humanism with the left-hand, while continuing to try to regain control of the Republican Party by embedding themselves in Trumpism, and simultaneously trying to cultivate a “Rainbow Right” through co-opting disaffected liberals, progressives, and leftists.
Progressivism in the United States
Progressivism in the United States is a political philosophy and reform movement that reached its height early in the 20th century. Middle class and reformist in nature, it arose as a response to the vast changes brought by modernization such as the growth of large corporations, pollution and rampant corruption in American politics.
Historian Alonzo Hamby describes American progressivism as a “political movement that addresses ideas, impulses, and issues stemming from modernization of American society. Emerging at the end of the nineteenth century, it established much of the tone of American politics throughout the first half of the century”.
In the 21st century, progressives continue to embrace concepts such as environmentalism and social justice. While the modern progressive movement may be characterized as largely secular in nature, by comparison, the historical progressive movement was to a significant extent rooted in and energized by religion.