What is True Progressivism?

There is no question that the 2016 presidential bid of Bernie Sanders reset the paradigm for political discourse along our nation’s ideological spectrum.  But even before Bernie swept onto the scene, many self-described political “progressives” were asking themselves the question: how could they shift the discussion to push the Democratic Party – not to mention the political narrative, as a whole – in a more “progressive” direction?

If we look at history, there were many leaders throughout the first half of the Twentieth Century who can provide examples of different iterations of progressivism.  Whether they were actual officeholders (Frances Perkins, John Kenneth Galbraith, Harvey Milk, Louis Brandeis), thoughtful intellectuals (James Baldwin, Rachel Carson, Isidor Feinstein Stone, Jane Addams, Norman Thomas), or on-the-ground activists (Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, Cesar Chavez, Paul Robeson, Eugene Debs, Asa Philip Randolph), their hard work and accomplishments can be studied by the Left…and then adjusted for contemporary relevance.

So, within America’s political discourse, I often end up asking myself:  am I actually a “progressive?” Many of my left-leaning friends insist that I am…of course, they usually say that whenever we happen to agree on specific issues or policy solutions.  If I hold a more centrist position on a given topic, some leftist friends or acquaintances will sneer at me, “You are one of those ‘moderates’ about whom Dr. King warned us…”

To draw a parallel:  interviewers often ask Judge Judy if she considers herself to be a “feminist.”  Her response is usually something along the lines of, “I don’t think I am.”  She usually cites how modern-day definitions of “feminism” often get mangled, hijacked, or misappropriated to fit people’s narrow agendas.

My own beliefs and values are a bit different from Judge Judy’s (even when I agree with many of her techniques).  But her sentiments, there, do indeed resonate with me a tiny bit.  Despite all of the close friends I have who self-identify as “progressives,” I can’t in good conscience get on-board with those who use this term to push certain flawed policies.  And what exactly is the difference between “a progressive” and “a liberal?”

Recently, I conducted a thought experiment on my Facebook wall.  Since a plurality of my social media network is composed of people who identify as “progressive” in their politics, I asked everyone to offer up their own explanations of how they would define progressivism.  It isn’t a scientific study; but since there was a lot of overlap in people’s answers, I’m not so sure it’s “anecdotal” either. It also opened my eyes to the reality that different folks tend to view progressivism through all sorts of lenses; after compiling the results of my thought experiment, I categorized these perspectives into three branches:  philosophical emphasis, ideological positions, and one’s approach into putting such ideals into practice.

PHILOSOPHY

Many of my self-described progressive friends expressed similar views on what sorts of beliefs one should have in order to truly be considered a “progressive.”  But there were some pointed differences amongst them, as well.

One friend of mine distinguished progressivism as a global movement whereas liberalism is more of an ideological position; but, this person pointed out, a Venn diagram exists wherein the two can intersect.  Another person cited FDR’s “Second Bill of Rights” – highlighting shelter, education, health care, clean energy, and fair wages as some key tenets of formulating progressive policy.  Someone else listed a cluster of broader concepts, such as social solidarity, common sense, humanism, science, ecological stewardship, sustainability, and investing in people.

A fourth person offered up a three-part “litmus test” for defining somebody as “progressive” in modern-day America – 1.) opposition to war except in the case of a direct attack on the United States; 2.) demanding government investment in taxpayer dollars to benefit the highest number of disadvantaged people; and 3.) taxation and regulation to break up monopolies or duopolies.  

Then, there are those who have an active desire to apply this philosophy when challenging the Democratic Party establishment.  One self-described “leftist radical” opined that progressives are more extreme liberals who “still fail to get to the root of the problems.”  Another commentator felt that liberals are more willing to embrace capitalism than progressives are. Someone else countered with a belief that liberalism and progressivism can be synonymous with each other.  A socialist individual on my feed claimed that a liberal person can usually be classified as a “neoliberal with a human face.” And, finally, another person chalked up progressivism to the desire to do the most good for the most people possible.

So how do any of these definitions relate to the actual public policy itself?  That’s where we can delve into the appropriateness of individually-held positions when somebody identifies as a progressive.

IDEOLOGY

Let me paraphrase how another of my friends defined the legislative goals of progressives:

A functional leftist coalition with some (albeit a limited number of) goals shared by certain people on the Right, such as improving infrastructure, maximizing smart investments through tax programs, turning to science for fixing problems, promoting and celebrating individual rights, eliminating funds for unnecessary wars, and limited campaign spending.  It can form a very narrow Venn diagram between socialism and libertarianism.

Another person on my Facebook wall proceeded to list progressive priorities including:  prioritization of racial justice, rejection of corporate sponsorship, opposition to fascism, rejection of lobbyists, and a full repeal of the PATRIOT Act.  A third voice added being anti-war and opposition to private health insurance as pivotal platform planks.  Somebody else cited being pro-choice, pro-LGBT, pro-labor, pro-education, anti-privatization, pro-green, advocacy of open medical access, and in favor of bank regulation.  Building on that, a friend of mine added how military cuts, implementation of higher top tax rates, aggressive climate change policy, single-payer health care, tuition-for-all, and corporate responsibility should all be on the table.

