Saturday, February 19, 2011

The ideals of progressivism

Progressivism at its core is grounded in the idea of progress - moving beyond the status quo to more equal and just social conditions consistent with the American democratic principles such as freedom, equality, and the common good.

John Halpin and Conor P. Williams, "The Progressive Intellectual Tradition in America"

That linked paper is part of a series on progressivism from the Center for American Progress. In it, the authors explain the rise of the progressive movement in America. I don't intend to go into a detailed accounting of the history here. (If you're interested click the link above.) What interests me most at the moment is the seven progressive ideals outlined by the writers:

  • Freedom, in its fullest sense, including negative freedom from undue coercion by government or society and the effective freedom of every person to lead a fulfilling and economically secure life
  • The common good, broadly meaning a commitment in government and society to placing public needs and the concerns of the least well-off above narrow self-interest or the demands of the privileged
  • Pragmatism, both in its philosophical form of evaluating ideas based on their real world consequences rather than abstract ideals, and in more practical terms as an approach to problem solving grounded in science, empirical evidence, and policy experimentation
  • Equality, as first put forth by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence and updated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."
  • Social justice, the proper arrangement of law, society, and the economy to ensure that all people have the formal and informal capacity to shape their own lives and realize their dreams
  • Democracy, the full participation of citizens in the major decisions and debates that affect their lives
  • Cooperation and interdependence, particularly as these ideas relate to global affairs, an overall humanitarian vision, and the importance of shared social and economic knowledge

Another essential point made by the authors is that progressivism sees in our founding documents the promise of democracy. They set out our national project. They are not, as some conservatives believe, sacred documents that must be followed in a literalistic manner, as a static set of principles. The are our starting point and their principles must be adapted to fit a changing society.

This idea hit me with considerable force when I first heard it clearly articulated by Barack Obama in his speech "A More Perfect Union", delivered in response to the Jeremiah Wright controversy. This is the speech, in fact, that made me an Obama supporter. Our project as a nation is to bring to realization the promise of freedom that was, in fact, not a reality at the time of the founding. Obama:

"We the people, in order to form a more perfect union."

Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America's improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.

The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation's original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.

Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution - a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part - through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk - to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.

This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign - to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America. I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together - unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction - towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren.


  1. It is true that words on a parchment were not able to deliver slaves from bondage. Why? Because we hold to consent theory. That is, government is by consent of the governed. And slave owners would not consent to have their slaves removed from their jurisdiction. The problem here is that the founders seemed to be dealing pragmatically rather than idealistically with that one question. What that ought to show is the danger of pragmatism.

    Pragmatism will put every one of those other progressive values in jeopardy. All someone has to do is quote a statistic or state a negative consequence that will result in holding firm to one of those principles. Don't real world consequences matter more than the abstract ideals such as Freedom, the Common Good, Equality, Social Justice, etc.? Or is it just other people's abstract ideals that don't matter?

  2. I think one way of looking at it is that the values we hold are values we want to be realized in the real world, not just in some ideal, Platonic reality. We want people to be free and equal, to enjoy social justice, etc. But the realization of these values is always incomplete and we may sometimes have to pursue actions that result in partial victories. I'm not saying the founders were necessarily right in the way they approached the question of slavery, but I do believe that progress usually occurs incrementally.

  3. The defense of liberty changes over time in response to changing conditions. That's why I (today) disapprove of the founders position on slavery without being surprised by it. But we're not bound to think of liberty in exactly the same way the founders did. Here's John Dewey (cited by the authors of the paper):

    "Liberty in the concrete signifies release from the impact of particular oppressive forces; emancipation from something once taken as a normal part of human life but now experienced as bondage. At one time, liberty signified liberation from chattel slavery; at another time, release of a class from serfdom. During the late 17th and early 18th centuries it meant liberation from despotic dynastic rule. A century later it meant release of industrialists from inherited legal customs that hampered the rise of new forces of production. Today it signifies liberation from material insecurity and from the coercions and repressions that prevent multitudes from the participation in the vast cultural resources that are at hand."

  4. Though he's often made a whipping boy, I don't see John Dewey as the worst pragmatist out there. But this just convinces me more that labelling "pragmatism" as a value, you're more likely to be saddled with Jeremy Bentham than get people up to the level of the Dewey quote. (I object to the quote, but recognize it as better than much of what we see.) And for that matter, as strenuously as I disagree with Peter Singer, if you list pragmatism in a list of values, you won't even manage anything as principled as his agenda.


About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.