So That’s a Progressive!
I have been going back and forth with some friends about how to define “progressive”. Clearly, it’s a pretty elastic notion that provides significant room for diverse views and for adaptation to circumstance but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have great value or should be summarily dismissed. Read this terrific piece by Douglas Bell that reminds us of the alternative. At the very least it is an approach premised on a belief in “progress”, a belief that people working together, armed with creativity and evidence, can make things better. Today, progressives put the environment at the centre of the agenda. And, as Douglas Bell points out, progressives believe that a country is more than its economy and a society more than the sum of its individuals.
John Halpin of the Center for American Progress writes: “Progressivism is an orientation towards politics. It’s not a long-standing ideology like liberalism, but an historically grounded concept… that accepts the world as dynamic.” According to this view, to be a progressive is to eschew the old-line ideologies, socialism, conservatism and liberalism, in favour of a much more pragmatic approach to improving human well-being. Progressives understand that vision not grounded in reality may be little more than hallucination.
On important issues such as the role of government, for example, progressives may disagree. In any case, they leave significant room for variation and innovation. While most self-styled progressives attribute a positive role to government, they do not necessarily look to government as the only way of achieving collective ends. And while they seek to have their views taken up by political parties, they do not wait for political leadership, often doing what they can through local initiative.
A large part of its appeal is this elasticity. Not being stuck in old notions of left and right or dependent on shop-worn ideologies, progressives can make their approach relevant to what is happening in real places in real time. No cookie cutter approach can do that. At the same time this elasticity leaves them vulnerable to accusations that their pragmatism lacks a moral base. If progressivism is principled pragmatism, progressives have to articulate the principles. George Lakoff makes this point when he argues that progressives (he would count himself one) tend to talk policy without setting out the moral choices, and people, he says, want to understand those moral choices. The “right” has succeeded reasonably well in finding a moral discourse, while the “non-right” has found itself opposing that discourse and talking about issues without offering an alternative frame, or what is more likely in Canada, several alternative frames.
For the progressive to distinguish herself from the pure pragmatist, she must recognize that while the world is dynamic, there are certain values that cut across time and place – freedom, equality and fraternity for starters – even if these have to be given new and concrete meaning to match the times. At its core, to be a progressive may be above all else an instinct for the underdog, a recognition that public policy must favour those who are least able to fend for themselves, “the ridden, not the rider”. This summer, I hope to use this space to continue the discussion of what a Canadian progressivism might look like.