What Does it Mean to be a Progressive?
March 17, 2018
Early in 2017, I joined Woman2Woman TC (W2WTC), a local non-partisan group formed to take action on protecting human rights, ensuring civil liberties, preserving the influence of evidence and reason, and promoting public policy through the election of progressive candidates.
As the new chair, I am sometimes asked, “Isn't a progressive actually a 'liberal?'”
For decades, conservatives have used the word “progressive” as a euphemism for “liberal” — a word that's even become a slur in some circles. Ever since Republican Ronald Regan called Democrat Michael Dukakis a “true liberal” during the 1988 presidential campaign, “liberal” has been considered a derogatory term, a way of undermining someone's position and the values that they represent.
But the two terms actually have distinct roots and philosophies.
The word “liberal" historically speaks to freedom, including individual personal freedom, and describes those we might call libertarians today. However, contemporary liberalism is associated with greater government intervention in the economy, as well as more tolerant attitudes surrounding issues of morality and lifestyle.
A progressive is someone who wants to see more economic and social equality. Progressives are supportive of social programs directed by the state and would like social movements to have more power. Progressivism has historically been associated with science, rationality, and an approach to government and society that is reliant on empirical methods.
In essence, progressivism represents a government and society where everyone gets an equal shot, everyone does his or her fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules.
The most basic progressive value is freedom. Progressives believe in “freedom from” and “freedom to.” People should have freedom from undue interference by government and others in regard to their private affairs and personal beliefs, and freedom to control their own bodies and their own lives. This includes the rights to freedom of speech, association and assembly, and religion. Progressives also believe that all people should have the freedom to lead a safe and fulfilling life supported by the basic foundations of economic security and opportunity, such as protections against bodily harm, as well as provisions for adequate schooling, income, medical treatment, and financial stability.
Complementing progressives' commitment to human freedom is their belief in opportunity. We all know that political equality prohibits discrimination against anyone based on race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious faith or non-faith, or disability. But it also means embracing the diversity of our society by ensuring that all people have the chance to turn their talents and ambitions into a meaningful life. Opportunity provides the conditions necessary for people to be secure and to move up in life : a good education, decent job, basic health care, and a secure retirement.
Progressive taxation helps support these things and provides us with the economic competitiveness necessary to advance the interests of all — e.g., those who have and earn more should pay more.
Along with freedom and opportunity comes responsibility. We are each responsible for improving our own lives through hard work, education, and by acting with honesty and integrity. We are also responsible to others and to the common good which requires us to put the public interest above the interests of the few. As stewards of the land, water, air and natural resources, we are responsible for the smart use of energy and the responsible consumption of goods. Working for ecological and social sustainability is our duty.
Finally, progressives value cooperation as the foundation of our most important social institutions, including our families, communities, churches and civic groups. Freedom without cooperation leads to a society that cannot work together to achieve common goals or to improve the lives of all. Cooperation requires that we are open-minded and empathetic toward others and that we are accountable for others' well-being as they are accountable for ours. If we blindly pursue our own needs and ignore those of others, our society will soon unravel.
Progressives believe that everyone deserves an equal shot at a healthy, fulfilling, and economically secure life. They believe that everyone should do his or her fair share to build their lives through education and hard work and through active participation in public life. And they believe that everyone should play by the same set of rules with no special privileges.
If we want to achieve greater social justice and economic conditions that benefit everyone, we need an open and honest government and an active and engaged citizenry. Locally, Safe Harbor of Grand Traverse (a seasonal emergency shelter run by 24 churches and nearly 2,000 volunteers) provides for the health and safety of people experiencing homelessness without the use of public funds. And with organized pressure from supporters of FLOW (For Love of Water) and Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities' Oil & Water Don't Mix campaign, Governor Snyder ordered a study of risks posed by Line 5 in the Mackinac Straits and alternatives that could prevent environmental and economic disaster in the Great Lakes.
So, regardless of the political labels we give ourselves, we have to agree that public participation is a small sacrifice to make in order to protect the freedoms and opportunities that we all enjoy.
Christie Minervini is a Traverse City resident who owns Sanctuary Handcrafted Goods in the Village at Grand Traverse Commons. She is passionate about gender equality, community development, and ending homelessness.