There's something exciting and promising beyond the politics of the left and right. Aside from the fights between conservatives and liberals, there are millions of compassionate Americans living in the middle and/or leaning to the left. Many of these active and optimistic citizens describe themselves as progressive thinkers, progressive doers, or progressive voters.
Are moderates and progressives the same thing then? Not necessarily. Are liberals and progressives the same? Maybe, probably, but, not quite.
In its political sense, progressive means "on the side of progress." Being on the side of progress incorporates a factual assumption that history is moving in some definite direction. "Progressive politics" suggest the existence of political programs or political philosophies that are aimed at accelerating that forward motion and overcoming obstacles to it. The opposite reflex would be actions or philosophies that are "conservative" or "reactionary."
Progressives believe that we are all in this together.
Before a recent federal election, I had some in-depth conversations with hopeful candidates. We explained our political beliefs to one another. One particular candidate stands out in my memory because of the differences in our points of view. He referred to himself as a moderate, while I defined myself as a progressive. We agreed on many issues, but certainly not all.
We were both alarmed that the middle class was disappearing. We were both tired of seeing the corruption, ethics violations, and corporate power run a muck in Washington. We both thought that the Republicans in power had squandered away our national treasury and public trust. We both wanted change. How were we different, this candidate and I?
If I could say what contrasted us - it was probably moral judgment vs. the common good. His approach was a divisive approach, mine a unifying approach. His philosophy divides citizens, mine unites us altogether.
He seemed to stand in judgment of how citizens lived their individual lives. For example, he thought homosexuality was a morality issue. He believed that women should have to get legal permission from their husbands or fathers prior to making family planning decisions. He held other similar beliefs about the role of law in private lives.
From my point of view, I saw no need for the legislature to get involved in individual life choices of its citizens. But, he was willing to interject government into private lives. Due to that candidate's moral judgment of others' personal lives and his intended willingness to legislate and make laws to govern personal lives on his moral judgment alone, I actually didn't even view him as a moderate. To me, he was a conservative.
This was a distinct difference between us. My emphasis is more on the common good. I tend to not judge others. I don't want to tell others how to live their lives, especially if they are not harming anyone else with their private choices.
Judging others vs. serving the common good - dividing vs. uniting
There are times though that I do concern myself with the lives of others - when they need help or community. As a progressive, when I know someone is suffering, my heart breaks. I'm not a "bleeding heart" liberal, per se, but very much my brother's keeper. If my neighbors or fellow citizens are without food, shelter or medicine, I feel their pain. I want to do something about it. I feel responsible and accountable since I inhabit the same interdependent society that they do. I feel compelled to take action to alleviate pain. I look for ways to make a difference.
See, progressive believe that our society, nation and our communities have responsibilities to look out for the less fortunate among us. Progressives understand the interdependence of all factions of society. They know that the riches amassed in one sector are a result of losses experienced in another. More pointedly, progressive see society as a whole.
Because of my belief in the importance of the common good, I know, without question, that I am a progressive. At the same time, I realize that some readers might wish me to provide a better definition of progressivism. So what exactly does it mean to be progressive?
Progressives believe that we are all in this together - respecting each other's privacy, loving our neighbors, serving our communities.
I could give a rundown of the beginnings of progressive political actions in the 19th and 20th centuries in America and talk about progressive dedication to issues like civil rights, women's suffrage, workers rights, or social justice.
Instead, like a good progressive, I'm tending to keep my eyes pointed forward towards the future.
The progressive tent is a huge big inclusive tent. To help define progressive, I offer these definitions and stories I've borrowed from others.
I like how the Center for American Progress defines it, so I begin with:
A progressive is idealistic enough to believe that things can be better and pragmatic enough to get things done.
Founded on the ideals of the progressive movement at the turn of the century, today's progressive movement believes that an open and effective government can improve the lives of everyday Americans by playing an active role in solving social and economic problems.
Progressives see the world for what it is, dynamic and ever-changing.
"Progressivism, on the other hand, is far more flexible than any one ideology. Traditionally, conservatives see the world, especially human nature, as predictable and static. Liberals are often burdened with endless optimism - a belief that all problems can be solved through implementing utopian visions (especially through government intervention)."Progressives aren't simply liberals; progressives see the world for what it is, accept it as ever-changing and dynamic, and choose the best course of action in line with decidedly American values."
Despite dedication to the relieving the suffering of others, progressives are not the same thing as "bleeding heart liberals."
Progressives are not necessarily liberals.
