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.

6 Responses to “So That’s a Progressive!”
  1. Joeblow says:

    “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.”

    I think this is the nub of the matter. But I think it is a hard nut to crack. Progressives have yet to find the language that permits them to articulate “the principles”. Part of the reason for this is that many progressives today reject the possibility of an overarching narrative that grounds a political community. They see truths out there, not “the truth”, and so reject the idea that their community could be unified by agreement on a set of moral beliefs or principles. In their hearts, they will ask “why those beliefs and not other ones equally as good?”. And because of this indecision, they suffer a constitutional and existential crisis of not knowing what they stand for.

    I think this is the reason progressives remain vulnerable to charges that they are wishy washy (e.g. John Kerry in 2004). And I believe it is part of the reason why anti-foundational progressives like John Rawls would try and seek social unity elsewhere (e.g., “I propose that in public reason, ideas of truth or right based on comprehensive doctrines are replaced by an idea of the politically reasonable addressed to citizens as citizens.)

    Mr. Himelfarb is abolutely right that progressives have to articulate the principles. But what those principles are, under conditions of contemporary pluralism (the truths that are out there), requires some hard analytical work.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] Alors que l’idée d’unir les partis de gauche continue de susciter d’intéressants débats (Salutin, Browne et Lang, Gardner, Spector, Noiles, Delacourt), Alex Himelfarb s’interroge sur la nature même des valeurs progressives. […]

  2. […] Alors que l’idée de marier le NPD et le PLC continue d’agiter les esprits (voir Hébert, Gagnon,  Salutin, Browne et Lang, Gardner, Spector, Noiles, Delacourt), il faudrait se demander si les deux prétendants ont quoi que ce soit en commun. Alex Himelfarb s’interroge donc sur la nature même des valeurs progressives. […]

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