Organizing Around the Principle of “Progress”


Katherine Gregg had a curious little article in the paper the other day trying to nail down claims of progressives’ political advancement in Rhode Island.  Obviously, many of us on the other side of political philosophy will insist that Rhode Island is already saturated with progressive thinking, and that that’s the problem.  In the face of the insistence of progressive activists, like Sam Bell, that no faith is true unless pure, Gregg devotes some paragraphs to defining progressivism, and the answer from the governor’s office is instructive (not the least because it comes from the office, not the governor):

Governor Raimondo considers herself a progressive. When asked why, her spokesman Mike Raia said: “At the end of the day, being a progressive means being committed to making progress. And that’s what she gets out of bed to do every single morning. … She is making college more affordable. She has made investments in K-12 education to position kids to be able to be career- and college-ready when they graduate.”

His list is long.

The principle that Raia articulates before his long list echoes that of William Voegeli, in a National Review article exploring what progressivism means to Hillary Clinton: “‘Progress,’ in its most direct, literal sense, simply means getting closer to some objective, one both comprehensible and manifestly superior to the current state of affairs.”  Voegeli also observes that without some unifying theme — tangled by its own relativism — progressivism becomes the list of policies and short-term objectives for which President Jimmy Carter was known.

In that regard, one could say that Sam Bell’s progressivism is more tribal than Raimondo’s, inasmuch as he focuses on those items on the progressive list that are in opposition to people he thinks are bad.  In this view, Raimondo is “conservative” because “she has very strongly resisted repealing [past] tax cuts for the rich.”  Whether such tax cuts might be a pragmatic necessity at the moment in order to continue to make progress is not considered, the “progressive” goal being redistribution of income, whatever the long-term consequences for society or the people who receive the confiscated wealth.

Herein lies the core tension (and profound danger) of progressivism: Because it is built on the idea of progress, it must attempt to inject a revivalist zeal into a movement that refuses to assert first principles.  Voegeli quotes a pre-presidency Barack Obama as writing that he rejects “any idea or ideology or theology or ‘ism,’ any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single, unalterable course.”  That this is incontrovertibly a lie is precisely the point.  Progressive practices related to, say, ObamaCare and abuse of the judiciary are all about locking future generations, as well as contemporaries who disagree, into a single course, as long as it’s one that pleases progressives and, more importantly, contributes to their power.

The resolution of the core tension, then, isn’t so much a solution to reconcile the logic, as it is a manipulation to make the illogic work for progressives.  Thus, Voegeli quotes a 1990s Hillary Clinton revving up her preacher’s pitch by complaining that “we lack meaning in our individual lives and meaning collectively, we lack a sense that our lives are part of some greater effort, that we are connected to one another,” a sentiment that never quite gets defined to the point at which progressives might have to address (in Voegeli’s language) “the hard questions, the moral and practical ones that matter, are about how to do good, not whether.”

A century ago, progressives avoided the issue through faith that experts, once empowered, would be able to tell us which way to go, as necessary.  In the decades since, however, that faith has fallen into simple relativism, as if to say that the problem of which way to go is so complicated that nobody can presume to answer it, ever.  Those in the Sam Bell camp are therefore justified in criticizing the Clintons and Raimondos for choosing a pragmatism that benefits themselves and their peers, seeing it as what-is-good-for-us-must-be-good-because-we’re-good-progressives progressivism.  And those in the other camp are justified in criticizing the Bells and Carters for their arbitrary and idealistic lists of policies, seeing them as whatever-feels-right-to-us-must-be-right-because-we’re-good-progressives progressivism.

And yet, the Church of Progressivism still must fill its pews, which it does by promising constant forward momentum.  Because it is not really a functional philosophy, but a unifying feeling of grievance, it cannot truly manage to make progress for its adherents as individuals.  Therefore, it is in constant search of traditions that it can leave behind and radical changes that it can impose for the future so as to create the illusion of forward motion.  Given its coalition, it cannot follow the process that experts would tend to advise: taking small experimental steps and evaluating the results before taking more.

Unfortunately for us all, a wounded culture that insists on hobbling blindly forward will inevitably become turned around and head backwards… if it doesn’t fall into a ditch.

  • Russ

    The simple explanation is that not everyone who claims to be progressive actually is. Raia’s definition is total nonsense, and Clinton’s claim to be a “pragmatic” progressive just means she sells out the progressive base when corporate concerns run counter to those of progressives.

    Sirota, I think, offers a much clearer definition.
    I often get asked what the difference between a “liberal” and a “progressive” is. The questions from the media on this subject are always something like, “Isn’t ‘progressive’ just another name for ‘liberal’ that people want to use because ‘liberal’ has become a bad word?”

    The answer, in my opinion, is no – there is a fundamental difference when it comes to core economic issues. It seems to me that traditional “liberals” in our current parlance are those who focus on using taxpayer money to help better society. A “progressive” are those who focus on using government power to make large institutions play by a set of rules.

    To put it in more concrete terms – a liberal solution to some of our current problems with high energy costs would be to increase funding for programs like the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). A more “progressive” solution would be to increase LIHEAP but also crack down on price gouging and pass laws better-regulating the oil industry’s profiteering and market manipulation tactics. A liberal policy towards prescription drugs is one that would throw a lot of taxpayer cash at the pharmaceutical industry to get them to provide medicine to the poor; A progressive prescription drug policy would be one that centered around price regulations and bulk purchasing in order to force down the actual cost of medicine in America (much of which was originally developed with taxpayer R&D money).

