[Our guest blogger is John Halpin, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress focusing on the foundations of progressive thought, communications, and public opinion analysis.]
Matthew Yglesias and Duncan Black have initiated a dicussion about the meaning and use of “progressive” and “liberal” as ideological labels. I’d like to offer 2 quick points based on work I’ve done recently on the intellectual history of progressivism:
1) Ideological terms are notoriously fluid and hard to pin down. This is true whether discussing progressivism, liberalism, conservatism, libertarianism, populism, socialism, social democracy, or Christian democracy.
Looking back at the period from 1890-1920 — what is broadly described as the Populist and Progressive Era — you find that people who called themselves “progressive” or were labeled as such frequently held divergent views on a range of important philosophical areas including the role of the state, attitudes about business, views of human nature and social progress, the importance of faith versus empiricism and reason, and isolationism or internationalism in global affairs.
These intellectual divergences often reflected different sources of thought (Jefferson, Hamilton, obscure Europeans, or the Gospels, for example); different personal backgrounds and origins (city or rural, Midwestern/Western or Eastern, middle class or worker); and different political contexts (the progressivism of Midwestern Republicans like Bob La Follette or Al Cummins versus the Democratic populism of William Jennings Bryan and the Democratic progressivism of Joseph Folk).
Similarly, progressivism developed in unique institutional and intellectual settings. Muckrakers like Lincoln Steffens promoted progressive ideas through pioneering investigative journalism. Historians, economists, sociologists and philosophers like Richard Ely, Charles Beard, or John Dewey developed unique lines of progressive thought at places like the University of Wisconsin, Johns Hopkins, and Columbia. Activists like Jane Addams and others inspired by social gospel teachings created the settlement movement at places like Hull-House in Chicago.
In sum, there was never a uniform understanding of progressivism but rather varieties of progressivism that together put forth powerful moral arguments for reform; challenged special privilege; increased executive authority and oversight; created new institutions to more effectively manage the economy; implemented political reforms to enhance representative democracy and challenge corruption; and developed far reaching social legislation to address the excesses of capitalism.
2) We should embrace the full range of reform traditions — populist, progressive, and liberal — as part of a common project with philosophical distinctions that enhance the overall progressive movement.
Progressivism and liberalism, in particular, are built on distinct but complementary histories and ideas. Rather than trying to eliminate one tradition or another, or combine them into one label, it makes more sense philosophically and strategically to build on the positive aspects of each tradition and fight about other things we disagree on.
Liberalism has a rich philosophical tradition dating to the Enlightenment that we should embrace. Its historical focus on human liberty and autonomy, individual rights, and economic opportunity and security is critical to the progressive project today.
Similarly, at a time when liberalism in the U.S. was locked in retrograde laissez-faire notions, populism and progressivism arose to aggressively challenge concentrated economic power and the corrupting influence of business. Both traditions offered serious political and economic reforms that were later solidified at the height of liberal government during the New Deal. Modern liberalism would not exist without the groundbreaking efforts of the early populists and progressives.
To build a real case for modern reform efforts, we should draw on and defend all three traditions: Liberalism (liberty with economic opportunity); Populism (a stand on the side of the people and “equal rights for all, special privileges for none”); and Progressivism (honest government and a commitment to the common good).
– John Halpin