What the Hell is a "PROGRESSIVE" Anyway?

Elizabeth Mazzara

So this has been bugging me for a while. I feel like we throw around the term "Progressive" an awful lot these. And, I am starting to wonder if anyone actually knows what it means.

I fear it is becoming (has already become) an empty shell of a word that simply means "Liberal Democrat", which is not at all what it means to be a progressive. In fact, I might even argue that being a "Liberal" or "Far Left" Democrat isn't even a prerequisite for being a progressive but rather, in today's political climate is a RESULT of a being a Progressive.

A progressive believes in a sort of populism that moves away from elitist politics and towards the people. It reflects a spirit of Open Source Democracy (not grassroots, if you say grassroots one more time I am going to smack you). It is about value-based politics based on and BASED IN local communities.

Don't mistake these definitions for being pollyana-ish. They are not. We are just so used to hard boiled politics I think we lose sight of what it is all about. And what it is all about is protecting the values that we hold dear to us. Those include fair treatment in the work place, fair and open food policy, access to government services based on need, taking care of the commons, and I could go on.

What is as important is what Progressivism LOOKS LIKE in practice.

And, I can tell you. If this last round of elections (Tuesday's primary) is any indicator, there is NOTHING Progressive about our current democratic campaign structure. We rely on strategies that are outdated, messaging that ignore values and a top down model of campaigning.

The reason the 50 state strategy was effective is that it provided an opportunity for local voices to be heard For local values to be expressed. If we don't move towards a true Open Source model of democratic campaigning, I do believe we should save our money and energy and concede 2012 today.

Just my two cents.

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    in other words: Dean is progressive.

    i agree. your paragraph "A progressives believes in..." sums up my feelings pretty well. i have felt your frustration for a number of years now; thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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      Hey. Thanks T.A. I have a some real concerns here. I mean, we all know if we don't define ourselves someone else will and yet we, as progressives, have done NOTHING to define ourselves except to use the word. What exactly are we doing differently? How are our campaign strategies different? Our outreach efforts? Our Platform, even! Is there even such a thing? If we don't stand for anything, but rather just stand BEHIND a word, then what the hell is the point?

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    JIM HIGHTOWER: "The difference between a liberal and a progressive is that liberals want to assuage the problems that we have from corporate power. Populists want to get rid of corporate power. An example is what's happening, right now, with the Wall Street reform that's in Washington."

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      Hmmmm... I love Jim Hightower, but I'm not sure that's quite the right definition.

      But I care a whole lot less about drawing lines between definitions between "Democrat", "liberal", "progressive", "green", "populist", etc.

      That is why, for example, we chose to call this site "Blue" Oregon. It was a term that could encapsulate all of those things, without being forced into semantic debates.

      Rather than definitions, I'm more interested in talking about what exactly we're for. Elizabeth has kicked off the conversation -- I'd like to hear others weigh in.

      What specific issues or issue areas matter most to you? Civil and human rights? The environment? Economic fairness? Government reform? Or are you more concerned with broad philosophical approach that encapsulates many of these issues?

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        Kari, I'm surprised that even you omit opposition to the warfaring military-industrial complex as the basis of being a progressive. (Progressives know the real origin of Mother's Day, for example.) But perhaps this discussion foregrounds state issues? As though our warfaring system, right down to the frequent death and dismemberment of Oregon National Guard troops in the current set of pointless wars, could be excluded from consideration of state issues.

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          Uh, what?! I didn't exclude anything. I noted a few examples of issues as prompts, but my list wasn't supposed to be exhaustive c

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        Kari: what I wonder is not WHAT we are concerned about but WHY we are concerned about them. Again - I am beating this drum again - what VALUES define us as progressives.

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      and - i agree with Kari. I am not sure this is an effective or complete definition of progressivism. But, it is a good starting point.

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    Sadly I think more people ascribe the term progressive toward auto insurance than politics.

    While anecdotal as a response, perhaps its fair to say that progressive democrats continue to struggle in branding themselves as a particularly unique cut of the Democratic party - which has its own struggles when it comes to branding.

