AskDefine | Define progressivist

Extensive Definition

Progressivism is a term that refers to a broad school of international social and political philosophies. The term progressive was first widely used in late 19th century America, in reference to a general branch of political thought which arose as a response to the vast changes brought by industrialization, and as an alternative both to the traditional conservative response to social and economic issues and to the various more or less radical streams of socialism and anarchism which opposed them. Political parties such as the American Progressive Party organized at the start of the 20th century, and progressivism made great strides under American presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William H. Taft, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Progressivism historically advocates the advancement of workers' rights and social justice. The progressives were early proponents of anti-trust laws, regulation of large corporations and monopolies, as well as government-funded environmentalism and the creation of National Parks and Wildlife Refuges.


Many of the principles that were laid out by early progressives continue to be the hallmarks of contemporary progressive politics. While the precise criteria for what constitutes progressivism varies somewhat worldwide, below is a list of the most common tenets.


Many progressives hoped to make government in the U.S. more responsive to the direct voice of the American people by instituting the following institutional reforms: :A procedure whereby ordinary citizens could propose laws for consideration by their state legislatures or by the voters directly. :A procedure whereby political party nominations for public office were made directly by a vote of rank-and-file members of the party rather than by party bosses. :A procedure to allow the citizens in each state to directly elect their Senators. Previously, Senators were chosen by the state legislatures. Direct election of Senators was achieved with the addition of the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1913). :A procedure whereby citizens could vote directly to rescind a law which was passed by the legislature. :A procedure by which a public official could be removed from office by a direct vote of the citizens. :A procedure by which citizens could keep their votes secret. Previously, voting was a public act witnessed by others. The voting records of individual citizens were recorded and made public. Many progressives argued that public voting allowed for voter intimidation. An employer, for instance, might require his employees to vote for certain candidates on pain of losing their jobs. :Granting to women the right to vote. Women's suffrage was achieved with the addition of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1920).
The progressives achieved their greatest and most enduring successes in the effort to make governments more democratic.


Many progressives hoped to make American governments better able to serve the people's needs by making governmental operations and services more efficient and rational. Reforms included:
Many progressives argued that governments would function better if they were placed under the direction of trained, professional administrators. (This practice is derided by some opponents as the "nanny state," and more cynically is seen by some as the inclination toward the rise of dictators, the ultimate government professional.) One example of progressive reform was the rise of the city manager system, in which paid, professional administrators ran the day-to-day affairs of city governments under guidelines established by elected city councils. :Many progressives sought to make government more rational through centralized decision-making. Governments were reorganized to reduce the number of officials and to eliminate overlapping areas of authority between departments. City governments were reorganized to reduce the power of local wards within the city and to increase the powers of the city council. Governments at every level began developing budgets to help them plan their expenditures (rather than spending money haphazardly as needs arose and revenue became available). The drive for centralization was often associated with the rise of professional administrators. :Corruption represented a source of waste and inefficiency in government. Many progressives worked to clean up local governments by eliminating the power of machine politicians and urban political bosses. Often this was associated with the effort to restructure the ward system. Power was transferred from urban bosses to professional administrators.
The progressives' quest for efficiency was sometimes at odds with the progressives' quest for democracy. Taking power out of the hands of elected officials and placing that power in the hands of professional administrators reduced the voice of the people in government. Centralized decision-making and reduced power for local wards made government more distant and isolated from the people it served. Progressives who emphasized the need for efficiency sometimes argued that an elite class of administrators knew better what the people needed than did the people themselves.