As a side-note:  the effect of enacting term limits is still very debatable amongst people of all political stripes.  I’m just going to reiterate my own personal position, here – term limits are nice, in theory…but they won’t make one iota of difference unless we couple them with meaningful and thorough reform of the lobbying sectors (e.g. requiring a long “waiting period” between when someone retires from Congress and when that same person is permitted to become a paid lobbyist).

APPROACH

Okay, so lots of people claim to be “progressive” and identify as such.  Many of them share likeminded values and have very similar policy positions.  But how do they actually achieve those legislative goals?

In the words of one progressive-minded friend of mine:

Progressivism is seeking out and implementing the best available solutions to improve the lives of the general population.  Liberalism is a wishy-washy, go-with-the-flow mentality that places emphasis on WINNING.

The aforementioned quotation addresses the conundrum of how – even when Democrats manage to get into power – liberal policymakers often become short-sighted and disingenuous in terms of how they utilize that attained power.

One person paraphrased Howard Zinn’s broad definition:  incremental steps toward revolution via a fundamental change in government.  Someone else elaborated that there can sometimes be very limited agreement with libertarians in terms of how our society should strive for less government control in general – however, there is a great need for much more responsible government oversight in the targeted areas of poverty and health care.  The actual extent of government intervention itself (versus having mere progressive sentiments) is where most libertarians would differ with progressives.

To quote another one of my friends:

The definition should include a love of knowledge with open-mindedness that overcomes preconceived opinion; a search for the truth of all things; a constant striving for the wisdom to apply that knowledge with compassion, kindness, and respect for all others.

A slightly different interpretation from another friend, verbatim:

Liberal just means open to new ideas and cultures, and not obsessed with tradition and things you were taught growing up.  Progressive means you have awoken to how corrupt the world is, and that corporations and intelligence communities are causing 93% or so of the problems we face.

Another observer remarked that Berniecrats and self-identified “Democratic socialists” may have co-opted the term “progressive” in order to distinguish themselves from run-of-the-mill liberals.  A different leftist friend of mine expressed a belief that the values of the Green Party and of “progressives” should be considered synonymous with one another. A third individual who was embodying this school-of-thought emphasized putting people over corporations while getting money out of politics.

One particularly dear friend of mine declared, quite assertively, that progressives are rationalists who seem aloof but construct objectively better solutions versus liberals tending to be emotionalists who “feel someone’s pain” but create terrible solutions in response.  In broad strokes, somebody else defined progressivism as “social and economic justice for all” – straying away from policies that would give an advantage to one section of the population without balancing it with safeguards for the rest.

Finally, another friend of mine summarized this divide with the following quotation:

Liberals follow party mandates and participate in thoughtless identity politics.  Progressives follow the issues and are the freethinking pragmatists who genuinely want to see the issues resolved and not recycle rhetoric year after year.

This person clarified that such a statement is in reference to which avenues the United States should travel to achieve results…not necessarily the ideology itself.

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

So *do* I consider myself a progressive?  Upon digesting the diversity of thoughts from so many of my progressive-minded friends, I’m still split on whether I adhere to its definition.  On the one hand, I am ardently in support of LGBT rights, racial justice, gender parity, religious diversity, and electoral reform. I want to see more constructive solutions for alleviating poverty (although I haven’t figured out what the best ones are), and I recognize how we need to take climate change seriously (which is why agri-sustainability is my top issue, right now).  Although I’m pro-choice, I’m also opposed to forced paternity.

Meanwhile, the “bleeding heart centrist” in me staunchly believes in supporting well-crafted, narrowly-defined solutions when it comes to divisive topics such as universal health care, marijuana legalization, affirmative action, immigration reform, union rights, and education funding.  I really like the libertarian ideal of maximum economic competition, but I also insist that they be as well-balanced with social justice and corporate responsibility to as realistically possible.

I don’t like political correctness.  I find it dangerous to deny the existence of misandry.  I fail to see how gratuitously bashing white people does anything practical to combat systemic racism (nor do I accept the premise that male-bashing and “female exceptionalism” neutralizes systemic sexism against women in the workplace or in social environments).

My critics derided me as a “Bernie Bro” for supporting Bernie Sanders in 2016 (even though I disagreed with a large chunk of his platform), yet, I don’t think he should be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2020.  I find it hypocritical how some people who rail against misogyny want an exception to be made for Al Franken; meanwhile, many of these same shrill voices insist that we continue to teach our boys antiquated definitions of “chivalry.”

Overall, our economic and social climates have become so warped and polarized that it’s hard for me, in good conscious, to legitimately call myself “a progressive.”  I do share many goals and sentiments with many of them. But I still call it like I see it – and tell it like it is.

Until we begin placing well-constructed policies over Cults-of-Personality or reductionist identity politics…it’s going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to solve any of these problems.  “Progressivism” will continue to take on a fluid, situational meaning – conforming to the individualized whims and personal agendas of whoever happens to view it as an idyllic virtue.