What is Progressivism?

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I would like to take a second to break away from the news reporting on this blog and delve into a little political theory. I pose a relatively straightforward question: what is progressivism (or liberalism)?

It’s obviously an ideology. But an ideology of what? Of progress? What is progress? What does progress look like? For some, progress would mean going back to the days of the Robber Barons and the Gilded Age, when the US government resembled that of a Third World nation, lacking any real power relative to the Trusts. For most of us who call ourselves progressives, however, that is not what progress looks like. So what is it?

For many, “progressivism” is just a term used to describe a certain set of political policies. That is, if you think that x, y, and z are sound policies, you are therefore politically progressive. Said another way: progressivism just is a set of policy beliefs — beliefs in a woman’s right to choose, progressive taxation, marriage equality, a clean environment, and, among other things, a strong, accountable government that works for the people and is run by the people.

This seems like the intuitive answer. In fact, when most people are asked why they are (politically) the way they are, they justify their political affiliations by an appeal to specific policies that they themselves find attractive. Take the following hypothetical conversation, for example:

Matt: How would you define yourself politically?

Sam: I would say I’m politically progressive or liberal, if you will.

Matt: Why are you a progressive?

Sam: Well, I guess because I believe in marriage equality, progressive taxation, and I’m against war.

It cuts both ways, too – maybe even more so on the other side of the isle. Typically, when you ask conservatives why they are conservative (an unfortunate habit I have gotten myself into) they tend to respond by an appeal to their pious beliefs in low taxes, low spending, gun rights, war, abortion is murder, and all that good stuff.

But if it is the policies that define progressivism, then what strings these policies together? Is there a common element that runs through the core progressive positions, and that distinguishes these from the corresponding conservative positions?

The argument seems circular. You cannot define progressivism as merely a term used to describe a set of policies, because this begs the question: if progressivism is simply a belief in policies x, y, and z, then what is it that makes these policies (x, y and z) “progressive” policies? If someone were to come up to you on the street and tell you that a woman’s right to choose is not a liberal policy, but that it is, in fact, a very conservative policy, and you were to respond by telling this person that he or she was wrong, what would your argument be? What makes a woman’s right to choose a politically progressive policy, as opposed to a politically conservative one? It can’t just be that it is a progressive policy because people who call themselves “progressive” happen to like it, whereas people who call themselves “conservative” don’t. That won’t do, for reasons just mentioned. There must be some further rationale for why said policies are agreeable to those on the left but not to those on the right.

So I ask again: are you politically progressive because you happen to believe in a certain set of policies, like policies x, y, and z? Or, alternatively, are you politically progressive because you believe in a certain ideal or set of ideals, and you support x, y, and z because they are policies that best embody those ideals?

It is my contention that the latter is the right way of thinking about progressivism. That it is not just a term we use to describe a set of policies, but that it is, instead, an expression of an ideal — of a genuine philosophical principle — from which all of the other aforementioned “progressive” policies derive, based on the relation they bear to this principle. It is a principle that underlies certain policies but not others, which is why you can intelligibly call one policy “progressive” and another policy “not progressive” without inviting circularity.

I believe at the core of progressivism lies the fundamental belief in a principle of equality – political, social, and, yes, to a large extent, economic. Policies that we call “progressive” are policies that act in concert with this principle or policies that try to maximize this principle as best they can. Let me give you first some examples.

Our founding fathers were, despite rhetoric from Glenn Beck to the contrary, politically progressive revolutionaries. The war in which they waged, a rebellion that gave rise to the birth to our nation, was at its heart an ideological battle fought over philosophy, fought over the fundamental idea of political equality. All of the other values that we associate with the Revolutionary War – “freedom,” “liberty,” “the pursuit of happiness,” “independence” – all of these values are, at their core, expressions of political equality. Such notions implicitly presuppose political equality. They believed that each and every individual – whether born to a butcher or a banker, a librarian or a lawyer, a salesman or a surgeon – was morally entitled to have an equal say in the policies and laws under which he or she must live. That no man, however powerful or rich, had a legitimate claim to exclusively set the laws and policies under which others must live. They were rebelling against a country (and an entire world, for that matter) where all the laws and customs were definitively and exclusively determined by the whims and dictates of one powerful man, the King. In short, they were rebelling against the illegitimacy and injustice of political inequality.

