Home National Politics What Should It Mean to Be a “Progressive” in Today’s America?

What Should It Mean to Be a “Progressive” in Today’s America?


In a recent Facebook thread, I was asked the question, “Lowell, what do you think makes a progressive dem?” My immediate response was basically that this was a question that would require a long answer to do it justice. Now, I feel that I’m ready to provide a somewhat longer, more fleshed-out answer (although FAR from complete – please add additions, corrections, etc. in the comments section) to this important question (although note that I’m tweaking the question a bit to “what should it mean to be a ‘progressive’ in today’s America?”).

First off, let me be clear that by “progressive” I don’t mean a synonym or code word for “liberal.” Not that there’s anything wrong with the word “liberal” or its values, but I’ve always considered my political beliefs to be more in the mold of the Progressive Era of the early 20th century, obviously updated to the present day. What follows is what I believe it should mean to be an early-21st-century progressive, compared to what it meant to be an early 20th century Progressive (note: in the interest of length, I’m going to skip the parts of Progressivism, like Prohibition and some weird ideas about immigration, which most definitely should NOT be part of progressivism in 21st century America).

1. Good Government/Anti-Corruption. To me, this one’s obvious: government should be effectively, transparent, and not subject to corruption of any kind. On the latter, that doesn’t just mean making it illegal for someone to offer an elected official a freezer full of cash. It also means making sure that nobody who stands to make money off of government policies should be in a position to influence the government through campaign contributions or whatever. We also need to shut the “revolving door” between government and industry, or at least slow it down to a crawl. And government needs to reform itself so that it attracts the best and the brightest, so that there are incentives for people to work effectively, and so that taxpayer money is never wasted. That’s just for starters; there are many more items needed to make good, clean, effective government a reality. As the great Progressive Teddy Roosevelt said, quoting from the 1912 Progressive platform, “to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day….. This country belongs to the people. Its resources, its business, its laws, its institutions, should be utilized, maintained, or altered in whatever manner will best promote the general interest.” And as the 1912 Progressive Party (“Bull Moose”) platform stated, “We pledge our party to legislation that will compel strict limitation on all campaign contributions and expenditures, and detailed publicity of both before as well as after primaries and elections.”

2. Education as Essential to Meritocracy. Having a system of top-notch, affordable education (at all levels) is about having a system in America which rewards merit, as opposed to connections, family wealth, or other non-value-added attributes. Ensuring that everyone in this country has access to affordable, top-notch education (that should start young, with universal pre-K, and continue throughout life, so that people can get retrained for other careers) is a necessary, although not sufficient, component of having a meritocracy. Without it, we’re going to see the continuation of a nasty trend which has the U.S. falling behind many other countries in terms of the potential for social mobility (e.g., if you’re born poor, you can become middle class or wealthy). That’s not an acceptable situation.

2a. Meritocracy means no discrimination of any kind. This one should go without saying, but I noticed a comment which asked that it be spelled out explicitly. So let me do so: being a progressive means no discrimination of any kind against anyone due to their race, religion, ethnic background, sexual orientiation, gender, or anything else intrinsic to them as a human being. Againk, this one should go without saying for a bunch of reasons, among which are that it’s not possible to have a meritocracy when there’s discrimination. It’s also just plain wrong to discriminate.

3. Checking corporate power and greed, as well as the excesses of capitalism. While Teddy Roosevelt certainly believed that strong corporations were good for America, he also believed that “corporate behavior must be watched to ensure that corporate greed did not get out of hand (trust-busting and federal regulation of business).” It’s basically the same thing today, when corporations are arguably more powerful than ever, and in which taxpayer-funded corporate welfare has run amok (examples: corn ethanol, coal, oil, sugar, meat, a gazillion others). In no way, shape or form should corporate crony capitalism be acceptable in America, nor should corporations be allowed to gain the type of power they’ve got today. Among many other items on the “to do” list, we need to make sure that corporations pay their fair share of taxes (which many don’t now), that corporations don’t get to dump their pollution (or social costs) onto the society as a whole without paying to clean them up, that they aren’t allowed to dominate our political process (bye bye Citizens United!), that they don’t get “too big to fail,” etc, etc.