What sets progressives apart from so called "bleeding hearts" is that progressives are realistic. Progressives seek to stop suffering with practical, doable methods. Not married to any one set of solutions, progressives are always willing to survey the assets, tools and options available and concretely select the best ideas and tactics.
Progressives are willing to seek solutions to alleviate suffering while working within the constructs and parameters of the economic realities of the nation. Progressives also are not socialists. While concerned about issues like wage disparity, hunger and economic struggle, progressives do not believe that all citizens should have equal access to money, resources or wealth.
Andrew also wrote about pragmatism, the importance of solving problems, and activism:
Progressives are pragmatic. They examine the available problem-solving tools, both private and public, and select the best to solve the problems.
"Free of ideological structures that tie leaders to strict policy courses, progressivism is averse to simple answers and flourishes within the details of the problems facing our society."That's why asking others - and ourselves - what 'progressive' means to them (and to us) is a crucial part of the never-ending development and growth of the progressive movement, and a key part of progressives' participation in American democracy... Certainly, government involvement is one solution among many. But progressives don't simply ask 'How can government help this situation,' but 'with the tools we have, both public and private, how can we solve this problem?'"
Progressivism is definitely value-driven:
Progressives believe in personal, moral responsibility and ethical values.
"One reason that Americans commonly equate progressivism and liberalism is that progressive thought is often informed by liberal ethics - it's driven by a desire to promote fairness, human well-being and opportunity..."Conservatives often accuse progressives of rejecting a values- or morality-driven perspective on society and government. Nothing could be further from the truth: Progressives encourage personal and moral responsibility, and promote respect for ethical values.
"Compare that with the false and empty chants of compassionate conservatives, who gladly engage in reckless and unjustified war; deny gays, lesbians and transgendered Americans their rights as citizens; condemn working families to a cycle of poverty; and err on the side of big business over public health and nature's untouched beauty."
Dedication to the common good serves as the overarching philosophical principle, helping to define a clear and optimistic progressive vision for the future.
Progressives tend to believe that this common-good coalition - a socially and culturally diverse group unified by a commitment to a higher national purpose and widely shared economic opportunity - can become as important a force for progressive change in the 21st century.
Not too long ago, many people in American thought that all Christians were conservatives and that all liberals were atheists. Of course, this was never the case!
That was always a myth. Progressive Christians, progressive Jews, progressive agnostics and progressives of any faith or non-faith share a dedication to serving others and a belief in the common good. Protestants for the Common Good, a progressive organization, includes in their statement of principles:
"The worth of life is bestowed by the One from whom all things come and to whom all things go. This gift of God's love is also the summons to live in harmony with it by loving all that God loves, our neighbor as ourselves."
In defining a progressive Christian, Father Jake of the Christian Alliance for Progress offers this:
Progressives value service to others and to community.
"Another simple way to define the differences is to consider the terms themselves. A Conservative is focused on conserving the past. A Progressive is oriented towards the future. Although this may be a true statement, by itself it is not very helpful, is it?
"...One definition I've used in the past is to define Conservatives as those who are preoccupied with the depravity of man, and Progressives as those who seek the glory of God."...I've recently encountered the work of George Lakoff, a linguistics professor at UC Berkeley. He has done quite a bit of work on defining what it means to be a Progressive, especially in the area of Progressive values.
"...The metaphor he uses to define the differences between Conservatives and Progressives is the Strict Father model vs. the Nurturant Parent model."...In Lakoff's book, Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, he uses this metaphor to explain the differences between Conservative and Progressive Christians.
"For Conservatives, God is the strict father. He is primarily punitive. If you sin, you go to hell. Since everyone sins, everyone is going to hell. Christ suffered enough on the cross to build up 'moral credit' to cover everyone. This redemption comes with strict father terms however. You must obey the moral authority of Christ, the Church, and the clergy. You must be disciplined enough to follow the rules. If you don't, you'll go to hell."For Progressives, God is the Nuturant Parent, who is more beneficient than punitive. The central idea is God's grace, God's unmerited favor. You can't earn grace; it is given by God unconditionally. All you have to do is accept the free gift. Here's a brief excerpt;
"In a nurturant religion, your spiritual experience has to do with your connection to other people and the world, and your spiritual practice has to do with your service to other people and to your community. This is why nurturant Christians are progressives; because they have a nurturant morality, just as progressives have."
Wikipedia offers us this definition of progressive Christianity:
Progressives tend to lead with compassion, justice and mercy.