    Progressive makes me think of words like inclusive, compassionate, diverse and clever.

    Not much of a motto, true. Still a start I should hope.

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    At the risk on you smacking me, Elizabeth, what is wrong with "grassroots"? Isn't that getting people involved from the bottom up? Multnomah County Democrats engage with many volunteers to drop slate cards each election cycle---it's a great program with good results and to me epitomizes grassroots.

    And while we're defining things, please define "Open Source Democracy" for me, as I've never heard the phrase before.

    Frankly, I don't care what we call ourselves as long as we get the work done to elect good people to office and build our party. As Democrats, we're inclusive. I don't care what you call yourself---just show up and do the work.

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      I think grassroots misses what it means to be actively engaged. I think we use it when we want to get volunteers to knock on doors during the election cycle. Open Source Democracy is my own term. Take the Open Source model, where everyone has access to the code and can fix, modify, make it better. Many hands making light work. It presumes a level of knowledge and engagement. I think THAT is the key. I think THAT is how we move people - by engaging them through their values, through their hearts, through their minds - NOT just through their door knocking and check writing.

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        I think people don't knock on doors for an issue or candidate unless it DOES appeal to their values and minds. I think that yes, we need to engage people through their values, hearts and minds but we also think that grassroots is about engaging people on all levels. For some, that may mean they are involved in committees, officer positions and actively recruiting others to build the party. For others, that may mean being a PCP, voting on resolutions and working their neighborhoods to engage their fellow voters. For still others, it may mean writing a check because that's all they have the time or interest in doing. All play an important part in the Party. Again, I don't care what we call ourselves and frankly, you'll never get consensus on a definition anyway. People who are working on Party efforts, at any level, deserve support and encouragement. You can call it grassroots, progressivism or whatever you like. The work is the same and I'd rather spend time working than worrying about what label we use. We have people that label themselves liberal, conservative, progessive in the Party. All are engaged, all are important.

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          I think you miss my point here. I think it is not enough to say that our values motivate our actions. I agree with that - but it doesn't get us far enough. What we need is to define our values - what makes us unique as progressives. If we can't say what those are - then what is the point. And more than that - I think you miss my point about where the values come into play. A values based campaign is DIFFERENT than what we do now. From strategy development to outreach - it is qualitatively different.

          As for grassroots - I think the label does matter. Open Source connotes knowledge and engagement - grassroots is about volunteerism. Don't get me wrong, that is important, but it is not enough. We need ENGAGEMENT not more volunteer hours. Again, I think this is qualitatively different.

          Thanks for your comments!!

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        Elizabeth, how would you rate this site as an example of Open Source Democracy?

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          I think this is right on.

          Again - I am not knocking volunteerism and 'grassroots' (just smacked myself) but that is QUALITATIVELY different from my conception of "Open Source Democracy".

          I am talking about engaging, getting your hands dirty, coming to the conversation prepared with something worthwhile to say, and so on.

          Having many hands on 'the code', if you will, is the ONLY way to ensure we are staying true to defined local values (oh - yeah, that means ACTUALLY DEFINING those local values, too).

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    It's a good discussion to have. The American people need to know what Progressive means, and that it's not the flavor of the month or the latest political marketing scheme. It has roots in American history and politics going back to Robert LaFollette and the Progressive Party in the early 20th century, and Teddy Roosevelt. One branch of the Republic party carried the Progressive mantle until Robert Taft and the conservative corporate wing won out and purged the progressives. Progressive does not equate to populism, contrary to what Jim Hightower says.

    And just because you say you are a "progressive" doesn't mean your views are that. As a developmental movement it is a belief in human progress and that government has a positive role in asserting the primacy of the public good and public resources over private interest in that progress. Hence the historical progressive policy of conservation of natural resources and "trust busting" policy of breaking the power of corporate monopolies. It is also participatory egalitarian democracy and breaking the power of big business in the political process.

    I have to say that every leftist who comes along as a self-defined progressive ain't one. But it's time to define the brand of the Democratic party along the lines of progressive values in broad enough terms, rooted in American values and history, so that it becomes a viable brand with a big enough tent to include a big tent.

