Experience has acquainted thousands of Americans with a disturbing trend: Identity theft is a rampant crime.

But here is a trend of equal concern: Words, phrases, and terms are having an even harder time than human beings when it comes to identity theft.

Let’s start with a look at the peculiar fate of the noun progressive.

Arriving on the American political scene in the late 1890s, the word surged in visibility during the early 20th century. People who identified themselves as Progressives launched important reform movements to create institutions that they hoped would serve the common good and counteract corruption.

And now, a century after the Progressive President Woodrow Wilson imposed racial segregation on the Civil Service, the noun progressive has undergone an identity switch. In our times, political figures who have cast themselves as advocates for racial justice now call themselves progressives.

Could it be that Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, and their many counterparts are intentionally repurposing the term progressive, pretending to claim kinship with Woodrow Wilson and his counterparts as an ironic campaign to remind us all of our uncomfortable heritage from the past?

Well, probably not.

The fate of the noun progressive is sad and amusing, but it may prove inconsequential. By contrast, there are urgent reasons to pitch into the cause of rescuing the word debate from its currently disordered state.

In days of yore, a debate was a civic custom that invited opponents into a ceremonial form of exchange to explore an issue on which they disagreed. Even if the ideal did not prevail on every occasion, debaters were expected to put forward their assertions, listen to their opponents’ arguments, and then refine their own positions and even concede to a point or two that they had initially rejected

In 2019, a debate is now reconfigured as an arrangement of 10 or so people on a stage making superficial, loosely connected proclamations. And, far worse, debate has become the term used for performances that are actually shouting matches and verbal brawls.

If anyone can figure out how to reunite the practice called debate with its original identity, we must unite behind that visionary.

And if any reader has a direct line to AOC, please pass on this message: If she will find an occasion to say, “Progressive may not be exactly the word I was looking for,” at least one historian stands ready to applaud. Heartily.

Patty Limerick is faculty director and chair of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado.

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