What Does it Mean to be Progressive
Updated: Apr 30
The word “progressive” carries a lot of baggage. On the right, conservatives bandy about the term as an insult, a term of derision meant to signal an opposition to “traditional values,” military weakness or cowardice, or an “Un-American” approach to economics. For many conservatives, “progressives” are really anyone to their left on the political spectrum, which isn’t hard to do these days.
Among Democrats, it is an identity many elected officials and candidates covet. During the primaries, it seems every Democrat is a “progressive.” Whether they really are or not is open to debate. As a self-described progressive myself, I certainly have my own ideas about what the word means and when the title is appropriately employed. But for our immediate purposes here, I will attempt to lay out an objective working definition.
Starting with the basics, the Oxford English Dictionary defines progressive in a number of contexts, but for our purposes here’s a couple that are relevant:
(Of a person or idea) favoring social reform ‘a relatively progressive Minister of Education’. Or favouring change or innovation.
Beyond this technical definition which may or may not be applied to current national political dynamics, I went in search of more satisfying definitions that might better inform the underlying point of this post; what does it mean to be “progressive” in today’s political climate.
I came across an article in The New Republic aptly titled, “Are You Progressive?”. The author ultimately provides two definitions that contradict one another:
In a recent issue of the journal Democracy, the historian Sean Wilentz addressed it head-on: Liberals, he argues, recognize the flaws of capitalism, are dedicated to remedying them, and have great achievements to their credit in that regard, notably those of the New Deal, the New Frontier, and the Great Society. Progressives are meanwhile “emphatically anti-liberal”—because they are hostile to capitalism and, “deep down, harbor the hope that one day, perhaps through some catastrophic event, American capitalism will indeed be replaced by socialism.”
He goes on:
In practice, however, Wilentz’s theory doesn’t really apply: Progressive and liberal are precisely synonyms in American political life—and have been since the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan succeeded in making liberals feel ashamed of the word and fearful of associating with it, and they started calling themselves progressives instead. This wasn’t the introduction of a new politics; it was the rebranding of an existing one.
While I tend to agree with the conclusion drawn by McCormack in the New Republic article, I don’t intend to debate here the difference between “liberal” and “progressive,” rather provide some context. Feeling that I’ve done that, I’m moving on.
I’ve seen articles recently, more than one in fact, that claim the “progressive” agenda isn’t so much “progressive,” but rather a reclaiming of New Deal policies and a “realigning” of the Democratic Party.
As we can begin to see above, this approach does more to muddy the definitional waters than to clarify them. Without delving into the political connections and relationships of these journalists, I believe this is little more than an ongoing and continuous effort by the Democratic Party establishment and its supporters to appropriate the term for their own purposes. As so many Democratic elected officials, both here in the islands and across the country, aim to do.
Yes, I would imagine that most true progressives (I’ll come to my own definition a bit later) support the policies of the New Deal, but its agenda I think falls short of what we should today call “progressive.” For starters, during the era of Roosevelt there was little consciousness or understanding of the impacts human society has on the environment around us. And any “progressive” agenda today should include a strong environmental protection stance.
In addition to a strong stance on environmental protections, defense and support of strong labor organizing components, and social justice as opposition to treating immigrants, people of color, or women as anything less than equal should be at the core of “progressive” values.
Anyone considering themselves “progressive” should be a staunch and vocal supporter of labor unions and the unfettered right of workers to collectively organize.
During the last 40 years or so, Democratic and Republican politicians alike have worked, actively or otherwise, to chip away at union membership and the influence of organized labor on our political and economic systems. Sure, Republicans have largely led the charge, but sadly far too many Democratic politicians have been complicit.
Organized labor, history shows us, has had substantial impacts on our society and economy by fighting for fairness. Again, not equality, but fairness. Only as the strength and influence of labor unions has wained over the last few decades have wages stagnated, have corporate profits and influence exploded, and the quality of life of the average worker suffered.
In the age of Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movements, any examination of what it means to be progressive must include some consideration of social justice.
Indigenous rights, here in Hawaii, might be the most pronounced example of what I mean. Court rulings and protest movements have shown us that Native Hawaiian rights are given consideration only when it serves the purposes of political politeness, or tourist industry pandering. Government mechanisms constitutionally mandated to benefit Native Hawaiian communities are paid little more than lip service.
Even today, we need look no farther than the stand-off over the TMT on Mauna Kea, or the underfunding of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) or Department of Hawaiian Homelands (DHHL).
Beyond the shores of Hawaii, groups are under assault across the country, from immigrants forced into illegal camps reminiscent of Nazi concentration camps or the Japanese interment camps in the U.S. to a growing violence toward anyone non-white and/or non-American.
