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What’s left to be progressive about?

Peter Menzies  |  August 27, 2012  |  Economy, Institutions, Politics

There is much to be said for the command of language and how it can translate into a language of command over the public square.

Words such as “moderate,” which in their dictionary meaning imply a sense of temperance and conservatism, are now popularly used by people who have sought and continue to seek institutional change that in historical terms can only be considered radical in nature. Similarly, the term “progressive” has become fashionable, particularly in terms of politics. Both of these words are highly effective in marginalizing competition. Those who do not define themselves as “moderate” in media terms are therefore defined as immoderate, which raises questions about their suitability if not stability. And if one fails to self-define as a progressive, one appears to be opposed (in the public’s mind if not those of political scientists) to progress. The latter is quite problematic given that while there are occasional curmudgeons who wish for happier, simpler times in the past, there is no option other than progress as in moving forward. We all want a better world, in other words, and the debate should be about which is the best path to follow to achieve it. Some prefer collectivism and wealth redistribution; some individualism and wealth creation; some evangelism.

The traditional understanding of a progressive is one who believes the free market is the preferred method to create wealth in society but that once created, that wealth should be applied to the achievement of liberal causes—health care, welfare, arts funding, etc. In other words, individualism is the driver behind the economy; collectivism is the purpose of economic success. Small-c conservatives are not terribly unlike progressives in this definition in that they share the same faith in the foundations of economic health. And, while there may be a few radical libertarians who disagree, there is probably more agreement than disagreement about the overall purpose of wealth creation—a happier, more prosperous society.

After that it gets really confusing. This is due in part to the recent adaptation of the term “progressive” by media to apply to supporters of both liberal and socialist movements. Yet while they may share a desire for liberal outcomes in society, those groups are actually more divided at their foundations than are conservatives and liberals/progressives who agree on markets as fundamental to economic success. (Here it is worth remembering that in terms of politics, Canada’s “Tories” have evolved from being the Liberal Conservative Party to the Progressive Conservative Party to the Conservative Party of Canada.)

And then there is the new divide between progressives who see their role as defending the institutions they built during their 20th-century dominance, against changes being proposed by conservatives. In this scenario, these 1970s/1980s “progressives” are actually the ones behaving in conservative fashion as they tend to halt the progress being sought by conservatives. Canada’s public health care monopoly is the most vivid example of this debate.

Within this milieu lives the neo-progressive who appears to eschew all ideology or principle. While this may be a suitable political cloak for those who see principles as detrimental to electoral success, I am unconvinced it exists beyond that utility to represent a movement or that, if it does so, the movement isn’t merely one of sociopathic fashion. I say that, because in order to be defined as an intellectual movement with political potential, it should have a view on economic matters and, so far, it doesn’t.

So, assuming progressives maintain a faith in markets, it is unclear whether progressivism has not—successfully—run its course. What, after all, is there left to be “progressive” about?

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