What I Mean When I Say I’m A Progressive

As we start to head into another Presidential election season, I want to write more about political issues, but I’ve always been a little shy of blogging about it because I live in an area that has overwhelmingly different political views than my own.  Since I moved to Green Township (a western suburb of Cincinnati), I’ve voted in nearly every single election and most primaries, but the candidates or issues I voted for have only won maybe a half a dozen times in 8 years because this is such a conservative area.

Feeling unrepresented at both the local and state level (nevermind the national level) gets a little depressing after a while, and realizing just what a minority view I hold in this area of the country has made me hesitant to post about it.  Still, I think we have a civic duty to speak up and be heard, so I’m going to start by just putting some of my core political beliefs out there.

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I consider myself a progressive.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read an official definition of progressivism, but to me, at its core, to be a progressive means to believe in the ability of people to improve the human condition and our way of life – that we have the intelligence and ability to analyze our situation, discover where problems lie, and fix them.  It is above all a hopeful viewpoint that refuses to give in to despair.

I believe government is not only necessary, but that it can create positive social change in ways that the private sector or other public sector actors simply cannot.  It is popular these days for people to argue that government isn’t necessary at all, for example a leading Republican candidate for president recently argued that the federal government had no business helping victims of hurricanes, but as a progressive, that’s exactly the kind of thing that I think government can and should do.  In the face of widespread natural disasters, I believe government has a duty and an obligation to care for its citizens.

Further, in my view it is the government’s job not just to protect and defend the people and our nation as a whole, but also to protect the average working person from the greed and excesses of the wealthy, the under-privileged from the excesses of the over-privileged, the minority from the tyranny of the majority, and to create the kinds of “public goods” that the private sector will never provide because some of the most important things in life can’t be quantified in dollars and cents and there is no profit motive to provide.  Some things are simply more valuable than money – like clean air, safe towns and cities, safe food and water supplies, and an educated and healthy populace.

I also believe Science is one of humankind’s greatest achievements and our only hope of dealing with some of the most pressing environmental problems of our time like climate change, depleting petroleum-based energy sources, and dwindling supplies of water.  Science also is responsible for our increasing life span, reductions in infant mortality, improvements in cancer survival rates, improvements in nutrition, and a whole host of other improvements to our general health that were often funded by, you guessed it, government.

Government can and should fund fundamental science and research for the benefit of society at large, in my view, and all of that is absolutely dependent upon a population with a solid education.  Without public education, this nation would never have achieved the triumphs of the last century and we won’t achieve triumphs this century if we don’t make our schools and education system a true priority. I simply can’t understand those who would abolish the Department of Education or the National Institutes of Health or NASA, or any of the other government agencies who are tasked with educating our people or researching cures for diseases and future technologies.

Another thing that really frustrates me, especially in our political discourse, is that our public rhetoric doesn’t seem to allow you to be considered a spiritual person unless you are some variant of the big three religions.  I disagree with that entirely.  A person can be spiritual and compassionate and caring about their fellow man without being religious, and despite what the media might say, conservatives don’t own the market on spirituality.  I want the other political parties to recognize my spirituality, government to protect me from having the religious beliefs of others forced on me, and both to allow me the freedom to practice the kinds of charity, volunteerism, and public service that I feel called to do.

I also want government to protect my right to make decisions about my own body. I believe one of the very best things a society can do for women is to provide access to affordable birth control and reproductive health care services so that we have control over our own lives and can choose when and how and the circumstances under which we have children.

And speaking of control of our own bodies, the criminalization of certain categories of drugs has been about as successful as Prohibition was (in other words a total disaster), and though Prohibition was a classic political goal of the Progressive Era, I’d like to think the progressives of then would appreciate how much we learned from Prohibition and would oppose the War on Drugs now.  Just as Prohibition ended up greasing the wheels of organized crime and political corruption then, the War on Drugs serves the same purpose now, and I want our politicians and governments to acknowledge this and treat addiction as the sickness it is instead of imprisoning those who suffer from it.

