'Progressive' is a term bandied about very loosely. It seems anyone who considers themselves left of a Conservative can claim the laurel. Liberals like to imagine themselves progressives. New Dems were progressive before they chose to fight for power rather than people.
What does 'Progressive' mean if it still means anything at all?
If you want a global perspective you could try getting your hands on a copy of "The Meaning of Modern Life." Published in 1907 it is a collection of lectures or essays by some of the great thinkers at the dawn of the 20th century. Some names you'll know: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, H.G. Wells, Grover Cleveland, Count Leo Tolstoy and Andrew Carnegie. Most you've probably never heard of. It's a heavy tome but a worthwhile read for those seeking to understand progressivism. You can find in it the intellectual underpinnings of the Progressive movement that took hold in America in the first part of the 20th century.
The Progressive movement was a peoples' movement - government of the people, by the people, for the people, sort of thing. In the States it did trace back to perhaps its greatest president, Abraham Lincoln.
What did it stand for? You can get the drift of progressivism in a single speech delivered by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910 just three years after the publication of 'Modern Life.' This was his 'Square Deal' or 'New Nationalism' speech. It is a speech delivered to a gathering of Kansas farmers that is still widely taught today. I read it a few times every year.
What are the tenets or principles that define progressivism? Here are the core five:
1. The distrust of concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a corporate oligarchy.
“I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations that dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country” – Thomas Jefferson. These words, eloquently spoken by one our founding fathers, addresses a major area of concern for progressives. Progressives believe that the concentration of wealth and power into the hands of a select few does more to damage the general welfare of the country than to promote it using economic prosperity. A quick glance at the industrial revolution or “gilded age”, gives us insight on the social ills brought upon the country by unfettered capitalism.
2. A commitment to workplace regulation and the living wage.
Before these regulations, due to the absence of financial leverage, people (including children), often worked eighty to one hundred hours a week for twenty-five cents an hour, sometimes less. Many progressives coined this abuse to be “wage slavery” and fought to establish a minimum wage that employers were required to pay their employees for what products they produced. With workplace safety regulations fairly fine-tuned and unions representing working bodies all across the country, these issues aren’t as hot of a topic today as they were in the 1920’s and 1930’s, but the federal minimum wage continues to be fervently debated. Of course, progressives believe in livable and sustainable working wages. Wages that differ from current wages that are believed to be artificially suppressed by business owners to accrue the greatest amount of profit, in the face of rising productivity.
3. Environmental Stewardship.
Progressives believe that the health of the environment is imperative for the human species to progress forward. The unregulated emission of carbon into the atmosphere is dangerous and will spell grave consequences for our species if we don’t act to retard and correct the damage that we’ve perpetrated. Progressives believe that all creatures are woven in an interconnected web and man-made causes to global warming has damaged the equilibrium to this metaphorical web. As a species, we could conjure up the most ground breaking technological innovations and political reforms, but all of it is in vain if we (including our posterity), can’t enjoy these feats.
4. Equality for all citizens, civil rights and social justice.
The Preamble of the Constitution states that, “We the people of the United States, in order to form “a more perfect” union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. ”. Following this declaration, progressives fight for the rights of free and autonomous people to be recognized as fellow citizens of society by societies historically white, male and Christian dominated class. Progressives are strong advocates of police reform regarding minorities, marriage rights regarding gay and lesbian couples, programs that uplift struggling families by offering them a “hand up” as opposed to a “hand out” and champion the rights of women to have full and autonomous control over their own bodies. Progressives do not believe in “moral legislation”, that is, legislation that looks to regulate an individual’s life with respect to a certain religion or personal moralistic standard. Progressives believe in the individual freedom of American citizens, but realize that these freedoms cannot be upheld without fighting for the basic rights of all American citizens. No matter the race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or lifestyle choice.
5. Investing in a nation in which its people are the most important asset.
The tenacity of the working middle class to maintain the health of our GDP does not go unnoticed, and in fact, warrants praise and admiration from droves of countries around the world. Because of this, progressives believe that to reverse some of our economic ills, it’s paramount that we invest in ourselves as a country. In order to do this, progressives pose that enacting increased international tariffs, the immediate halting of the outsourcing of American jobs, spurring job growth by investing in our infrastructure, setting up a single-payer health care system and supporting free education are all steps to improve ourselves as a country and kick start the economy with the American citizen in mind, as opposed to foreign interests. Progressives advocate that everyone pays their fair share (by proportion) in taxes and that offshore tax havens should be abolished because they decrease the revenue our country receives by tax loopholes.These restatements are obviously drawn from an American source but they speak to universal principles and values that all progressives can aspire to.
It is not inadvertent that many of these lofty thoughts are paid lip service by many of our own politicians who just as easily flout them between election cycles.
Neoliberalism has brought the triumph of corporatism wherever it has taken hold and that's just about everywhere. It's certainly true for Canada and yet we have, just next door, a glaring example of where it leads and the wreckage it leaves in its path.
Consider this passage from George Monbiot's most recent column:
Neoliberalism is the ideology developed by people such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. It is not just a set of free-market ideas, but a focused discipline, deliberately applied around the world. It treats competition as humanity’s defining characteristic, sees citizens as consumers and “the market” as society’s organising principle. The market, it claims, sorts us into a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Any attempt by politics to intervene disrupts the discovery of this natural order.
...The doctrine was imposed by central banks, the IMF, the Maastricht treaty and the World Trade Organization. By shutting down political choice, governments and international bodies created a kind of totalitarian capitalism.
It has failed on its own terms, and in many other ways. Far from creating general prosperity, growth has been slower in the neoliberal era than it was in preceding decades, and most of its fruits have been gathered by the rich. Far from stimulating an enterprise economy, it has created a gilded age for rent-seekers. Far from eliminating bureaucracy, it has created a Kafkaesque system of mad diktats and stifling control. It has fomented ecological, social, political, economic and financial crises, culminating in the 2008 crash. Yet, perhaps because its opponents have not produced a new, compelling story of their own, it still dominates our lives.There are many among us, especially in the Liberal ranks, those who yearn for progressivism but cannot imagine removing the yoke of neoliberalism. They delude themselves that they can somehow have both. They lie to themselves and, with each passing year, progressivism is pushed further beyond their reach.