Regulation of large corporations and monopolies

Many progressives hoped that by regulating large corporations they could liberate human energies from the restrictions imposed by industrial capitalism. Yet the progressive movement was split over which of the following four solutions should be used to regulate corporations:
Some progressives argued that industrial monopolies were unnatural economic institutions which suppressed the competition which was necessary for progress and improvement. The federal government should intervene by breaking up monopolies into smaller companies, thereby restoring competition. The government should then withdraw and allow marketplace forces once again to regulate the economy. President Woodrow Wilson supported this idea.:Some progressives argued that in a modern economy, large corporations and even monopolies were both inevitable and desirable. With their massive resources and economies of scale, large corporations offered the U.S. advantages which smaller companies could not offer. Yet, these large corporations might abuse their great power. The federal government should allow these companies to exist but regulate them for the public interest. President Theodore Roosevelt generally supported this idea.:Some progressives believed that privately owned companies could never be made to serve the public interest. Therefore, the federal government should acquire ownership of large corporations and operate them for the public interest.:A few progressives, those who did not espouse marxist ideologies of any sort, argued that marketplace forces were the best regulators. A company which paid low wages or maintained an unsafe work environment would be forced to change its policies by the loss of workers. A company which made an unsafe product would eventually lose customers and go bankrupt. In the long run, a free market would best protect the public interest.
Many such laissez-faire progressives also saw excessive corporate power as economically unnatural, being bulwarked by limited liability, strong patent and copyright protection, corporate bailouts, heavy tariffs and subsidies, legally sanctioned union busting practices, etc., even in the absence of out-and-outstatutory monopolies. They felt that weakening (or removing) these bulwarks would render anti-trust actions largely unnecessary, and that absent such reform, even well-meaning attempts at regulation would ere long fall victim to corporate rent seeking and regulatory capture.
The laissez-faire and socialist approaches were less popular among American progressives than the trust-busting and regulatory approaches.

Social justice

Many progressives have supported both private and governmental action to help people in need (social justice). Social justice reforms have included:
The idea that welfare and charity work should be undertaken by professionals who are trained to do the job. :These were residential, community centers operated by social workers and volunteers and located in inner city slums. The purpose of the settlement houses was to raise the standard of living of urbanites by providing schools, day care centers, and cultural enrichment programs. :Child labor laws were designed to prevent the overworking of children in the newly emerging industries. The goal of these laws was to give working-class children the opportunity to go to school and to mature more naturally, thereby liberating the potential of humanity and encouraging the advancement of humanity. :Progressives often supported such goals as the eight-hour work day, improved safety and health conditions in factories, workers compensation laws, minimum wage laws, and unionization. :Some of the progressives adopted the cause of prohibition. They claimed the consumption of alcohol limited mankind's potential for advancement. Progressives achieved success in this area with the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919.


During the term of the progressive President Theodore Roosevelt (1901 – 1909), the largest government-funded conservation-related projects in U.S. history were undertaken:
On March 14, 1903, President Roosevelt created the first National Bird Preserve, (the beginning of the Wildlife Refuge system), on Pelican Island, Florida. In all, by 1909, the Roosevelt administration had created an unprecedented 42 million acres (170,000 km²) of national forests, 53 national wildlife refuges and 18 areas of "special interest", including the Grand Canyon.
In addition, Roosevelt passed the Newland Act of 1902, which gave subsidies for irrigation in sixteen western states. Another conservation-oriented bill was the Antiquities Act of 1906 that protected large areas of land. The Inland Waterways Commission was established in 1907 to control the United States' streams and waterways.

Worldwide impact


Western Canada at the turn of the 20th century began to receive an influx of political ideas. From the United States came progressivism. The Progressive Party of Canada was founded in 1920 by Thomas Crerar, a former Minister of Agriculture in the Unionist government of Robert Borden. Crerar quit the Borden cabinet in 1919 because Minister of Finance Thomas White introduced a budget that did not pay sufficient attention to farmers' issues. Crerar became the first leader of the Progressive Party, and led it to win 65 seats in the 1921 general election.
Dating back to 1854, Canada's oldest political party was the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, until it was dissolved in 2003. The PC Party generally followed a centre-right agenda, with conservative pro-business policies, but was progressive in its opposition to the Apartheid regime of South Africa and support for the introduction of the Canadian Bill of Rights and the Ontario Code of Human Rights. The PC party adopted the "Progressive Conservative" party name in 1942 when Manitoba Premier John Bracken, a long-time leader of that province's Progressive Party, agreed to become leader of the Conservatives on condition that the party add Progressive to its name. Despite the name change, most former Progressive supporters continued to support the Liberal Party or the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. After defeat and scandal plagued the PCs in the election of 1993, they lost their position as Canada's main conservative party to the populist and social conservative Reform Party of Canada. In 2003, Canada's oldest political party was dissolved along with the much larger Canadian Alliance (which had been formed by the Reform Party in 1999) to create the new Conservative Party of Canada. The Progressive Canadian Party, composed mostly of anti-merger Progressive Conservatives, was formed several months prior to the 2004 general election. Progressive political parties were created in the United States on three different occasions. The first of these - the Progressive Party, founded in 1912 by President Theodore Roosevelt - was the most successful third party in modern American history. The other two were the Progressive Party founded in 1924 and the Progressive Party founded in 1948, which were less successful.
From the New Deal to the 1960s, the progressive movement was largely subsumed into modern American liberalism. After the 1960s, however, progressives grew increasingly unhappy with the direction of the liberal movement and the leadership of the Democratic Party. On the one hand, progressives agreed with many of the concerns of the New Left, such as environmental conservation. On the other hand, they preserved their commitment to the original progressive issues, such as workers' rights, which liberals grew less interested in. And finally, progressives also began advocating entirely new ideas - for example electoral reform (including proportional representation) and campaign finance reform. As many American progressives felt disenfranchised from the contemporary American liberal movement, they sought to establish their own separate political organizations. One prominent example is the Vermont Progressive Party.


