What is progressivism?


“Progressivism is a political philosophy that takes as its objective the greatest political and economic good of the greatest number (sometimes called the common good).  It is, therefore, a form of liberal populism.  Progressives do not seek change merely for the sake of change, but rather insofar as the institutions and practices of a society depart from this objective and hence require reform.  Progressivism thus stands in sharpest contrast to economic elitism and political authoritarianism.”


Not bad, but to me progressivism is much more than a political philosophy or a theory.

Progressives want to do whatever will create real progress. Progress is the reduction of suffering and the increase of utility (generally defined as “the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people”). No ideology is required, and an empirical, reality-based, scientific approach is generally preferred.

My point about it being reality-based is not peripheral. Our concern is not an over-arching remaking of society from the ground up according to a narrow Utopian theory, but careful attention to specific problems and pragmatic solutions (if ain’t broke, don’t fix it- if it is broke, chose the best tools and materials for the particular job).

Our identification of problems is based not on finding discrepancies from some political dogma but on the observation of unnecessary suffering.

Our choice of possible solutions leans heavily toward social science, not ideology, and we measure the results. Did we achieve greater happiness and well-being for more people, or did unintended consequences spoil the result?

Progressives do not only sit on our asses debating theories. We work in the world to help make it better. We are rightly proud of this tradition and of accomplishments like the abolition of slavery and child labor, 40-hr workweek, workplace safety standards, woman’s suffrage, social security, medicare, the minimum wage, national parks, budget surpluses…the list could go on for pages. If you compare and contrast progressives with libertarians or conservatives on this basis, progressives won the argument a long time ago.

But libertarianism, conservatism, socialism, capitalism, and even liberalism are kinda like zombies–the ideas are dead but they just won’t go away.

The main point I want to make is that progressivism is reality-based, in contrast with many other “isms”. Or at least that’s the way I choose to spin it.

If you want to know more about reality (“from Latin realis; the meaning of “real existence” is from 1647 onwards”), check out Marc Perkel’s excellent Church of Reality website.

Poor Richard

An anonymous email circulating the web:

Joe Republican gets up at 6 a.m. and fills his coffeepot with water to prepare his morning coffee. The water is clean and good because some tree-hugging liberal fought for minimum water-quality standards. With his first swallow of water, he takes his daily medication. His medications are safe to take because some stupid commie liberal fought to ensure their safety and that they work as advertised. All but $10 of his medications are paid for by his employer’s medical plan because some liberal union workers fought their employers for paid medical insurance – now Joe gets it too.

He prepares his morning breakfast, bacon and eggs. Joe’s bacon is safe to eat because some girly-man liberal fought for laws to regulate the meat packing industry. In the morning shower, Joe reaches for his shampoo. His bottle is properly labeled with each ingredient and its amount in the total contents because some crybaby liberal fought for his right to know what he was putting on his body and how much it contained.

Joe dresses, walks outside and takes a deep breath. The air he breathes is clean because some environmentalist wacko liberal fought for the laws to stop industries from polluting our air. He walks on the government-provided sidewalk to subway station for his government-subsidized ride to work. It saves him considerable money in parking and transportation fees because some fancy-pants liberal fought for affordable public transportation, which gives everyone the opportunity to be a contributor.

Joe begins his work day. He has a good job with excellent pay, medical benefits, retirement, paid holidays and vacation because some lazy liberal union members fought and died for these working standards. Joe’s employer pays these standards because Joe’s employer doesn’t want his employees to call the union. If Joe is hurt on the job or becomes unemployed, he’ll get a worker compensation or unemployment check because some stupid liberal didn’t think he should lose his home because of his temporary misfortune.

Joe likes to email his friends. He likes to talk on the phone. He is secure in his knowledge that everything he says in the email and on the phone is secure and that no one is listening in or reading his mail because those commie liberal constitution framers believed that Joe had the right to privacy. It is noontime and Joe needs to make a bank deposit so he can pay some bills.

Joe’s deposit is federally insured by the FSLIC because some godless liberal wanted to protect Joe’s money from unscrupulous bankers who ruined the banking system before the Great Depression. Joe has to pay his Fannie Mae-underwritten mortgage and his below-market federal student loan because some elitist liberal decided that Joe and the government would be better off if he was educated and earned more money over his lifetime. Joe also forgets that his in addition to his federally subsidized student loans, he attended a state funded university.

Joe is secure in his walk to the bank with the knowledge that no police agency has the right to arrest and jail him without due process and probable cause. He has the right to an attorney, a jury of his peers and to be brought before a magistrate in a timely fashion. His family has the right to know he has been arrested. Again Joe can thank those commie constitution framers.

Joe is home from work. He plans to visit his father this evening at his farm home in the country. He gets in his car for the drive. His car is among the safest in the world because some America-hating liberal fought for car safety standards to go along with the tax-payer funded roads. He arrives at his boyhood home. His was the third generation to live in the house financed by Farmers’ Home Administration because bankers didn’t want to make rural loans. The house didn’t have electricity until some big-government liberal stuck his nose where it didn’t belong and demanded rural electrification.

He is happy to see his father, who is now retired. His father lives on Social Security and a union pension because some wine-drinking, cheese-eating liberal made sure he could take care of himself so Joe wouldn’t have to.

Joe gets back in his car for the ride home, and turns on a radio talk show. The radio host keeps saying that liberals are bad and conservatives are good. He doesn’t mention that the beloved Republicans have fought against every protection and benefit Joe enjoys throughout his day. Joe agrees: “We don’t need those big-government liberals ruining our lives! After all, I’m a self-made man who believes everyone should take care of themselves, just like I have.”

2 Responses to “What is progressivism?”

  1. Chris (krosbowe) Boswell Says:

    Yeah, libertarian and conservative ideology is dead (something that is shared with religion), but the thing that animates it–like some undead, blood sucking vampire–is money & ownership. Since conservatism is about preventing progress, it appeals to those who benefit from lack of political, social progress, namely the rich and powerful. “We got it and fuck every body else, lets keep it that way!” Since libertarianism is about private ownership and no regulations or protections, it appeals to the industrialists–the same bunch of folks. Those who are rich, have lots of ownership and control, think they can buy all the protection they need. The money animates the dead ideology buy driving it to be pumped out to the masses thru the major media that the rich also own.
    There are some exceptions, like George Soros who advocates “Open Society”, but they’re out gunned by the rest.

  2. Poor Richard Says:

    Chris, we are totally on the same page, amigo. Your vivid comment reanimated a whole mob of dead ideas in my mind and they are pursuing me as I write. Must run….

    Check out my new “Town Hall Meeting” page and tell me what you think.


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