Another point on corporations is that, as Teddy Roosevelt stated, “[g]reat corporations exist only because they are created and safeguarded by our institutions; and it is therefore our right and our duty to see that they work in harmony with these institutions.” This gets at Elizabeth Warren’s superb speech in which she talked about how “there is nobody in this country who got rich on his own,” that they did it in a system (of roads, educated workers, police and firefighters, the military, etc.) we all paid for. This also gets at the idiotic “debate” we had in the 2012 campaign over Barack Obama’s mangled/out-of-context “you didn’t build that” quote. In fact, as Warren said more eloquently, as much as corporate honchos like to pat themselves on the back for doing everything on their own, in some sort of Ayn Rand autarkic fantasy world, when in fact they couldn’t have “built that” in countries without the preconditions we have here (rule of law, respect for property rights, all the factors Warren mentioned, etc, etc.). And finally, NO, CORPORATIONS ARE NOT PEOPLE (yet again, I refer you to Elizabeth Warren.

Now, a few relevant Teddy Roosevelt quotes: “In the interest of the public, the Government should have the right to inspect and examine the workings of the great corporations engaged in interstate business. Publicity is the only sure remedy which we can now invoke;” “in the interest of the whole people, the Nation should, without interfering with the power of the States in the matter itself, also assume power of supervision and regulation over all corporations doing an interstate business;” and “We are not hostile to [corporations], we are merely determined that they shall be so handled as to subserve the public good. We draw the line against misconduct, not against wealth.”

4. Democracy, the Right to Vote: To the extent possible, we need to have an informed, engaged citizenry involved in our political process. That means never infringing on people’s right to vote, whether because they used to be a felon (but served their time/paid their debt to society), or because a particular political party (with an “R” at the start of its name) decides to invent fictional/non-existent “voter fraud” as a justification to make it harder (or impossible) for people (particularly those who tend to vote for the other party, the one with a “D” at the beginning of its name) to vote. As for direct Democracy, it gets trickier. I strongly support the Progressives’ call for direct primaries and the direct election of US Senators, but I have mixed feelings about initiatives, referenda, recalls and the like. I’ve seen how that system has worked in California, and I’m not impressed. But perhaps that’s not a fair test, as it’s not coupled with serious campaign finance reform. Perhaps if we did that, then citizen initiatives and referenda could be debated on their merits, not on which well-heeled interests dump the most money into the campaign.

Now, a few relevant quotes. First, from the  1912 Progressive Party (“Bull Moose”) platform: “This country belongs to the people who inhabit it. Its resources, its business, its institutions and its laws should be utilized, maintained or altered in whatever manner will best promote the general interest. It is time to set the public welfare in the first place.” Now, from Teddy Roosevelt: “Our country-this great republic-means nothing unless it means the triumph of a real democracy, the triumph of popular government, and, in the long run, of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him;” and “Our whole experiment is meaningless unless we are to make this a democracy in the fullest sense of the word, in the broadest as well as the highest and deepest significance of the word. It must be made a democracy economically, as well as politically.”

5. Progressive taxation: A progressive tax code is a core concept of progressivism, that the wealthiest Americans should pay a proportionally higher share of their income in taxes, since they (by far) reap the most benefits from the system. Also, progressive taxation gets back to the issue of “meritocracy.” In this context, I’d add a few Teddy Roosevelt’s quotes with which I strongly agree: “I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and in another tax which is far more easily collected and far more effective – a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate;” “No advantage comes either to the country as a whole or to the individuals inheriting the money by permitting the transmission in their entirety of the enormous fortunes which would be affected by such a tax; and as an incident to its function of revenue raising, such a tax would help to preserve a measurable equality of opportunity for the people of the generations growing to manhood;” and (on meritocracy) “The failure in public and in private life thus to treat each man on his own merits, the recognition of this government as being either for the poor as such or for the rich as such, would prove fatal to our Republic, as such failure and such recognition have always proved fatal in the past to other republics.”