"Progressive Christianity is the name given to a movement within contemporary Protestant Christianity characterized by willingness to question tradition, acceptance of human diversity, and strong emphasis on social justice. Progressive Christians have a deep belief in the centrality of the instruction to 'love one another' within the teaching of Jesus Christ. This leads to a focus on compassion, promoting justice and mercy, and working towards solving the societal problems of poverty, discrimination, and the environment."
This comes from the Center for Progressive Christianity:
"We promote an understanding of Christian practice and teaching that leads to a greater concern for the way people treat each other than for the way people express their beliefs, the acceptance of all people, and a respect for other religious traditions. We affirm the variety and depth of human experience and the richness of each persons' search for meaning, and we encourage the use of sound scholarship, critical inquiry, and all intellectual powers to understand the presence of God in human life. We are opposed to any exclusive dogma that limits the search for truth and free inquiry, and we encourage work that eases the pain, suffering and degradation inherent in many of the structures of society, as well as work that keeps central to the Christian life fair, open, peaceful, and loving treatment of all human beings."
Those wishing to explore progressive Christianity more, including its roots, may like to read Our Progressive Christian Heritage, by Delwin Brown. Dr. Brown describes how Christian progressives draw from the teachings and lessons of evangelicals, liberals, neo-orthodox, and liberationists. He also offers a thorough listing of progressive Christian websites here.
The progressive tent is very large and very inclusive. There's space under the progressive tent for all faiths. The World Union for Progressive Judaism describes their progressive Jewish values in this way:
"Progressive Judaism is rooted in the Bible, especially the teachings of the Hebrew Prophets. It is founded on authentic manifestations of Jewish creativity, ancient and modern, particularly those that stress inwardness and desire to learn what God expects from us: justice and equality, democracy and peace, personal fulfillment and collective obligations.
"The practices of Progressive Judaism are anchored in Jewish thought and tradition. They seek to extend the range of observance by granting full equality to all Jews, irrespective of gender and sexual orientation, while challenging laws that are contrary to Judaism's fundamental principles."
The Progressive Jewish Alliance offers these insights into the drives behind their work:
"We believe that to kvetch is human, to act...divine. We fight for economic justice by educating Jews about our obligation to stand with the working poor, and then we organize the Jewish community to join in campaigns to improve working conditions and secure a living wage for low-wage workers. We work to reform the criminal justice system and to promote a more just and humane system of restorative, rather than retributive, justice...
"Through organizing around the values of tikkun olam, through encounter with Jewish sources and learning, and through strategic social justice work, we work to create a Jewishly-literate membership that examines core Jewish values in a new way, and to "bring back" to Jewish communal life many individuals who would be otherwise disconnected. Under the rubric "tikkun ha ir, tikkun olam" (repair of the city, repair of the world), we also participate in the broader community coalitions."
From the Progressive Muslim Union's philosophy, in part:
"We affirm that justice and compassion should be the guiding principles for all aspects of human conduct. Islam holds that these qualities are characteristics of God as revealed in the holy Quran, divine qualities that are the ethical virtues to which all human beings should aspire to emulate.
"We affirm our commitment to social and economic justice and our opposition to the culture of militarism and violence. We will support efforts for universal health care, public education, the protection of our environment, and the eradication of poverty around the world."We reject the authoritarian, racist, sexist and homophobic interpretations of our faith as antithetical to the principles of justice and compassion."
FaithfulAmerica.org, a progressive program made up of Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Baha'is, and others, heralds a call to action. They believe that seasoned, thoughtful faith calls for acting on behalf of others:
"Many express their faiths in individual ways. Yet all of us share a common bond - when it comes to government, we believe our faith does matter. Our voices are needed.
"If you have been told that faith has no place in political life, just browse a history book. From our nation's struggles for civil rights, women's rights, and child protection to the human rights movements here and around the world, religious leaders have engaged the timeless messages of mercy, justice, and love to move courageous people to action. Faith is at the heart of justice."
Mike Lux, CEO of Progressive Strategies and President of American Family Voices, an issue advocacy group, gives his personal explanation and describes how his compassionate upbringing made him a progressive in politics, in Why I Am a Progressive:
"I believe a country should do the best that it can to be like a good family. In the family I grew up in, we were taught to look out for each other, to take care of the ones who were sick and give a helping hand to those struggling to find their way. We were told to share our toys, and be gentle and kind with each other. We were told to keep an eye on the neighbor kids and help them if they were in trouble.
