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What's a "Progressive", Anyway?
I recently realized that I don't actually know
I always thought that “progressive” was just the word liberals started using once “liberal” became a bad word. At some point in the early 2000s, Democrats mostly abandoned “liberal” — any candidate outside of California or Massachusetts avoided the “liberal” label like it was a bag full of dog shit. The word seemed to represent something effete and un-American; it made it hard for Democrats to be associated with things politicians like being associated with, like veterans, dogs, veterans with dogs, and jobs in factories full of machines that make a lot of sparks.
For a while, the non-Socialist left lacked a descriptor. Eventually, “progressive” filled the void. I never thought much about this transition; I thought we were just replacing one word with another. “Liberals” became “progressives” the same way that “secretaries” became “office managers” and “degenerate gamblers” became “crypto enthusiasts”.
That was dumb of me. I didn’t realize that progressivism is more than just caffeinated liberalism; it’s a distinct movement with traditions and beliefs all its own. It’s time that I learned something about progressivism, especially since I’ve written about a way of thinking that I consider foreign to the liberal left. Could progressivism be that foreign influence? Seems like a question worth asking.
I wanted to let progressives speak for themselves, so I read a collection of seminal progressive works.This column is basically a book report, except that I actually read the book.
Well, 40 percent of the book.
Skimmed it. Skimmed 40 percent of the book.
Anyhoo: The central premise of progressivism is that the American project is incomplete. At the turn of the century, progressives looked at the world and saw things that needed fixing. Monopolists wielded too much power; political machines did, too. Children worked long hours and made barely enough to buy cigarettes. Sausages contained too much rat feces and not enough delicious rat. The civil rights enshrined in the constitution didn’t fizz progressives’ phosphate; they wanted changes to electoral processes and government intervention in the economic sphere.
To progressives, the Constitution was not sacred. Woodrow Wilson sort of hated the Constitution; he spent the decades before his presidency shit-talking the Constitution like a recently-divorced woman trashing her ex on wine night. Wilson thought the Constitution had too many checkpoints; if he had lived to see how the filibuster is used today, his brain might have exploded (uh…exploded again). The fact that Wilson got elected on what was basically a Fuck Your Traditions platform suggests that there was some popular support for major reform.
Progressive takes on liberalism ranged from “withering” to “scathing”. Progressives felt that liberals were too focused on negative rights, that is: The right to be free from something. Progressives were interested in positive rights, i.e. the right to something. Progressives saw liberalism as right-wing; of course, they were mostly talking about extreme laissez faire liberalism, what we would call “libertarianism” today. Progressives railed against the idea (which was probably a medium-to-gigantic strawman) that America had achieved perfection in 1787 and the only thing left to do was kick back and enjoy the fruits of our awesomeness.
Progressives had a “to do” list as long as a respectable woman’s petticoat. Trusts had to be broken up. Political machines were to be disassembled. Child labor should be ended except for newsies and child actors on Broadway playing newsies. Food should have labels declaring the percentage and type of vermin contained within. And every aspect of life should be accompanied by relentless, horrible sobriety of the type that makes the living envy the dead.
I think this worldview makes sense in context. Progressives were responding to the challenges of their time, just as their liberal forerunners were. The politics of the day required progressives to rail against laissez faire liberalism, but I came to see progressivism as simply the next step once liberalism’s slate of negative rights had been largely achieved.
Most progressive reforms are widely accepted today. Other than That One Libertarian Guy You Knew In College, nobody argues for scrapping the income tax, child labor laws, the FDA, or direct election of Senators. Progressives got those things right. Though I think it’s worth noting that progressivism is narrower in scope than liberalism. Liberalism deals with fundamental things like due process and free speech, while progressives are more into food labels. That’s probably due to the fact that liberalism developed on several continents across multiple centuries, while progressivism is the product of a more specific time and place. If a political movement had developed in Pompei in 79 AD, it would probably have had a lot to say about volcano safety even if that's a small concern in the grand scheme of things.
Of course, turn of the century progressives would surely get their woolen, knee-length knickers in a twist if they heard me call their movement “narrow in scope”. That’s because one of progressivism’s defining traits is uncompromising zeal. Those folks liked to crusade! Progressive literature has the tenor of a letter from the Apostle Paul if he was high on cocaine. They’re seeking foot soldiers for their war against the wicked and corrupt, and they won’t relent until every immoral, venal, or fun behavior is purged from society.