While the term "progressive" is not as popular in most parts of Asia as it is in North America and Europe, there are political parties and organizations that advocate for many of the tenets of progressivism, such as the Progressive Writers' Movement.In the People's Republic of China (PRC), individuals are elected to government via a series of indirect elections in which one people's congress appoints the members of the next higher congress, and in which only the lowest people's congresses are subject to direct popular vote. This means that although independent members can theoretically, and occasionally in practice, get elected to the lowest level of people's congresses, it is impossible for them to organize to elect members to the next higher people's congress without the approval of the ruling party, or to even exercise oversight over executive positions at the lowest level in the hierarchy. This lack of effective power also discourages outsiders from contesting the people's congress elections even at the lowest level. As well, control is often maintained over the civilian population through regulation of information, propaganda and censorship (see Propaganda in the People's Republic of China). These aspects of China's government run counter to many of the fundamental tenets of progressivism, and thus there is no major contemporary progressive party in power there. In 1998, Chinese activists formed the Chinese Democracy Party which advocated for progressive government reforms. Since then, founding members of the party, such as Zha Jianguo, have been rounded up and imprisoned by the Chinese government for allegedly "subverting the state". In India there are a large number of political parties which exist on either a state-wide or national basis. The United Progressive Alliance, as the current ruling political alliance in India, comprises leftist political parties which lean towards socialism and/or communism. Thus, the definition of "progressivism" may be interpreted differently in India, as communism was not a branch of thought that played any major role in the original western progressive movement. Furthermore, on a social level the leftist parties in India do not espouse policies that would be considered progressive in the West, though policies in regards to caste system, worker's rights, and women's rights are far more progressive than the non-progressive Indian parties which often appeal to Hindu fundamentalism based in a sense of a thousand year injustice against Hindus by outsiders. The alliance is externally supported (supporters are not part of the government) by the four main leftist parties; Communist Party of India (Marxist), Communist Party of India, Revolutionary Socialist Party and All India Forward Bloc. In order to coordinate the cooperation, a UPA-Left Coordination Committee has been formed. The Indian National Congress is currently the chief member of the United Progressive Alliance coalition.


In the past few years in Australia, the term "progressive" has been used to refer to what used to be called "The Third Way". The term is popular in Australia, and is often used in place of "social liberal". The term "liberalism" has become associated with free markets, small government, and personal freedom; in other words "classical liberalism". Progressivism, however, means in part advocating big government that does not involve central planning. The current Prime Minister of New Zealand - Helen Clark, leader of the Labour Party - announced in 2005 that she had come to a complex arrangement that led to a formal coalition consisting of the Labour Party and Jim Anderton, the New Zealand Progressive Party's MP. A further arrangement has been made with the Green Party, which has given a commitment not to vote against the government on confidence and supply.
Jim Anderton formed the Progressive Party after splitting from the Alliance Party. The Progressive Party states a particular focus on the creation of jobs, and has said that it is committed to achieving full employment. They seek to raise the legal age of alcohol consumption to 20. They are pro-environment, and list free education and free healthcare as other policy objectives.
The Progressive Green Party was formed in 1995 but has now disbanded.