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      this is very well put. thank you... and yes. I will continue to argue that it DOES matter what we call ourselves. Indeed, the very nature of a progressive campaign (local, value-based, open source) requires that we put meaning to that word.

      I just am no longer sure that being a progressive (a 'verb' as T.A. Barnhart calls it) means being a Democrat - although clearly there is overlapping values.

      I fear that progressives have been co-opted by the machines that pump out Democratic campaigns that think direct mail is the sum total of a campaign plan... And, the grassroots focus on volunteerism plays right into that...

      Am I wrong?

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        Here's something from BO, Oct 2005. (sorry bad with making links)


        While some of the comments in that article are now... inoperable..., I think it sort of tracks your thinking.

        IMO Progressivism is not a detailed set of policies. It's a process with some basic core principles. Like equality, personal freedom, justice.

        There is debate on the breadth of those basic principles. But if they are open and broad enough, being progressive (not "a" progressive), can and should span party labels.

        For instance, if a basic principle is "equal protection for all" I think most people could agree, and a rational discussion and a progressive process can lead one to conclude, that equal protection requires us to recognize same sex marriage. If you were to insist that a core basic principle is "same sex marriage should be recognized" then you're simply describing where the progressive process leads YOU.

        Some other progressive may well decide that the progressive process leads them to a moderate Republican or libertarian positions on various issues.

        When viewed as a process, being progressive is an overlap to the political spectrum and describes an individuals commitment to core American principles, rational thought and a sense of civil comity in politics. Now that's a big tent.

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          YES! I totally agree. Progressivism (today's progressivism, so maybe neo-progressive?) is about doing. I could not agree more with this assessment. I think we get ourselves into trouble using it as a catch all for anything left of center ... that is just not the case.

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    values are tricky. getting to a definition, for example, of "labor rights" that fits in Oregon, Ohio and Alabama would take a lot of work. "labor rights" is essential to liberal politics, and i don't think many Dems and left-learning indies want to throw away the New Deal, so we need to figure out how to deal with labor in the 21st Century -- in an incredibly diverse nation.

    that's why, for me, progressivism is not about the goals but how we seek to achieve them. i find the goals of the New Deal (and thru the 60s and early 70s: extensions of legal rights, environmental protection, etc) to be fully supportable today (yes, i am a liberal; i won't run from the word).

    but unlike in the 20th Century, where our liberalism placed political leadership in elites, leaders, central govt, etc -- ie, top-down -- we now see that a bottom-up approach is needed. that, to me, is the essence of progressive politics: citizens, in their own communities, deciding what and how they will work on. national leadership has its place, but we in Portland have to figure out what's right for us here -- and progressives in Mississippi have to figure out the same thing for themselves. we are likely to see signficant differences.

    i've coined the phrase "Progressive is a verb". how we define values changes over time. how we interpret our values changes. what we can make timeless and universal is how we act on those values, here and now. this is what i think we can share in common across a city, state nation. even when we find ourselves unable to agree on definitions of values.

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    I view being a progressive as being someone who advocates that government needs to evolve and address the needs of the members in our society so as to make government effective in helping make lives and society as a whole, better.

    It is about not being wedded to a rigid, dogmatic set of policy prescriptions, but rather a rational, reality-based approach to defining polices and solutions that reach the goal of making people's lives better through a more effective, and responsive government in an equitable way.

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    It should be noted that in American politics, the word "liberal" as in "Liberal Democrat" as it is presently used, emerged in the FDR administration. Historically "liberal" came to us from Europe and to this day is used to define laissez-faire economics and the absence of a strong central governing authority in the affairs of individuals. Liberalism in Europe was equivalent to many factors we would attribute to traditional Republicanism. (Although today's GOP is really more radical than conservative). When FDR introduced the policies of the New Deal he didn't want to be labeled a European socialist so he defined is program in terms of "Liberal Democratic" principles. "Liberal" has become so tainted that it has come to mean a combination of "libertine" in social issues and "big intrusive government" in other policies. I like "Progressive" because at its core it is a belief in progress in human society, continual improvement and movement forward.

open discussion

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