In this TNR piece (not sure if subscription required), Peter Beinart laments the Republican (mis)appropriation of the word “reform”, saying
“Reform,” in today’s Washington, has come to mean “change I like.” Which is to say, it means almost nothing at all.
However, he doesn’t really make it clear what alternative definition he proposes, and concedes, later on “today’s conservatives are reformers of the most fundamental kind”.
In fact, the whole set of ideas surrounding the terms “reform” and “progressive” are bound up with historicist assumptions that can no longer be sustained, namely that history is moving in a particular (liberal/social democratic/socialist) direction, and that any deviation from this path is bound to be short-lived and self-defeating. Reform is change that is consistent with this direction. But once you have, as Beinart notes, a decade or more of “reforms” that consist mainly of the repeal of earlier reforms, none of these assumptions works.
Iâ€™ve tried all sorts of devices, such as the use of scare quotes and phrases like â€œso-called reformâ€?, before concluding that the best thing is just to define reform as â€œany program of systematic change in policies or institutionsâ€? and make it clear that there is no necessary implication of approval or disapproval, or of consistency with any particular political direction.
A more fundamental question raised by this semantic dispute is whether the assumption of being on the side of history, implicit in the use terms like “progressive”, is (or was) a help or a hindrance to the Left. This was debated at length in Marxist circles, not surprisingly, since Marxist theory seemed to provide a guarantee of inevitable success, while revolutionary political practice required sacrifices that could only be justified by the belief that the choice to make them was critically important to the future. I’ll leave it to commenters more expert than me to say how this turned out.
The issues weren’t nearly as sharp for liberals and social democrats, but in retrospect it seems clear that an assumption of inevitable success contributed to laziness and arrogance in all sorts of respects, from the casual dismissal of opponents (like the Goldwater Republicans) who turned out to be far more powerful than seemed possible at the time, to the extreme union militancy of the late 1960s and 1970s, which prepared the ground for massive defeats when the economic tide turned.
From Fukuyama onwards, historical inevitability has been the terrain of the political right. It’s new and exciting for them, but the hubris it has generated is already producing the inevitable blowback, most obviously in relation to Iraq but also in widespread global resistance to neoliberalism.