Saturday, February 20, 2010

What Is A "Progressive"?

Webster's would define a progressive as "one who looks forward".

Being The Enlightened Savage, though, I can't in good conscience use a one line definition when a 2-page one is possible. :)

I've been thinking long and hard about this subject, as I look forward to Reboot Alberta 2.0, to be held in Kananaskis Country next week-end. I've decided that, in my efforts to define what a progressive IS, I'm going to try very hard to avoid doing 2 things:

  • Firstly, I'm going to try to avoid defining a progressive by what they AREN'T.
  • Secondly, I'm going to try to avoid comparing progressives to other groups as though they are mutually exclusive - "progressive", in political terms, is not mutually exclusive from "conservative" as we know it and as I previously defined it, for example (or, as someone who one day plans to lead a Progressive Conservative government, I certainly HOPE it's not).

So... what is a "progressive"?

To me, a progressive is someone who eschews the sacred cows of public policy discussions in order to have a full dialogue about what needs to happen to move society closer to a goal that is socially just. By this definition, Lyndon Johnson was acting as a progressive when he moved forward with the Civil Rights Act - a stance that to this day still hinders the fortunes of the Democratic Party in Dixie. Likewise, Abraham Lincoln - a Republican, let's remember - was a progressive with his championing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

To me, a progressive is someone who feels that government can and should be a force for good within a society. That those things we can't count on the market to deliver for the betterment of all, government should take up, to ensure no one gets left behind. By this measure, Mackenzie King (introducing Old Age Pensions in 1930) and Tommy Douglas, John Diefenbaker, and D.R.O.E.S. (Distant Relative Of the Enlightened Savage) Lester Pearson (the 3 mid-wives of national Medicare) were all progressives, in their own way.

To me, a progressive is someone who recognizes the value of stability, but also the potential reward to a society for embracing new ideas. That the "status quo" CAN be a good thing, but that it isn't ALWAYS a good thing. Using this barometer, Dwight D. Eisenhower (expansion of Social Security, creation of the Interstate Highway system, response to Brown v. Board of Education) and Theodore Roosevelt (Trust-busting, leadership of the "Progressive Party") were progressives.

The rotten thing about political labels, as I've said before, is that they can be applied by just about anyone, onto just about anyone else, and given whatever meaning one wishes. I can proudly call myself a progressive, thinking it means exactly what I've outlined above - and, at the same time, a political opponent can sneeringly refer to me as a "progressive, which is code for Liberal"... and, so long as we're using labels (progressive, liberal, conservative, libertarian) for convenience's sake, in the place of frank and open discussions about policy, that will always be the risk.

But, when you look at the actual party affiliations of the people I've named in my examples, you see a cross-section of MANY different political parties: a Democrat; 3 Republicans; 2 Liberals; a New Democrat; and a Progressive Conservative.

I've been tempted many times during this writing to go on the offensive, and talk about anti-progressive forces. To talk about political rhetoric that promises to return things to "the good old days" or "the way things used to be"...

But I'm a progressive.

I'm looking forward.

And the future I see for this province is as bright as a clear day in Calgary, as expansive as an Athabasca prairie, and as rich and full as an Edmonton festival.

Come along with me, won't you?

See you at Reboot 2.0.


Frankie said...

A group that I find very interesting, although never spoken about, is the unprogressive Left. Whilst there is a traditional belief that those of a left party (and yes, I'm looking at the NDP) has ownership of a progressive label, as i get older, I grow increasingly frustrated with the lack of debate within their ranks. So much of the Left's mantra is "what was good enough then is good enough now". How is this progressive?

Are the NDP celebs of Notley, Duncan and perhaps Mason (on last legs so might not be a celeb status) are these "Progressive"?

Chris said...

I think you're problem in wanting to lead a "Progressive" Conservative government is that most Conservatives at this point want nothing to do with the label which as opposed to 'forward looking' is now nothing more than a euphemanism for socialist. Just as at the federal level the party is now the Conservative party, the appellation under which conservatives group themselves at the provincial level seems destined to excise the antiquated attempt to incorporate the federal wing of the United Farmers movement from its title. John Bracken turned out not to have been terribly influential outside Manitoba then, and now he's no more than an obscure footnote in a book on Canadian political parties.

On a more ideological level I think the rank and file conservatives at this point are looking for less leftward drift not more. They want a conservative reformation back to core principles not more 'progressivism'. Naturally you're free to disagree but wanting to be a Progressive Conservative premier is starting to increasingly look about as promising as wanting to be a Social Credit premier.

