Robert M. La Follette (Library of Congress).
Politics101: What is a Progressive? What is progressivism?
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Within the United States’ contemporary political discourse, there exists a common misconception: liberals and progressives are one in the same.
This isn’t exactly true. While these two ideologies tend to be complementary, they are not two sides of the same coin. In fact, they can be very different.
Progressivism v. Liberalism
According to Kenneth Janda, Jeffrey M. Berry, and Jerry Goldman, authors of The Challenge of Democracy, progressivism is “a philosophy of political reform based upon the goodness and wisdom of the individual citizen as opposed to special interests and political institutions.” Liberals, on the other hand, are individuals “who are willing to use government to promote freedom but not order.”
Now, it is also important to distinguish between modern American liberalism and other liberal philosophies. That is, liberals in Europe are drastically different from liberals in the United States.
“Modern American liberalism is a form of social liberalism.” It evolved from progressive ideals, but it also supports mixed economic policies typically based on Keynesian economic theory. Liberals strongly favor individual rights and liberties, and prefer government entitlements, such as education. Liberalism, says Eric Alterman, author of Why We’re Liberals, as it is known today, evolved out of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal plans, wherein the government finally recognized a need to provide some sort of “safety net” for the country’s citizens.
Both progressives and liberals tend to be associated with the Democratic Party. However, that is due to the “big tent” philosophy, which seeks to unify members of a diverse electorate, representing various view points. For instance, progressives and liberals tend to associate with Democrats. So do advocates for gay rights and advocates for the environment. On the other hand, the Republican Party tends to bring fiscal conservatives, the Christian right, and corporate interests under its own big tent.
Despite these alliances of convenience, progressives nevertheless remain a distinct and unique political group. Liberalism and progressivism may share similar “values and policy prescriptions but they are not exactly the same in substance, emphasis, or origin.”
The Progressive Political Philosophy
So… what is progressivism?
The answer is simple, according to John Podesta, founder of the Center for American Progress and author of The Power of Progress: How America’s Progressives Can (Once Again) Save Our Economy, Our Climate, and Our Country. In his book, he argues:
Progressives believe that America should be a country of boundless opportunity, where all people can better themselves through education, hard work, fair pay, and the freedom to pursue their dreams. We believe that this will be achieved only with an open and effective government that champions the common good over narrow self-interest while securing the rights and safety of all its people.
Podesta also believes that liberalism “has primarily focused on preserving human liberty and autonomy and protecting individual rights against encroachment by the state or society,” but progressivism is involved in the “search for social and economic justice.”
In other words, the ideology seeks to break the hegemony of “privileged economic interests in government,” and it wants to strengthen the United States by having the country return to its more “democratic roots.”
Progressivism evolved as President Theodore Roosevelt emerged as a national leader. According to Historians George Brown Tindall and David E. Shi, authors of America: A Narrative History, the “movement arose in response to many changes in society.” Progressives needed a means to cope with the depression of the 1890s and to improve social conditions. They wanted to promote “idealism and constructive, social, economic, and political change.”
Unlike liberalism, a centuries-old established political philosophy, “progressivism was a reform movement [of the early 20th century] so varied and comprehensive it almost defies definition.” Progressives stood opposed to robber barons, political bosses, and they believed in expanding democracy, they believed in an open, honest and efficient government, along with corporate regulation, and social justice for the working class.
Early progressives thought the power of government should be expanded to accomplish their goals, which is why “some may think that to be a progressive means to be in favor of big government.” However, true progressives, according to Madison Political Buzz Examiner Peggy Williams, “would say they believe in ‘power to the people.’ They see the government as the elected representation of the people and feel that the government ought to be more responsive to the needs of the people.”
Misconceptions: Progressives, Liberals, and Glenn Beck
Of course, this misconception is propagated by the Democrats, who seek to distance themselves from the negative connotations of the term liberal. It’s also propagated by partisans on the right, who seek political capital by confusing the electorate with misinformation.
For example, San Diego Democrat Examiner Arleen Garcia-Herbst, understands the difference between Blue Dog Democrats, a moderate-conservative faction within the Democratic Party, and liberal Democrats. However, she has confused liberals with progressives, indicating that progressives prefer the far-left. This is incorrect.
