What’s Progressive?

In European Politics, History and Politics, Political Ideology, Politics, Politics of Policy, Progressivism, Public Policy, Social Democracy on December 7, 2010 at 7:58 pm

Progressives seen in their native habitat, Chicago 1912


The political label “progressive” has been a rather tricky, protean word ever since its reintroduction in the 1990s. On the one hand, it was used by by people on the democratic left to escape the tainted label of “liberal,” find a more just-post-Cold-War-America-friendly self-description than “social democrat,” or to describe a desire for a politics that was more ambitious and militant than 60’s liberalism but without the craziness and dysfunctionality of the New Left. On the other hand, it was used by the increasingly dominant center-right of center-left parties to shield themselves from (largely accurate) accusations of selling out – the Democratic Leadership Council’s Progressive Policy institute in the U.S, or the Blairite think-tank Progress are two good examples of this chameleon-like behavior.

Now we are seeing the already-rickety Coalition government in the U.K throw around the term progressive as a political prophylactic when cutting social welfare, education, and any other form of government spending they can think of to the bone – it’s ok, it’s progressive! And ergo morally acceptable.

Some linguistic policing is badly needed here.


Unlike some of my colleagues, I don’t the label should be dropped, or that we should try to reclaim “liberal” instead. Especially in the American case, I think there’s something vitally important about “progressive” as a historically-grounded political identity.


One of the strangest things about the last few years of American politics is that the only figure in the national media who’s actually teaching the history of American Progressivism is Glenn Beck.

It’s an absolutely insane, incredibly distorted history of the Progressives, but we don’t see the history of Progressivism taught on MSNBC; the names Herbert Croly or Louis D. Brandeis or William B. Wilson (not the president) are heard almost exclusively in a context of conservative conspiracy theory.  The Center for American Progress have tried to do some of this, but in such a small-bore fashion that it can’t really reach the kind of popular ubiquity that Fox News has become a byword for.

So who were the Progressives? In brief (because for a long version, you really should take a history course), I think you can think of the Progressives as composed of three groups.

First, the intellectuals; a close-knit group of people who shared a common background in that they overwhelmingly came from Yankee families either from New England or the Midwest Puritan diaspora, who had been educated both in American colleges but also for the first time in German universities, often in the social sciences (if not, in social work), who shared a common concern that the results of industrialization were producing an America that looked very different from the one they had grown up with. They often came from religious families but who themselves wrestled with the tensions between the worldly culture of the “Gilded Age” and the Sermon on the Mount, who turned as often to the Social Gospel or Catholic Social Thought as they did to Atheism. (This group included a wide array of amateur public intellectuals, “muckraking” journalists, social reformers, and other non-academics)

What they brought to progressivism was an absolute faith in facts, knowledge, and expertise, the belief that truth and transparency would compel a people’s government to do the right thing, and also the understanding that societies and countries evolve historically, and the hope that this development could be consciously directed by a democratic government to a better end.

Second, the Democrats. Yankee intellectuals and others tended, at least out of ancestral deference, to vote Republican. But the Democratic side of Progressivism is absolutely grounded in the Populist movement. In part because they were white Midwestern and Southern farmers who came up in the anti-statist tradition of Jefferson and Jackson, the Populist innovation and their legacy to Progressivism – that the enemy of the common man’s freedom was now the railroad corporation and the banker, and that the national government could now morally act against capital in favor of the farmer and the worker – the Populists opened up a huge political space in a way that almost never happens. It meant that there was a way forward for the new immigrants, bringing among other traditions Social Democracy and trade unionism, to enter into the political arena through the traditional party of the immigrant in America.

Third, the Republicans – the LaFolletes, the Hiram Johnsons, the George Norrises, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Republican delegates who bolted the convention with him in 1912. These tended to overlap with the intellectuals to an extent, but rather than being influenced by the academy, they were rather the heirs of the Hamiltonian/Whig tradition in American politics – in favor of an activist national state that guided economic development, in favor of social reform through the provision of public education, distribution of land, and modestly committed to the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, and temperance – the social movements of their time. Through thinkers like Herbert Croly, what they bequeathed to Progressivism was a belief that republicanism – the rule of the sovereign people, the preservation of a “rough equality of means,” and resistance against t”malefactors of great wealth” – could survive in the era of the modern corporation.

What I admire about the Progressives who lent their name to the era is that they were the first generation of Americans to live in an age of corporate capitalism, and they were perhaps the last generation of Americans whose minds were not limited by the acceptance of the resulting social order. Because of this, they had an amazing capacity to look beyond the world they lived in, and to advocate for entirely new ways of ordering society – they dreamed big.

What makes them unique is that, unlike the generation of political activists who experienced 1968, the Nixon Presidency, and Reaganism as the unrelenting demonstration that Americans hated what they believe in and that what they believed in was thus too un-American to speak its name, they were absolutely secure in their claim to American history. In part because they came from a tightly-knit world of Yankee elites, because their fathers had fought for the Union in the name of New England, because their great-grandfathers were numbered in the Revolutionary Generation, the Progressives felt free to consider such wild notions as the U.S government taking over any corporation that challenged the supremacy of the Nation without as much as a flinch.

