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Oppenheim: The "P" Word

A big part of the contest between Bernie and Hillary is a fight over words, particularly one word. It's the P-word: "progressive."

Personally, I tend to associate progressive more with an insurance company than with politics. But right now that word’s a political hot potato.

The question is which candidate best fits that word – and they’re each defining it their own way.

Bernie Sanders’ definition has to do with revolution and making significant change, like breaking up big banks, making public universities tuition free and curbing the influence of money on politics.

Hillary Clinton’s definition is about connecting the word to its root: progress. She’s calls herself “a progressive who can get things done”, a more pragmatic approach.

Bernie responds she’s really a moderate. Hillary bristles at that.

And there’s subtext to this word war. In effect, by repeatedly pointing out Hillary has taken speaker fees and or linking her to the establishment, Bernie Sanders is not just saying Hillary is a moderate. He’s saying she’s a sell-out.

Similarly, by calling his ideas “pie in the sky”, like going for a more radical approach of universal health care, Hillary is saying he’s too extreme, - or even worse, he’ll never get elected.

Keep in mind, elections are big events that can turn on small things. Labels can symbolize what people like – or fear - about a candidate.

What’s also interesting is how labels have changed.

When I grew up in the sixties, my parents called themselves liberals. As people on the left, they were as comfortable with that name then as people on the right today are with the word “conservative”.

But, the Reagan years did a lot to associate the liberal label with notions of big government and high taxes. By the time George H.W. Bush ran for president, his opponent Michael Dukakis avoided the L-word and called himself a moderate.

In recent years though, especially during primary season, the center has always been a tough sell. Candidates wanting to get nominated for the general election first have to excite the base.

The results of the New Hampshire primary may suggest Bernie’s definition of what it means to be a progressive is holding sway with voters – at least at this stage. As the battlegrounds move west and south, Hillary’s definition may get a warmer reception.

So it may all be about the P-word for now, but there’s another word that may well get a lot of use down the line, especially by republicans. And that’s the S-word: socialism.

Keith Oppenheim, Associate Professor in Broadcast Media Production at Champlain College, has been with the college since 2014. Prior to that, he coordinated the broadcasting program at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan (near Grand Rapids). Keith was a correspondent for CNN for 11 years and worked as a television news reporter in Providence, Scranton, Sacramento and Detroit. He produces documentaries, and his latest project, Noyana - Singing at the end of life, tells the story of a Vermont choir that sings to hospice patients.
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