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Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are squabbling about the definition (and etymology) of “progressive” again.


The Clinton and Sanders campaigns have spent a good portion of this week engaging in a Twitter feud about the meaning of the word “progressive” and who can claim its mantle. So it’s not surprising that the word “progressive” has dominated the first half hour of Thursday’s Democratic debate. 

Clinton hit back by arguing etymology: “The root of the word progressive is progress” is a sentence she has come back to again and again. The subtext here is barely subtext: Clinton gets things done, and incremental progress that get things done is better than big promises that are actually pipe dreams. She’s also clapped back at Sanders for being the “the self-proclaimed gatekeeper for progressivism.”

Sanders, meanwhile, has threaded a more difficult needle, arguing that his version of progressivism is actually moderate, when taken globally. Every country in the world has universal health care, for instance, so why is it a nonstarter that he’s called for a single-payer system? 

The problem is that “progressive” and “moderate” are highly relative terms, which meant that the debate between Clinton and Sanders was on a shifting field of play. It felt a bit like a slightly less pretentious freshman linguistics seminar and made for a very tedious debate, about messaging and semantics rather than issues.