What Does it Mean to Be A Progressive Today?

What does it mean to be a progressive then? I think it means, as an intellectual approach, to look to empirical and historical methods of analysis rather than abstract models and laws, especially in the world of economics, but also in social policy, foreign policy, and environmental policy. But as a politics, I think it means that one has to agree to at least three things:

  • A social policy that seeks not merely to make poverty less painful, but also to empower workers against corporations through the provision of independent economic security and the protection of their rights. Social policy should also be broadly and effectively redistributive, in order to uphold the republican principle that there should be a “rough equality of means” in a free society. At the same time, redistribution should serve as a way of guaranteeing a division of  profits that ensures that the moral right of labor to the value of their labor is recognized, as the great Progressive Richard Ely once proposed, and also so that the value that comes from the proximity and intermingling of intelligent and creative people that Henry George pointed to is returned to the society that created it.
  • An economic policy that aims at more than the promotion of economic growth and a vague hope for lower unemployment. The great legacy of Progressivism was that they insisted on the public control of economic direction – not micromanagement, but the assertion that the major decisions that determined how people’s lives were to be lived would be decided democratically, that people would not be left to struggle alone against a world of economic forces beyond their control, but that we could together both protect and guide ourselves.
  • An approach to politics that seeks to foster a deliberative and inclusive republic, and a political system in which the lines of power and control flow clearly and directly from the people to their elected representatives to form a government that is more powerful than any private corporation or group of corporations.

Obviously this is just my own formulation, but I do think that we have to insist that you can’t be a progressive just by saying you are – at some point, allegiance to a political or social movement requires you to sign up to a concrete platform of demands and a broader code of ideals. But whatever formulation we arrive at, I do think it’s crucial that it must be comprehensive – it is far too easy for people who are functionally neoliberals to claim the mantle of progressive merely by signing up on our social agenda, or by calling themselves environmentalists, without committing to the rest of it. The end result of that is to form within the progressive movement a party of bankers who like to smoke pot who in any other country would be part of a center-right Liberal Party, and that really weakens us as a movement.

What Makes A Policy Progressive?

So how do we decide whether a policy change is progressive? I think it means going beyond just whether a policy redistributes just to the poorest or away from the richest – it’s not the same thing as Rawlsian liberalism – to look at whether a policy includes all members of society within the boundaries of social protection, whether it provides adequate and comprehensive protection against the “vicissitudes of modern life,” and whether it lends itself to a majoritarian coalition that can sustain such a policy in a democratic republic.

In other words,

Taxing Social Security Benefits or Means-Testing Social Security is NOT progressive, Matt Yglesias. While it might fulfill the Rawlsian requirements of helping out the poorest at the expensive of those with more, it undermines the principles outlined above for extremely limited gains. Taxing or means-testing creates a division between “us” and “them” when it comes to benefits, and it is widely known to political poison in the realm of Social Policy (see Theda Skocpol on this point) which damages the majoritarian coalition behind Social Security. Instead, the progressive strategy here is to target within universalism, not without – you establish a benefit structure that returns a higher rate to low-income workers but provides an adequate benefit to the middle-class, you boost SSI (Supplemental Security Income), you find ways to redistribute, but you maintain the coalition as you do it.

Not only is this good politics, it’s also good policy – it avoids income traps (in which earning a dollar more loses you a dollar in benefits), it prevents stigma (by ensuring that benefits are seen as mainstream middle class behavior), and especially in an economic structure in which people are increasingly likely to fall from the ranks of the middle and working classes into poverty, it provides superior protection from economic dislocation.

Likewise, Cutting Services Less for the Poor or Redistributing Slightly from the Richest to the Poorest is NOT progressive, Conservative/Lib Dem Coalition Government of the U.K. The poor have the least reserves or protections in an economic downturn, and turn more to the state than those with more income and wealth – even cuts that “cut less” for the poor will still have a disproportionate impact, because unlike those with wealth, the poor cannot substitute private capital for public services. Similarly, you have to look all the way up and all the way down the income ladder, and consider the holistic impact of policy changes to ensure that everyone’s included within the realm of protection and whether their protection is both adequate and comprehensive.

Not only claims that cuts are progressives relatively easy to knock down empirically, they reveal a profound lack of thought about what progressivism actually means and a lack of desire to do the intellectual heavy lifting that it demands. Social mobility is absolutely part of progressivism – but it’s not the only part, and it’s a lot harder to achieve if economic inequality is allowed to rise; those with resources will find their way smoothed, while those without will face an unfair competition.


At the end of the day, there’s no reason to shy away from self-definition. Big tents are all well and good, but without some policing to ensure that everyone’s actually willing to work for a common goal, you’re left with a circus.

– Steven Attewell

  1. […] that the Blue and Gold program has created since its enactment. Blue and Gold has been used as the progressive shield of the U.C since President Yudof’s arrival, but it’s a Potemkin […]

  2. […] policing sounds nasty and scary and totalitarian, but it’s actually a normal and healthy part of politics. All political movements need to decide what they believe in, and they can’t do that or move […]

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