Robert McBean. said...

not surprisingly a plug for reboot turns immediately to bashing the left.

Chris said...

Ah well show me when all these "Renew" and "Reboot" talk shops come up with something beyond old lefty wine in a new bottle and perhaps I'll take it seriously. Until then I'm rather confident that all that will happen is you'll have a number of disenchanted NDPers, Liberals and some Liberals who occasionally pretend to be part of a Conservative party get together and decide amongst themself that we need more government and higher taxes. Shocking really.

Anonymous said...

Your own definition of "progressive" (government playing a positive role in society through redistributive social programs) is really one of socialism. You, Ken Chapman and others seem like nice guys - the kind of people I would enjoy having a beer with and talking about politics. However, you are clearly not believers in classical liberalism or smaller government. I do not understand why you do not just join the Liberals or NDP?

Enlightened Savage said...

Anon: I'd beg to differ with you regarding my commitment to classic western liberalism and smaller government. I'm a firm believer that government should be involved in my life as little as possible, and that we are entitled to the best government that we can AFFORD, and not a penny more. I just don't accept that government should divest itself from all expenses save for policing, and that social programs are best delivered by hundreds of different groups with hundreds of different mandates and administrations.

As for why I don't join the Liberals or the NDP, the answer is really quite simple: I don't accept the premise that there is such a thing as "government money" - I believe that every penny the government spends on programs and services comes from hard working Albertans, and from the sale of the resources that we all own. That's OUR money - not the government's.

Sentiments like that aren't typically welcomed, in my experience, in either of those parties. :)

Thanks for your comments!

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but you can't be a classical liberal while saying government is a force for good and heralding socialized health care, old age pensions, etc as your favourite political achievements. Classical liberalism is about individualism, while the philosophy you are espousing is collectivist.

This is exactly the reason those of us conservatives who actually believe in smaller government are abandoning the PC Party in droves.

Enlightened Savage said...

So then, to be a classical liberal you have to believe that government is inherantly evil, health care should be available only to the rich, and old age pensions are a bad thing? What a marvelously simplistic view of such a complex and historically rich set of political values.

I believe that you can keep government out of the way of most of us, without casting the less fortunate to the wolves. That duality is what makes the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta my chosen political home, and it's also a statement that encapsulates the opinions of a large majority of Canadians, from coast to coast (including Alberta).

"Every man for himself" might be a good movie line, but it's hardly responsible social policy.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

You seem to be constructing a false dichotomy where we must choose between your version of socialism and Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome. But yes, I am saying that classical liberalism is incompatible with the welfare state. How do you reconcile the two?

Enlightened Savage said...

Anonymous: I'm assuming that this whole discussion has been with you, rather than with 3 different people named "Anonymous" - if that's not the case, I apologize.

My point is simply that not everyone who doesn't subscribe to your view of "Classical Liberalism" is a socialist or collectivist - and tossing those terms out towards people who disagree with the VERY small minority of Canadians who agree with your interpretation of Classical Liberalism isn't going to do you any favours, politically. The "no government" definition of C.L. is NEVER going to work in Canada, and it's never going to work in Alberta, either - because, unlike our friends to the south, we used our narrative of coming west and struggling against the wilderness not to emphasize the nobility of individualism and private struggle and conquest, but rather to illustrate the benefit in coming together as communities to overcome obstacles and help those of us who were unable to help themselves.

THIS is the society we've built. It may not be the one you hope for, and it may not be compatible with your definition of Classical Liberalism, but that doesn't make it wrong, or bad - it makes it different. It's a society that many people around the world would be happy to give their lives so that their children could grow up to live in.

Is the evil "welfare state" incompatible with how you define Classical Liberalism? Yes, I suppose it is. But so are most Canadians and Albertans - because we believe in helping the sick, and the aged, and guaranteeing health care and education for all. I believe in those things, too - and I make no apologies for that. How many Albertans would vote for a party that suggested dismantling the health care system, privatizing education and cancelling old age pensions - all "classical liberal" ideals? Not as many as you'd hope, I think.

If you disregard the values of everyone you don't consider a classical liberal, then you're going to find yourself on a very small island.

You're not WRONG to think the way you do.

Unless you think the majority agrees with you.

Then you're very, VERY wrong.

Anonymous said...

By your definition of "progressive", no political party right now is a progressive. The NDP are the ones that use the term the most, but their use seems to clash with your definition.

I like your definition, however, because it takes a non-partisan look at progressiveness. The reason many conservatives hate the word progressive is because the term is used as a political toy rather than an actual meaning, much like "neo-conservative".