That zeal, in my opinion, is progressivism’s Achilles heel. Progressives are good at identifying problems, but they’re bad at articulating limiting principles. The essays I read expressed a Travis Bickle-esque desire for a rain to come and wash all the scum off the streets, but they didn’t talk much about when enough would be enough. I chalk that up partly to the nature of political rhetoric — you want to fire people up, not tell them when it will be bed time — but for the most part, principles were conspicuously absent. Which makes sense in a movement that defined itself as a necessary response to timid and esoteric liberalism.
Progressives did overstep sometimes. Prohibition was their most obvious misfire; it was meant to be a righteous victory for clean Christian living but ended up being the greatest event in the history of the mafia, so…yeah, that's a whoopsie. Some progressives' zeal to engineer a perfect society led them to support eugenics. More than a few developed a White Man’s Burden worldview that caused them to support America’s colonial-curious phase. I see this as a somewhat-predictable outcome for a movement animated by barnstorming zeal. Progressives had endless faith in their ability to reform society, which led to tendencies that could be called “nanny state-ish” at best and “lightly authoritarian” at worst.
Some strains of progressivism were populist. Teddy Roosevelt had a habit of always claiming to act on behalf of “the people” without ever defining what, precisely, the people wanted. With time, it became clear that the main thing Roosevelt thought people wanted was a whole lot more Teddy Fuckin’ Roosevelt. I wonder how many people at the time saw the irony of a man railing against powerful political operators while seeking to become the first president ever to win a third term. That strikes me as a bit like interrupting a championship run at Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest to fume about the unseemliness of gluttony.
So, without a doubt: It is possible for progressivism to jump the rails. Of course: It's possible for any way of seeing the world to jump the rails. Being a Parrot Head can devolve into genocidal fascism under the wrong conditions. I don’t view the fact that progressivism led some people to dark places as evidence that it’s a toxic ideology. I feel like I have a better sense of how and why progressivism sometimes goes wrong, but I didn’t come to view it as inherently dangerous or bad.
I was turned off by progressives’ zeal. I found their unwavering faith in their ability to fix society a wee bit terrifying. But ultimately, I found more to like than dislike. The bottom line is that I agree with their central premise: The American progress is unfinished. And I agree with the specifics of many of their reforms. I think they were broadly correct that there was more to do.
Progressivism makes sense to me as a continuation of the constant project of improving society. Liberalism arose mostly in response to government tyranny, which was a problem from the beginning of human history until…actually, it’s still a problem. It will likely be a problem forever — this is why I consider the negative rights at the core of liberalism to be fundamental. Progressives probably should have extolled those rights as essential instead of trashing them as insufficient. But even so, the creation of a new movement that responded to new problems was a good thing, and progressives got more right than they got wrong.
Bottom line: Gaining a better understanding of progressivism did not cause me to think that progressivism is, itself, a problem. I found progressivism to be completely compatible with liberalism. Authoritarian is not compatible with liberalism; it’s pretty much liberalism’s polar opposite. Same with Marxism; liberals balk at that level of government control, not to mention the monochromatic color scheme. But I see nothing inconsistent about a person calling themselves a “liberal progressive”. In fact, I think that would be a somewhat-accurate descriptor of what I am.
The problem — to the extent that there is a problem — is the absence liberal principles. I think that much intra-left tension these days is between progressives who don’t hold liberal principles and progressives who do. Those who don’t hold liberal principles are fine with things like steamrolling due process in the prosecution of sexual assault claims and the extreme narrowing of the bounds of acceptable speech. Those who do hold liberal principles are bothered by these things and have written many biting Twitter threads saying so. It may be true that the righteous tenor of progressive rhetoric attracts zealots, but as far as I’m concerned, the progressive label is a red herring. To me, the great political divide continues to be between liberals and everyone else, and the specific flavor of a person’s illiberalism doesn’t matter much.
This article would have been more fun if I had concluded that progressivism is A CANCER ON THE BODY POLITIC THAT MUST BE EXPUNGED. That would have been the savvy New Media move — that would have gotten me some clicks. Instead, I found progressivism to be a little prim and entirely too self-assured, but laudable overall. After all: Child labor is bad. Political machines aren't great either. We should also be able to elect Senators, and if I eat a rat, I want it to be because I'm appearing in a reboot of Jackass. The progressive list of accomplishments is impressive, and I see progressivism as a positive force when it exists alongside — and not in place of — liberalism. My ignorance of progressivism has been downgraded from “near-total” to “severe”, and that has made me fear it less.
The essays I read were from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which is generally considered to be the heydey of progressivism. Obviously, the movement continued beyond that era and is still alive today, but my goal was to understand the movement's roots and core principles, not to trace its history. So, when I refer to “progressivism” in this article, I mostly mean “turn of the century progressivism”.