the definition debate: what is a progressive?

Throughout history many banners have flown in the name of freedom, many different colors and styles spurred movements on to revolution and victory. From the Star Spangled Banner of the American Revolution to the red banners in the streets of China to the political banners of modern times. These streaming bits of cloth are more than physical symbols born by flag bearers. These banners are accompanied by boxes of thought and explicit doctrines of belief. We rally around banners, they lead us to freedom, they lead us to liberty, and they lead us to justice. But this what the banners of the past have lead us to today? We are now forced to rally behind one banner or another, we are forced to make a choice, we are forced to fight for freedom with conditions – yet freedom is unconditional.

Breaking over the horizon atop a mound of inequalities, injustices, and failed ideas rises a new banner, however this banner has no one flag bearer. It is a banner that waves and weaves between many people and multiple beliefs. This banner is a meshed quilt of the banners long since past and new lengths of fabric, innovately designed banners. This banner of sorts also bears a title: Progressive. However this title is unlike the titles from the banners of the past. This banner changes shape as it is held aloft to unite for a common cause.

The defining and constricting of this term, progressive, was a topic of great contention at the 4th Annual National Summit for Progressive Leaders of 2008 run by Young People For(YP4). I had many long discussion about what it means, the implications of the term, and the worries of a dogma growing within the progressive movement. To give a starting point:

From my “Hella Pone” workshop group representing Northern California, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin –

A progressive is: open minded, inclusive, compassionate, proactive and engaged in positive change, innovative, sustainable, optimistic, idealistic, for equality and justice, informed and conscious, evolving, and a leader challenging the status quo

The most important thing to remember is that the term progressive has a long historical and political connotation. Progressivism grew in the 1920s as a response to industrialization and traditional conservativism as well as to the more radical socialist and anarchist movements of the time. The American Progressive Party was born in the 1930s and advanced under Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, Woodrow Wilson (?), and Franklin Roosevelt. Historically “progressives” advocated for worker’s rights and social justice. Early progressives were proponents of anti-trust laws and the regulation of large corporations and monopolies, as well as government-funded environmentalism and the creation of National Parks and Wildlife Refuges. The principles of Progressivism and the early Progressive Movement would lay the foundation for future progressive thought and politics. Even wikipedia notes that the precise criteria for what constitutes “progressivism” varies worldwide. Here are some of the common (historical) progressive tenets outlined:

Ballot initiatives where citizens approve proposed laws through a direct vote, initiatives where citizens could proposed laws for legislation, direct primary, direct election of US Senators, referendum where citizens could vote to rescind laws, and women’s suffrage. Early progressives also called for a centralization of government to reduce the number of officials and eliminate overlapping authority. At the start of the Progressive Movement government corruption was near an all time high. They sought to promote professional administrators to deal with this issue. Trust-busting, socialism (government working for the public good), laissez-faire market belief, and regulation of large corporations represented the economic tenets. Environmentally progressives called for increases in national parks. On the social justice side, early progressives supported the development of professional social workers, the creation of settlement housing (basically a community center operated by professional social workers to increase the standard of living in inner cities), enacting child labor laws (to end children in the workplace), promoting organized labor and the prohibition (alcohol was a deterrent to achieving success for the cause).

For our purposes I think we are, in a way, giving the term a boost. Where progressive used to represent a political party or economic theory, it now represents a set of basic values that seem very simple for everyone to agree upon. Young People For lists the issues that fall under the progressive title as: civil rights, constitutional liberty, immigrant rights, independent judiciary, LGBT rights, marriage equality, access to higher education, religious freedom, environmental protection, voting rights, civic participation, women’s rights, worker’s rights, human rights, international issues, environmental justice, equal rights, I think John Halpin, senior advisor on the staff of the Center for American Progress said it best, “Progressivism is an orientation towards politics, It’s not a long-standing ideology like liberalism, but an historically-grounded concept… that accepts the world as dynamic.” Progressives see it as an attitude towards the politics of today. It is a thought process that is broader than conservatism vs. liberalism, which attempts to break free from what they consider to be a false and divisive dichotomy of ideologies. There is an excellent article (click here) on what progressivism means today in WireTap magazine written by a young person.

For our purposes today I believe the term progressive is a way to develop a focused set of values while encompassing many issue bases. The progressive term allows people to live and work outside the boxes of society. You can be a republican, a democrat, liberal, economically conservative, socialist, black, white, red, blue – you are not forced to conform to a certain norm – you can fall under the progressive terminology if you share the same values and visions for our world. This is a dangerous area in any movement when we begin to confine our thought and set a type of dogma for ourselves to follow. If you are a republican you are no less progressive, if you are a socialist you are not too radically progressive, if you are not a vegetarian you are no less progressive, if you embody the full range of progressive thought that does not mean that you are not and cannot be a progressive. It is often difficult to allow for this openness of a term because we are stuck in an old way of thinking that limits our abilities to accept. We are trapped by our own postmodern love of labeling ourselves and creating the other.

We stream to the progressive banner seeking a doctrine, an ideology, or a mantra to rule the day. But the banner needs to be People. As one of my good philosophy friends explained to me, and I paraphrase, at the end of the day we are all just fictional characters living in a world that we have created for ourselves. Our identities are all constructed from what we choose to think or what history has developed We label and fit ourselves into methods The banner is not Progressivism, but it is People. If we lose sight of that idea, then the rebirth of the progressive movement has already failed. People are our end goal and focus. We are not here to advance our self-interest or force our ideology. Within the progressive movement our focus is People not Progressivism and we cannot forget. The banner needs to remain people or we as the progressive movement will just become another title, another dogma of boxed thought – we need to remain open and innovative and changing, we need ensure that we do not become more than an applied method of thinking. The banner is not Progressive, the banner is People.

From Associated Progress, the essential progressive news network.

Previously posted on the Young People For Blog.

One thought on “the definition debate: what is a progressive?

  1. The U.S. needs NATIONAL ballot initiatives so we can check and balance a Congress which has rolled over for torture, war of aggression, domestic spying, trillions more in debt, etc.The best project for easier, more deliberative and national initiatives is headed by former Sen. Mike Gravel, and YOU can vote to ratify it at, much as citizens, not the existing 13 legislature, ratified the Constitution at the Conventions!

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