A Progressive Orientation: Hope, Engagement and Empathy

Progressivism, most would agree, is an elusive concept. This is a large part of its charm – it doesn’t generate pre-packaged solutions, has to be made concrete based on evidence in specific circumstances, and has the elasticity that these fragmented, changing and often discontinuous times demand.  In that sense, we do know what progressivism is not: it is not a simplifying paradigm, an ideology that provides ready-made answers to every political or policy question, however comforting such certainty may be in turbulent times. But what is it that holds this elusive and probably diverse set of beliefs together?

First and foremost, for me at least, it is a belief in the possibility of progress, a hearkening back to the age of enlightenment.  This is not a given in these times that Margaret Wente has described as “the age of the blow up”,  when nobody seems to know what to do about the increasingly frequent and complex global crises we are facing.  As we watch the deeply conflicting positions of the G20 on how to harness global finance for human well-being, for example,  we can easily understand why hopefulness often invites cynical rejoinders.    But the belief in the possibility of progress does not come with guarantees nor dies it mean blindness to human frailty.  And this is not just about whether one is an optimist or a pessimist – there’s plenty of room along that continuum – but a recognition that what we do individually and collectively matters, that we have the capacity to make things better.  Hope, then, could be considered the first principle of progressivism whether that reflects a positive view of humans or simply an understanding that it’s the only orientation that gives us a shot at progress.

Second, it is premised on the active engagement of people in defining progress and acting individually and collectively in its pursuit.   Matthew Taylor explains that engagement means more than voting based on our individual preferences which are seldom a useful guide for public policy.   If we simply follow our preferences, he says,  we will too often ask for Swedish-style services at American-style rates of taxation.  Our preferences are generally a reflection of our biography and current circumstances, not an orientation to the future or to others.  Engagement, however, means getting involved in understanding the ethical choices one’s country faces for the future.  It means getting informed and re-learning the skills of democratic argument.  It means, too, understanding how our behaviour, our personal decisions, matter.  So we will have to be ready to change, for example to be less wasteful and more self-reliant and resilient.  And it means that we need to be more deliberately conscious of the consequences of our actions on others and to push to its fullest the human capacity for coöperation and mutual aid.  So, progressives understand that the quality of our democracy and citizens’ attachment to it are crucially important and believe that government can be a force for good especially if built on democratic engagement.

Third,  progressivism promotes empathy or what one American philosopher called “sympathetic introspection” to capture the idea that we can indeed learn to put ourselves in the shoes of others because despite our differences we share a common humanity:  we share human sentiments; we may learn to laugh at different things but we all laugh. Through empathy we become more self-aware, more comfortable with diversity in all of its forms, and readier to understand that our autonomy is tied up in our social relationships, that self and other are inseparable.  An expanded empathy takes us beyond others in our family and community and asks us to try to live in the skin even of distant strangers.  It is the prerequisite for coöperation and peaceful resolution of conflict. It is at the heart of what Taylor and others before him call “universalism” – the notion that all people everywhere are deserving of dignity.

OK, I know this is not a recipe or guide for particular social policies or a particular political platform  – more on this in future posts – but is more about an attitude, an orientation to politics, a new politics based on some pretty old ideas – a belief in the possibility of progress; engaged and informed citizens; and expanded empathy.


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