Progressive! What Does It Mean?

Movements Populist & Progressive

Read this:  So what is a “progressive” anyway?  Today’s democratic primary has degraded into a fight over who is a progressive and who isn’t.  What happened to discussions of needed social policy changes? I must admit my own idea of a progressive is probably a bit more populist than I sometimes realize. Most of us have some type of preconception and are often unaware of how off that may be. Like Hillary and Bernie, that doesn’t stop us from plodding forward with those misconceptions.

In the article below a The Nation Magazine team (Kim Phillips-Fein, Charles Postel, Robert Greene II and Michael Kazin) combine to explore the progressive debate between Hillary and Bernie, trying to put it in a more comprehensive perspective. Terms need to be reviewed occasionally and this may allow us all to clarify our understanding of “progressive” since it appears to be such a weapon in this presidential race. I for one am very happy it has become a focal point in many discussions. A group called the American Values Project worked hard to come up with a comprehensive definition of “progressive” that many different groups could agree on, called Progressive Thinking: A Synthesis of Progressive Values, Beliefs, and Positions. The second link below describes this in detail, but basically says: “As the handbook states, the central progressive message is one of fairness and equality:

Our approach is simple to summarize and is built upon the ideas of generations of progressives from Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama: everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does his or her fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules. As progressives, we believe that everyone deserves a fair shot at a decent, fulfilling, and economically secure life. We believe that everyone should do his or her fair share to build this life through education and hard work and through active participation in public life. And we believe that everyone should play by the same set of rules with no special privileges for the well-connected or wealthy.

The Nation article’s authors describe “progressivism” as a complex group of movements, often with a common thread, but sometimes including movements (Jim Crow laws of the South) that many of us don’t like being associated with. Different times saw different causes and sometimes different groups were the primary players. ” Today, the term mostly offers a way of talking about left politics without using the word “liberal” (with its unpopular top-down connotations, and its history of critique by the right) or—even worse—the word left.” Sometimes key players included actions in their movements we find apauling today. “The presidencies of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, showed why drawing boundaries around a Progressive tradition can be a hazardous undertaking. Roosevelt attacked the outsized role of corporate power, and called for a national system of health insurance and for pensions for retirees. Yet Roosevelt also had good friends on Wall Street, betrayed African Americans’ civil rights, and was an ardent imperialist and warmonger. Wilson presided over such watershed reforms as the income tax, the Federal Reserve Act, the direct election of senators, and the extension of suffrage to women. Yet Wilson was also a white supremacist who oversaw the segregation of government offices in Washington, and whose “war to make the world safe for democracy” did not accomplish its stated goal, to say the least.”

No, a static definition is not readily available and The Nation article gives many more examples. ” Both Sanders and Clinton have their Progressive Era heroes,” but where they actually fit is complicated. As evidenced by coverage of the Democratic primary and for some reason the south plays a very disproportional role in this. Michael Kazin sums things up for The Nation article like this (and I paraphrase here):

  • Hillary Clinton is best described as a liberal. Like liberals from Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson, Clinton wants to use the federal government to improve the lives of the majority of Americans … What she really cares about is shrewd, effective governance … she wants the United States to be the dominant power in the world, so she doesn’t question the massive sums spent on the military and on the other branches of the national-security state.”
  • Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, is a leftist … resembling his hero, Eugene V. Debs—the Socialist who ran five quixotic races for president, the last time, in 1920, from a prison cell … identifying with ‘revolution’ (as a movement) … but Bernie really means it. He is perpetually on the attack against undue power and misused privilege, armed with an unvarnished class-conscious message that, until the emergence of Occupy Wall Street, had long been absent from the public square. He advocates policies he knows even a Congress controlled by Democrats would be quite unlikely to implement. Except for increasing aid to veterans, he seems cold toward every part of the military establishment.”

The positive thing that has happened in this primary is that both Democratic candidates are discussing “progressive” ideas and professing to be a “progressive” (whatever they may mean by that).  Many of the right ideas (emphasizing fairness and equality) are being discussed and this hasn’t happened for a long time.  Read the entire article for a better feel for the different perspectives presented.

What it means to be a progressive

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