"We were lucky that we grew up in families like that, way too many folks don't. I was a special beneficiary of it... when I was about 2 months old, I got a toy caught in my throat when I was in the crib... it was in there long enough to cause some brain damage... As a result of the accident, I developed a mild form of cerebral palsy. It took me a long time to walk and I had braces on my legs for a few years. It meant that I was a terrible athlete, always the slowest and most uncoordinated in my classes in school. But my confidence didn't suffer, and I never felt sorry for myself because of the kind of family we had. Everybody in the family treated me with great kindness and patience and gave me the support I needed to flourish."Another step that was central to my growing up was that before I can even remember, an African family, came to Lincoln so that the husband could study at Nebraska Wesleyan. When his wife suffered a miscarriage, (my parents) heard about it and about how deeply depressed they were. They reached out to them and became their family away from home. This was in the late '50s/early '60s, and they didn't think twice about taking foreigners, Africans, into their home. A few years later, another African family came as well. I was in middle elementary school by then, and I walked their younger kids to school. More than once, we were confronted by bullies yelling 'nigger' and worse. My courage sometimes failed me, but I knew my job was to hold their hands and take their part and comfort them afterwards.
"When I was 11, (my family) took another stranger into our home, a foster child with mental and physical disabilities... I wasn't sure at first about dealing with his disabilities, and I didn't always do as well as I should have, but I knew my job was to play ball and hang out with him just the way my older siblings did with me. And I grew to love him as my brother, and my relationship with him has been one of the most fulfilling in my life."Like any good family, our family took care of the weak and the slow and the disabled, instead of making fun of them. We welcomed the stranger and the immigrant. We loved the kids who were 'different' just as much as we loved the kids without special needs. We were taught not to make fun of people who were different, but to take special care of them. That's what I want America to be. That's why I rejected a party whose leader in the 1980s (Reagan) made fun of 'welfare queens' and whose leader in the 1990s (Gingrich) described Republicans as the party for 'normal Americans.' Normal Americans? I guess that wouldn't have included me with my cerebral palsy, or others in the family and neighborhood with disabilities. I preferred to be part of a party and movement that embraced those who were different, not as talented or lucky or rich or normal as other people.
"I want an America that welcomes and looks out for the people who are different and who are weaker and who are hungry and who are sick and who are immigrants, just like my family did. I prefer the philosophy that we are all in this together rather than one that says you are on your own. That's why I am a progressive."I know both parties and movements have their faults, but I have always preferred to err on the side of compassion and gentleness than to risk the sins of unkindness and intolerance, sins which I feel... the conservative movement sometimes fall victim to."
As I said at the beginning of this article, in its political sense, progressive means "on the side of progress." This incorporates a factual assumption that history is moving in some definite direction, and a political program aimed at accelerating that motion and overcoming obstacles to it. Antonyms are "conservative" and "reactionary."
From John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira's The Politics of Definition:
"Progressives need to fight for what they believe in - and put the common good at the center of a new progressive vision -- as an essential strategy for political growth and majority building. This is no longer a wishful sentiment by out-of-power activists, but a political and electoral imperative for all concerned progressives."
Lastly, I leave you with this stirring call to action from the Center of American Progress:
What We Believe
As progressives we believe that America should be a country of boundless opportunity - where all people can better themselves through education, hard work, and the freedom to pursue their dreams. We believe this will only be achieved with an open and effective government that champions the common good over narrow self-interest, harnesses the strength of our diversity, and secures the rights and safety of its people.Real progress will be achieved only through innovative solutions borne of open collaboration.To realize our vision we must:
- Build an opportunity nation where every hard-working person, regardless of background, can realize their dreams through education, decent work and fair play.
- Reawaken America's conscience, our sense of shared and personal responsibility, to build healthy, vibrant communities.
- Reform government so that it is of, by and for the people: open, effective, and committed to the common good.
- Use America's strength to bring the world together, not pull it apart.
How We Work
- We explore the issues that matter most. We learn everything we can about the vital issues facing America and the world through dialogue with leaders, thinkers and citizens.
- We develop bold new ideas. We debate. We develop a point of view. Then we take a stand.
- We shape the national debate. We share our point of view - online, on campus, in the media, on the shop floor and in the boardroom, with Congress and in statehouses - with everyone who can put our ideas into practice and affect positive change.
If you are looking for ways to become active, you may wish to visit our Action Center.
Progressives believe that we are all in this together. To be progressive is to be active!
For more food for thought about progressive politics, you may be interested in this article too.