For any self-described “progressive,” these developments should enrage and terrify you.
What is a “Progressive” to Me?
What I think drives my progressive-ness more than anything else is a strong sense of fairness. I want to be clear here. Fairness in my mind is not the same as equality, or equality of access.
For example, our criminal justice system is built on the notion of “equal protection” under the law, but that does not mean the system is fair. There are any number of laws and mechanisms within our criminal justice system that are simply unfair. From mandatory minimums that disproportionately impact minority and poor populations, to the ability to hire an experienced attorney, the system is far from fair.
More broadly, the American notion of “pulling yourself up by your boot-straps” is also based on the idea of equal access, but not of fairness. Countless studies have shown us that it matters far less how smart or hard working you are. If your family has money you’re more likely to succeed than those who don’t.
Systems and policies built on fairness, rather than equality of access, are what I’m interested in. If you’re making $500 million a year, you should be required to pay a very high tax rate. Providing public schools (and public school teachers) with virtually unlimited funds to ensure our schools are providing children with anything and everything they need to succeed should be the standard. Not vouchers. And no tax breaks for those who send their kids to private schools (I’m not sure this is a thing now, but it certainly shouldn’t be).
Citizens United has guaranteed those with money have louder voices than those without. A political system driven by the notion that “money is speech” might be perceived to be equal, but it is by no reasonable standard fair. Progressives should support publicly funded elections, stringent reporting laws, and strict spending limits.
Ultimately for me fairness should be the standard applied and not “equal access.”
In terms of environmental justice, fairness might be harder to quantify. And as someone who is not very well versed in the wide range of environmental issues facing humanity, it is trickier for me to cobble together a definition that distinguishes “fairness” from “equality of access.”
In the broadest terms, I’d say it comes down to this: we all have one world. Environmental protections and regulatory mechanisms should, first and foremost, seek to protect our natural environment and the health and safety of humanity. Concerns about impacts on “industry” or economy should rank a distant second.
True Believers & Practical Progressives
Further, I breakdown “progressives” into two groups: True Believers and Practical Progressives.
The first group I call the “true believer progressives.” Young and old, “progressives” in this group are, as the name suggests, those who believe right is right and anything else than that is to compromise their principles. They occupy the high ground and may be inclined to toss overboard anyone who is willing to settle for less rather than get nothing at all.
For these folks, to accept anything less than a truly living wage, for example, rather than any increase to the Minimum Wage is to sell-out to moderates and corporatists. Or those who were unwilling to settle for Civil Unions rather than full Marriage Equality for same-sex couples. Pick any issue of importance facing our country (or the world) today and you’ll find the “true believers” occupying the far-left flank prepared to hurl barbs at those who are willing to compromise to move the needle even a little bit.
This brings me to the second group, which I would call “practical progressives.” I consider myself falling into this group. There was a time, when I was younger, that I was undeniably a “true believer.” But having worked in politics as either an activist or professional operative for more than a decade, I’ve developed an understanding that politics is as much about compromise as it is holding firm to your principles.
Should minimum wage workers who haven’t received a raise in years and years be forced to wait longer while we battle for a living wage? Or should we work to get the biggest raise we can and then keep fighting to push that wage up? Should we have waited for politicians to be “ready” for full Marriage Equality while families needed protections and benefits provided under a Civil Union legal structure?
While “practical progressives” and “true believers” may be, at times, at odds with each other, I believe a necessary partnership exists between these two groups. “True believers” give strength and sense of purpose to us “practical” folks. Conversely, “practical progressives” can lend legitimacy and forward momentum to positions coveted by the “true believers.” In either case, I believe one does not much succeed without the other.
While I hope this has been an interesting and educational read, I expect there will be some who are critical of my analysis and definitions as I’ve laid them out here. That’s ok. A conversation about what it means to be “progressive” could be a useful one.
Some Interesting Reading
While researching this post, I came across a number of interesting articles from various sources which I thought were worth sharing….
McCormack, Win. April 20, 2018. “Are You Progressive?” The New Republic. https://newrepublic.com/article/147825/progressive-vital-term-us-political-life-lost-significance
Wilentz, Sean. Spring 2018. “Fighting Words.” Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. https://democracyjournal.org/magazine/48/fighting-words/
Saval, Nikil. July 5, 2017. “Hated by the Right. Mocked by the Left. Who Wants to be ‘Liberal’ Anymore?” The New York Times Magazine. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/05/magazine/hated-by-the-right-mocked-by-the-left-who-wants-to-be-liberal-anymore.html
Wenar, Leif and Hong, Chong-Min. 1996. “On Republicanism and Liberalism.” The Harvard Review of Philosophy. http://www.harvardphilosophy.com/issues/1996/Sandel.pdf