A friend of mine asked what “progressive” meant today. Was she a progressive? I couldn’t answer her right away: I asked her if she believes in government transparency and more democracy. I asked her if she opposed the Iraq war, and what she thought of Howard Dean. She answered in the affirmative to each question, (and loves Howard Dean) so I told her that indeed, she was a progressive. Yet I feel issue positions can only serve as a heuristic, not definition, of the progressive mindset. So if I couldn’t answer my friend in a glib sentence or two, perhaps this short statement I had lying around will do the trick. :
What is progressivism?
Progressivism is often confused and interchanged with liberalism. That is a mistake. Liberalism is an orientation regarding policy. Progressivism is a related orientation regarding politics. To be a progressive is to believe that our political system is breaking or broken, and to agitate for transparency, campaign finance reform, and enforcement of civil rights.
Yet progressivism is much more than a laundry list of initiatives provided by institutions like the Brennan Center for Justice, worthy as those goals are. A progressive is not a blind patriot; she believes fervently in the value of American ideals due to their inherent worth in promoting the dignity, liberty, and welfare of everyone, rather than in the infallibility of American action due to the geography of her birth. A progressive believes that liberty means much more than lack of a king; in freedom from want as well as freedom of speech; in freedom from fear as well as freedom of religion.
Simply put, progressive politics are common-sense politics. Many progressives my age are bemused at the sorry state of politics today. Blatant corruption and abuse of power weren’t mentioned in the America that was promised by our high school textbooks. A progressive works to re-orient the United States towards its promise and self-image as the embodiment of the Enlightenment.
A progressive is warrior battling against the Assault on Reason.
“Progressive” is a tricky adjective with a long history. As far as I understand, the (simplified & modern) history of center-leftism in the United States goes something like this:
-Populists eventually rallied around William Jennings Bryan in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s. They had an ugly side, but could be romanticized as small farmers/rural folk rebelling against an political and economic system that they felt treated them unfairly.
– The Populists ended their massive power base. Another, related, movement grew in tangent to the Populists: the Progressives. Though the Progressives shared a very different worldview than the Populists, they borrowed several policy proposals from the Populists (direct election of senators, the recall, referendum, etc). “Progressive” became the shorthand term for center-leftism
– By World War II, “Progressive” had gained a bad connotation (possibly from Prohibition & the Nazis?), so FDR started calling himself “liberal”. Liberal was another term for center-leftism that was producing good vibes due to its association with economic liberalism.
– The cold war saw the phenomenon of the “Liberal Cold Warrior”. Famous and powerful people who called themselves liberals supported an aggressive American Empire, the Vietnam war, and so forth. Center-left activists and citizens disagreed with these liberals, and therefore called themselves “progressives” in a direct challenge to the liberal orthodoxy of hawkishness, government secrecy, abuse of power, etc.
Today’s progressives are ideologically descended from those people who disagreed with the Liberal Johnson over the Vietnam war. Well, if LBJ called himself a liberal and they were invested in chanting “hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today” and so forth, it behooved them to try to semantically separate their ideology from his. In modern times, we have the phenomenon of supposed liberals (such Hillary Rodham Clinton) who authorized, defended, and boosted the Iraq War as late as 2005 or even 2006. While progressivism is by this time distinct from liberalism and the self-consciously styled “progressive movement” was already growing before the Iraq War even started, I think it’s fair to suppose that we’re seeing a growth in the use of the term for similar reasons to the Vietnam era.