"Progressive" Means Different Things to Different People

John Moser

November 1, 2010

One of the most incendiary words in today’s political lexicon is progressive. Members of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, from President Barack Obama on down, use it proudly to describe themselves. Tea partiers and other conservatives, most notably talk-show host Glenn Beck, use it as a term of reproach, blaming progressivism for nearly everything that’s gone wrong with America over the past hundred years.

One of the reasons the word generates so much controversy is that it means something different to each side.

For liberals, progressivism is a set of policies, from the industrial regulations of the early 20th century through the welfare measures of the Great Society. Such initiatives were attempts to address real problems that emerged in the development of an urban, industrial society. What’s more, they insist, these policies have brought about immense tangible improvements in the lives of ordinary Americans. Only a dangerous extremist, therefore, would want to reverse them.

Conservatives, meanwhile, regard progressivism as an ideology, a set of beliefs developed by men such as Herbert Croly and Woodrow Wilson. According to these thinkers, the ideas of the Founders had no relevance to modern industrial society, and concepts such as limited government, separation of powers and even inalienable individual rights had to be cast aside in order to meet the challenges of the modern world. Moreover, since our society is so complex, day-to-day operations of government had to be taken out of the hands of the people themselves and entrusted to trained experts. All of this led some conservatives to find similarities between progressivism and another political response to the problems of the 20th-century world, namely fascism.

The problem is that both sides are right, but neither seems willing to consider the other’s definition. This is the source of much of the rancor in today’s politics. While using the same words, conservatives and liberals are practically speaking different languages.

What we are desperately lacking is a real national conversation, as opposed to a shouting match, about progressivism. In order to start that conversation, liberals and conservatives need to ask themselves some tough questions.

Liberals need to face squarely the ideological underpinnings of their views. Do they really believe that there is no field of human endeavor in which government should not have a role? Does the American Constitution really draw no lines that cannot be crossed? Is it healthy for the administration of government to rest in the hands of bureaucrats who are for the most part shielded from the democratic process? If their answers to any of these questions is no, then how can these theoretical issues be squared with progressive policies as they have actually functioned for the past hundred years?

On the other hand, conservatives need to consider whether they really want to overturn everything that the progressives have done. Do they really seek to return to a time when it was legal to sell tainted meat, employ children in hazardous jobs and pollute rivers and streams? Are welfare programs such a danger to the republic that it would be better for the poor to have to rely solely on private charity or face destitution? If they answer any of these in the negative, then how can these practical issues be reconciled to their theoretical objections to progressivism, no matter how valid they may be?

Of course, there will always be a great deal for liberals and conservatives to argue about. Even if liberals accept the premise of limited government, the thorny matter of what those limits are certainly will not go away. And if conservatives agree that certain regulations and welfare measures are necessary, that leaves open the question of which are and which are not.

Partisanship, therefore, will not be going away anytime soon. But our democracy would be healthier if we at least began speaking the same language.

John Moser is associate professor of history at Ashland University and a fellow of the Ashbrook Center.