Progressives can actually transcend party lines. The founder of The Progressive magazine was U.S. Senator Robert La Follette, a Republican. Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican president, founded the Progressive Party (otherwise known as the Bull-Moose Party). In the Republic of Ireland, the Progressive Democrats are actually a conservative political party, and one of Canada’s largest parties was the Progressive Conservative Party. Post-Partisan Examiner D.K. Jamal even identifies himself as a progressive, though it appears that he is more of a moderate independent than a liberal Democrat or conservative Republican.
Despite the GOP’s progressive heritage, pundits on the right, like Glenn Beck, for instance, are also confusing the American people. Beck argues that Progressives are one in the same with communists, Marxists, fascists, and socialists.
What Beck must not understand is that progressivism actually emerged as an alternative to political ideas such as these, and other radical ideas, like anarchism.
Still, Beck uses his program to maliciously associate progressive policymakers working hard for the American public with murderers like Stalin and Hitler. This is unacceptable, so many progressives support a Glenn Beck boycott.
Beck is doing this in an attempt to malign and weaken Democrats. It’s similar to the vilification of liberals in the 1970s and 1980s. Conservatives used pejorative phrases, such as “bleeding heart liberal,” “tax-and-spend liberal” and “liberal elite,” in an effort to undermine the credibility of Democrats. This strategy worked too, as liberal came to be a dirty word.
Thus, a number of liberal Democrats started misidentifying themselves as progressives in order to shy away from controversy and improve their odds in the polls. Hillary Clinton, for instance, prefers to be called a progressive, because the phrase liberal has been “debased.” Now, liberal think tanks and liberals in the blogosphere are shying away from the liberal label in favor of the term progressive.
There is a real difference though, and the misrepresentations may actually be a drag to real progressive policymakers, especially if the right and the media can transform the progressive label into a negative term.
The Modern Progressive Movement
The modern progressive movement is a lose alliance of advocacy groups, politicians and activists. Actor Robert Redford, for instance, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich are examples of modern progressives. The voice of the progressive is a one hundred year old magazine, The Progressive. And organizations, such as the moderate Third Way, the Center for American Progress, and more liberal groups, such as MoveOn.org, actively promote policies to support the progressive movement.
Progressives tend to oppose monopolies and powerful corporate trusts. As a result, they favor trust-busting and regulation in order to check corporate corruption and strength. Some progressives are disappointed with President Obama, who has used markedly liberal policies to end the financial crisis. Instead of directing the Justice Department to launch anti-trust investigations against the nation’s largest financial firms, he has instead favored government bailouts and government takeovers. The more traditional progressive response to banks and companies that are “too big to fail,” would be to make them smaller.
Progressives also favor environmental protection, conservation and stewardship, and energy independence. A liberal solution to high energy costs might be to increase federal spending for a program like the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Progressives, however, would “also crack down on price gouging and pass laws better-regulating the oil industry’s profiteering and market manipulation tactics.”
Progressives are opposed to the efforts of corporate entities that seek greater influence in government. As previously mentioned, progressives like to strengthen democracy, and generate more power for the public. That’s why the progressive movement was responsible for the constitutional amendment that allowed for the direct election of U.S. Senators (members of the Right should note that Scott Brown [R-MA] could not have been elected without this important contribution). Now, progressives support the public financing of elections, they support direct elections, and they support other efforts to reform government and politics.
It’s simple enough; despite the fact that it is easy to confuse progressives with liberals, they are not one in the same. They each come from different political philosophies, and while they share some similarities, these two ideologies can be very different. Americans everywhere must guard against pundits and partisans on each side of the political divide, to ensure that facts such as these cannot be misrepresented. It is, after all, a simple mistake to make, but an easy one to correct. And it is reckless to accuse progressives of being Marxists, fascists, or some other kind of extremist in the pursuit of earning a few cheap political points.
For more info: The Progressive Movement, Politics101: What is a Progressive? What is progressivism?, What’s the Differance Between a Liberal and Progressive, The Difference Between Liberal and Progressive, Democratic Underground.