6. Conservation/Environmental Protection: This gets at the concept of “market failure,” and in the fundamental progressive idea that markets are powerful, but not perfect by any means. In the case of environmental destruction, it’s often a case of clear, even egregious, market failure. For instance, if companies can charge lower prices to consumers simply because they do not have to pay for their pollution or other damage to the environment (e.g., over-exploitation of natural resources), then it’s clear that the market system has failed in that case. That’s a major argument for why we need government, to correct such market failure. In the case of climate change, for instance, the clear market failure has to do with not putting a serious price (or any price) on greenhouse gas pollutants. It also has to do with (wildly) tilting the playing field in favor of carbon-based fuels and against non-carbon-based fuels. None of that makes any rational sense, but this gets back to the good government issue; in this case, the government has been “captured” by powerful, vested fossil fuel interests who want to extract every last penny of profit from the earth, even if it trashes the entire planet.

I’d add a few Teddy Roosevelt quotes here. “neither man nor nation can prosper unless, in dealing with the present, thought is steadily taken for the future”; “The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value;” “There can be no greater issue than that of conservation in this country;” “I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us;” “natural resources must be used for the benefit of all our people, and not monopolized for the benefit of the few;” and “Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of insuring the safety and continuance of the nation. Let me add that the health and vitality of our people are at least as well worth conserving as their forests, waters, lands, and minerals, and in this great work the national government must bear a most important part.” And from the 1912 Progressive Party platform: “The natural resources of the Nation must be promptly developed and generously used to supply the people’s needs, but we cannot safely allow them to be wasted, exploited, monopolized or controlled against the general good. ”

7. Government as a force for social and economic justice: This gets at “market failure” and excesses of capitalism again. As the 1912 Progressive Party (“Bull Moose”) platform explained, “The supreme duty of the Nation is the conservation of human resources through an enlightened measure of social and industrial justice.” This includes laws aimed at preventing “industrial accidents, occupational diseases, overwork, involuntary unemployment, and other injurious effects incident to modern industry.” It also involves such things as “minimum safety and health standards for the various occupations,” “the exercise of the public authority of State and Nation, including the Federal control over inter-State commerce and the taxing power, to maintain such standards,” and “protection of home life against the hazards of sickness, irregular employment and old age through the adoption of a system of social insurance adapted to American use.” In all of this, clearly, government is not some evil force, as modern-day conservatives seem to see it, or “the problem” as Ronald Reagan put it, but a crucial check on business and protector of workers (aka, 99% of us).

8. Fighting for progress on all fronts. This is an admittedly catch-all category, but I think it’s important, as the first root of the word “progressive” is, after all, “progress.” That means all the items mentioned above, but more broadly fighting to achieve the highest ideals laid out in our founding documents. It means that over time, rights (and obligations that go with those rights, of course) are expanded (to ALL people, regardless of race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, etc.), not contracted. It means that we become a more prosperous country, but also a healthier, better educated, more secure (e.g., in our old age), more equal (in terms of opportunity, not necessarily in terms of outcome), more inclusive, more enlightened, more environmentally sustainable nation. We also need to be good citizens of this planet, which doesn’t mean that we won’t be strong or that we shouldn’t defend our interests, but it DOES mean that we work with other countries wherever possible, help build strong international institutions, and work to build a world that reflects our (progressive) values.

Again, that’s just a start at what it should mean to be a 21st century progressive. Whether or not today’s Democratic Party is progressive, I’ll leave to another discussion (or you can talk about it in the comments section). But clearly, today’s Republican Party is anti-progressive on almost every level. Which is kind of pathetic, given that Teddy Roosevelt was – before he became in independent – a Republican. But then again, so was Abraham Lincoln, and he’d be horrified at what the formerly “Grand” Old Party has become as well.

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