What about the second true revolution in our nation’s history, the Civil War, led by arguably our nation’s most progressive leader, Abraham Lincoln? Progressives fought this war over social equality (although certainly it was over political equality, as well). And of course, the Civil Rights movement was largely a continuation of the battle for social equality that began during this war. The women’s suffrage movement, as well as the battle we find ourselves in today over marriage equality, are both movements that were catalyzed by our deep and unremitting desire for social equality.

Lastly, we have that controversial facet of equality that progressives try to maximize (and are called socialists while doing it): economic equality. Most of those who call themselves liberals, both in the United States and Britain, have been anxious to make the market economy more fair in its workings and results, or to mix a market with a collective economy. This motivation stems from the fact that the distribution of goods and offices that results from a market economy are inherently inequitable, with inequities arising largely from morally arbitrary factors, like birthplace and natural endowments. We progressives recognize that as long as the market is left solely to its own devices, without the steady hand of regulation and social programs, we can never truly live in an equal society. A free market may be the most efficient and productive kind of market (maybe), but efficiency and productivity are meaningless benchmarks if the system is unequal and unjust. This, of course, was what the New Deal and the Great Society were fought over.

So progressivism is at its core a philosophy of political, social, and economic equality. But what does this even mean? That is, how are we to understand the concept of equality?

One troubling fact of life is that humans are not naturally equal. We are all born with different natural inborn talents, which inevitably give rise to our successes or our failures. Some are born beautiful, others are born, well, not beautiful. Some are born smarter than everyone else, and are thus highly valuable in our market economy, whereas others are born without the requisite faculties to hold a professional job. Some are born to wealthy parents, whereas others are born to poor ones. Some people have relatively great lives just simply because they were the benefactors of an amazing gene pool (think Tom Brady); others were born to mothers who spent most of their time while pregnant addicted to crack. Humans aren’t equal, so why even try?

It is true; humans are not naturally equal. But this is not the sense of “equality” that I am talking about. When I talk about equality, I am talking about the way in which the government must treat its citizens — as equals — as individuals entitled to equal concern, dignity and respect. The government, in order to remain legitimate, must treat all of its citizens over whom it claims dominion as equals. If it does not treat its citizens as equals — if it decides to start treating only the rich as first class citizens and everyone else as second class citizens, for example — then the government has in effect forfeited its right to exist.

What does it mean for the government to treat its citizens as equals — as opposed to equally — mean? Are we splitting hairs? I think not, for treating two people as equals may in fact necessitate treating the two very unequally, whereas treating two individuals equally may wrongfully result in treating the two as non-equals. Sometimes, alternatively, the only way to treat two people as equals is to try and treat them equally, sometimes not. This distinction, although abstract, is (I think) vital to understanding progressivism.

So, for example, suppose we had to decide, as a competent government, how the economic resources of society should be distributed. Which of the many possible distributional schemes treats people most as equals? It may be that dividing all of the money the society makes equally amongst all individuals would be the best way to ensure that the government treats all of its citizens as equals — but maybe not. Maybe that distribution would actually have seriously negative consequences on the populace at large — say, the hardworking people feel that their dignity is being undermined, whereas the lazy people feel patronized or babied —  and thus a more unequal distribution of income would actually be more consistent with treating citizens as equals. This is the idea.

So earlier in this blog post I asked, “If someone were to come up to you on the street and tell you that a woman’s right to choose is not a liberal policy, but that it is, in fact, a very conservative policy, and you were to respond by telling this person that he or she was wrong, what would your argument be?” And here’s the answer:

A woman’s right to choose is a progressive issue and not a conservative one for the following reason. At its heart, progressivism is about equality. Alternatively, at its heart, conservatism is founded on a contrary principle, one of inequality. To prevent women from getting an abortion is in effect preventing women from having control over their own bodies, which is inconsistent with our government’s solemn responsibility of treating all of its citizens as equals.

This same rationale I believe can be applied to justify every progressive policy

(Thank you, Ronald Dworkin, for many of the ideas in this post)