Relation to other political ideologies


The term "progressive" is today often used in place of "liberal". Although the two are related in some ways, they are separate and distinct political ideologies. According to John Halpin, senior advisor on the staff of the Center for American Progress, "Progressivism is an orientation towards politics, It's not a long-standing ideology like liberalism, but an historically-grounded concept... that accepts the world as dynamic." Progressives see progressivism as an attitude towards the world of politics that is broader than conservatism vs. liberalism, and as an attempt to break free from what they consider to be a false and divisive dichotomy.
Cultural Liberalism is ultimately founded on a concept of natural rights and civil liberties, and the belief that the major purpose of the government is to protect those rights. Liberals are often called "left-wing", as opposed to "right-wing" conservatives. The progressive school, as a unique branch of contemporary political thought, tends to advocate certain center-left or left-wing views that may conflict with mainstream liberal views, despite the fact that modern liberalism and progressivism may still both support many of the same policies (such as the concept of war as a general last resort).
American progressives tend to support interventionist economics: they advocate income redistribution, and they oppose the growing influence of corporations. Conversely, European and Australian progressives tend to be more pro-business, and will often have policies that are soft on taxation of large corporations. Progressives are in agreement on an international scale with left-liberalism in that they support organized labor and trade unions, they usually wish to introduce a living wage, and they often support the creation of a universal health care system. Yet progressives tend to be more concerned with environmentalism than mainstream liberals, and are often more skeptical of the government, positioning themselves as whistleblowers and advocates of governmental reform. Finally, liberals are more likely to support the Democratic Party in America and the Labour party in Europe and Australia, while progressives tend to feel disillusioned with any two-party system, and vote more often for third-party candidates.


Libertarians do not advocate social change per se but rather support a hands-off approach to government, advocating that people form voluntary associations with other, like-minded people to influence the direction of society.
Some libertarians also utilize the laws of mathematics to prove out that attempts to produce social justice are inherently flawed. For example, Brink Lindsey, an economist working with the Cato Institute, argues in favor of free market capitalism and claims that progressive economic policies (such as minimum wages, most social safety nets, and trade barriers) help to increase unemployment among the poor and unskilled, as well as increase costs for all members of society.


Conservatives, by default, advocate established traditions and social stability. They are skeptical of notions of "progress" and social change -- in any direction -- believing that it is best to retain social relations that have been proven stable by past experience.
Conservative economist Bruce Bartlett believes that today's conservatives have forgotten that big business is often the enemy of free markets. He argues that big business seeks special privileges from the state to protect their market, create new demands for their product, or make the taxpayers subsidize their operating costs. Therefore, the trust-busting and anti-monopoly policies of progressivism serve to help the marketplace.
Author Gary Sauer-Thompson argues that contemporary progressives see a flexible, open market economy supported by strong public services as the best means to achieving social justice. In common with the liberal tradition, modern progressivism aspires to a society that is also open – economically, intellectually and culturally – in which individuals and their families can progress on the basis of their aspirations and hard work, and are not held back by family background or circumstance.


Socialism (in the strict or radical sense) aims to establish a fundamentally different society from the one that currently exists in most countries. While there are different schools of socialism, which often tend to have differing views of the ideal socialist society, some general examples of socialist concepts are: The desire to abolish capitalism, to place the means of production under the collective ownership of the people, and to achieve a very high degree of economic and political equality. Socialists argue that capitalism exploits the working class, and they desire for workers to play a vital role in moving society from capitalism to socialism (either by rising up in a revolution or general strike, or by voting en masse for socialist political parties).
In contrast, by definition progressivism aims to achieve gradual social change, and most progressives are outright opposed to any form of violent revolution. When the progressive movement split on economic principles, some progressives moved towards the socialist camp, advocating a planned economy. Other progressives moved towards the regulated mixed economy camp, with both public and private ownership of companies. Between these two extremes is social democracy, a branch of socialism that became increasingly moderate and moved towards the political center. Regulated-capitalism progressives and socialist progressives still tend to support similar progressive social policies, outside of economic principles. Socialist Party USA is an example of an organization with both democratic socialist and social democratic wings.
However, the relationship between progressivism and socialism as described here has often been a tense one. An example of this tension can be seen in the conflict between the Progressive Party of Theodore Roosevelt and the Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs in the United States.



  • Tindall, George and Shi, David E.. America: A Narrative History. W W Norton & Co Inc (Np); Full Sixth edition, 2003. ISBN 0-393-92426-2
  • Lakoff, George. Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004. ISBN 1-931498-71-7
  • Kelleher, William J.. Progressive Logic: Framing A Unified Field Theory of Values For Progressives. The Empathic Science Institute, 2005. ISBN 0-9773717-1-9
  • Link, Arthur S. and McCormick, Richard L.. Progressivism (American History Series). Harlan Davidson, 1983. ISBN 0-88295-814-3
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External links

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