    Let’s be clear – most progressives are also liberals, and liberal goals in better funding America’s social safety net are noble and critical. It’s the other direction that’s the problem. Many of today’s liberals are not fully comfortable with progressivism as defined in these terms. Many of today’s Democratic politicians, for instance, are simply not comfortable taking a more confrontational posture towards large economic institutions (many of whom fund their campaigns) – institutions that regularly take a confrontational posture towards America’s middle-class.

    • Mike678

      Noble and critical…until we run out of other peoples money. Your view of corporations is slanted and supports your rather simplistic worldview. Gov’t interference and complicity in the banking crisis, for example, is often forgotten or excused by those on the left–and the coming failure of the ironically named “Affordable Care Act” will be yet another example.

      Theory and vision are nice–but often conflict with the real world if you don’t understand the system. If you want to “feel the Bern”–go visit Venezuela and the other socialist paradises. And please spare me comparisons to Sweden and Norway until you do your research and understand what model they are moving to today–and why.

      • Russ

        Here’s Ron Hera on the real cause of the banking crisis. You’d be hard pressed to call Hera a progressive (Hera is an outspoken proponent of the free market and of the Austrian School of economics), but I think most progressives (“those who focus on using government power to make large institutions play by a set of rules”) would agree with his assessment of this one.

        Forget About Housing, The The Real Cause Of The Crisis Was OTC Derivatives
        The $604.6 trillion derivatives bubble, which is equal to more than ten times world GDP, is a global issue. If existing OTC derivatives remain in place and there are no restrictions on what banks can trade derivatives, there is no actual or immediate reduction of systemic risk. Thus, the risks that led to the financial crisis in 2008 are likely to remain present in the global financial system for years to come. In fact, many banks have more CDS risk now than in 2008. Passing a bank-approved version of the financial reform bill, while it may be portrayed as a political victory or serve to calm financial markets temporarily, is unlikely to prevent another global financial crisis.

        • GaryM

          Hera’s Business Insider article only explains why the banking meltdown took place at a particular moment in time, not the root cause. Nor does the BI article provide evidence that had it not been for derivatives, life in the “mortgage backed securities” housing bubble would have quietly gone on indefinitely.

          The fact remains that because of Bill Clinton’s tinkering with the Community Reinvestment Act, and banks subsequent demand that Clinton/Congress get rid of Glass Steagall as a quid pro quo, banks would not have been trading in derivatives of MBO’s.

          Clinton pushed hard on the notion that banks had to “chip-in” to allow poor households a short-cut to equalize the financial equity gap via home ownership. Clinton pushed hard enough that the financial underpinnings of housing became little more than a Ponzi Scheme.

          To claim that derivatives were the root cause of the banking meltdown is akin to claiming that Hawaii becoming a US territory was the cause of WWII.

          • Mike678

            Russ is selective–he ignores those things that do not match his twisted worldview.

          • Russ

            fwiw, I didn’t ignore this. I don’t entirely agree, but I do agree that Gary made thoughtful points and that the roots of the disaster are in the Clinton administration.

            That said, it’s a big stretch to blame the CRA especially considering only a small portion of subprime loans originated with CRA lenders. We’re just kind of getting a bit off topic.

          • Mike678

            If the roots of the disaster were sowed in the Clinton Administration (with Barney Frank’s help), can we also agree that govt isn’t always the good guy? That people in it often make up the rules not to ensure all play fair, but to benefit themselves and their friends? Remind me how many millionaires are made while serving in Congress….

        • Mike678

          Thanks Russ. You are correct–most progressives would agree with this snapshot in time–it meets their bias and allows them to stop thinking–to stop looking for the root causes that would cause them to run for their safe space. Gary below has the larger picture–I note no response to his thoughtful points.

          I find it interesting that you seem to view corporations–which are composed of people–as the source of most that is bad. Yet government, which is also composed of people, is evidently good. Are all corporations bad? Apple? (Do they not cheat by keeping profits offshore?). Is all Gov’t good?

          One seeks profit…and often produces items that raise the quality of life. The other has a role in limiting the excesses unfettered capitalism and providing for the national defense. The challenge today is that there is no limit on the Gov’t. As Ben Franklin stated, “When the people find that they can vote themselves money that will herald the end of the republic.’

          • Russ

            Good quote, but not something Franklin said…

            And I don’t view all corporations as bad. I’ve even created a few of them. As a progressive, I simply think government rightly plays a role in ensuring “institutions play by a set of rules.”

          • Mike678

            Hmmm. Did you bother to look at the dates Tytler lived? When he wrote his quote which is less ‘to the point’. Could not have Franklin adapted it to serve his purpose as he argued against pure Democracy and for a Republic? That said, I should have written “often attributed to Franklin.”

            We agree that Gov’t serves a role. To me, it has gone too far and is smothering initiative and progress. Time will tell.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    Does anyone know the half life of the term “progressive”. It seems to me that people of liberal tendencies were known as “progressives” in the 1930″s (a time of tremendous government social programs). Post WWII, they were “liberals”. During the late 90’s, they once again became “progressives”. I recall the fall of the Soviet Union. The news media referred to those who wished to cling to the liberal fantasy of communism as “conservatives”. Those who favored the termination of communism as “liberals”. I remember this because I thought it backwards.
    “According to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics, in liberal democracies, the political Right opposes socialism and social democracy.” Nazis espoused complete government control of industry and society (as opposed to the Communist idea that the government owns the means of production). Yet, Nazis are always referred to as “right wingers”. To me, Nazis always seemed like another liberal fantasy; although they rose to power to combat Communism. Before embarking on the horror of extermination, the Nazis sent representatives to liberal Minnesota to study their eugenics laws.