Finally, as a progressive, I have been utterly and absolutely appalled by our government’s response to the economic crisis our country has been in for the past three years.  From the bailouts of the big banks and large corporations to the focus on cutting spending on social services when they are needed most, it certainly feels like all the election rhetoric about needing to help Main Street and reign in Wall Street was simply fancy talk.  Instead I know more people out of work or fearful of losing their jobs, more people struggling to find work or pay for school, more people struggling to make mortgage and rent and car payments, and all of us struggling with higher gas and food prices.  I think the Obama Administration should be ashamed of itself for the condition of the American worker – it was so hard to swallow Obama’s speech on Labor Day that I had to turn it off.  I believe government absolutely has a role to play in ensuring that every American who wants to work can and that those of us who do shouldn’t be ripped off by the Presidents and CEOs and shareholders at the top of the pyramid.

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I’m sure I could go on, but these are just a few of the core things that are important to me politically and I keep hoping to see these beliefs represented at ANY level of government, local, state, or national.  But I don’t see much of it and I’m really not sure why.  I think people get so caught up in labels and boxes, so caught up in the election horse race, so invested in a particular political party or cause that they stop even thinking about what their actual core beliefs are.

It’s hard not to get so jaded by how corrupt the whole mess is that you tune out completely, but despite all the cynicism and corruption, the progressive in me wants to remain hopeful.  The progressive in me still believes that we’re smarter than this, we’re better than this, that we CAN do better.

I’m just not sure how.

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2 comments

  1. Good post. Well thought out and detailed enough to make your points. I think if we could get to this level of discourse with the candidates for local, state and national office, we’d be in a much better position to understand where they come from. Since you’re the first person I’ve met that (a) would label themselves and progressive and (b) articulate so clearly what that means to them, I have but one question for you: why do you think that Government is better at doing any of those things than ‘the people’?

    I think that’s the real divide in the current ‘debate’ (quotes used since what is going on can barely be called debate) – one side holds ‘the people’ as the ultimate savior of all that is wrong and the other holds government in the same regard. The fact is that both Government AND ‘the people’ have an equally long track record in history of some amazing achievements….and some spectacular failures. The difference is that when a person or group of people fail to police themselves, render aid, create fair working conditions, etc then they can be held accountable, either by market forces (no, I am not making ‘the market’ the saviour here either) or by the Government. When Government screws something up, they are very rarely held accountable by anyone. WHo watches the watchmen?

    I guess I believe that there are good and bad people in the private sector and there are good and bad people in Government. However, we should let the people be the first line of defense. Government should do all it can to get out of their way and let them figure it out – and it can do that best int he model our founding father’s had in mind: hyper-local government. The more distant anyone gets (private citizen or government official) from the problems on the ground the more likely they are to screw something up when trying to ‘fix’ things.

    Do we need no government – of course not. We just need a different form (hyper-local) and approach (let the people try first before stepping in) than we have now. I just don’t see how we get there.

  2. Hi Chris, I’ve been thinking about your comment and question off and on all day. Thanks for writing back, it’s nice to find someone who’s even interested in real dialogue these days!

    Your core question, “Why do you think that Government is better at doing any of those things than ‘the people’?” is a really good one.

    I guess I would say, one of the things that seems to have gone very awry is that government is supposed to be made up of ‘the people’, not just some small subset of the very rich and very connected people, or only the people who’ve managed to hide all the skeletons in their closets (everyone has made mistakes).

    Especially at the local or hyper-local level, the government we elect should be people from the community who we’re asking to represent us, right? We just invest them with power and authority to help look at the big picture and make decisions hopefully with the best outcomes for our community. Reasonable people will always have disagreements, but in a healthy system, that’s where compromise and good faith should come into play – and instead these days, money seems to have fully corrupted that process.

    I actually don’t think I disagree with you much about the need for hyper-local government and letting people try to resolve issues first for a whole host of things that can and should be decided by the people who are affected. I guess where I see the need for a larger intervention is when the issue involves problems that are more complex than a single community can solve or when it comes to protecting fundamental rights that can’t or shouldn’t be abrogated any time, any where, in any place.

    For some examples, lets say a factory is polluting a river upstream in other state and the pollution is affecting 20 small communities all along the riverbanks downstream. Even with a good, strong, involved hyper-local government in each of those 20 communities, it’s unlikely they would have the resources or the authority to compel that factory to stop polluting in another state. That’s where state or federal government is often needed to step in and ensure that the factory is complying with the laws about what can be dumped in the river. I mean, some things transcend what local governments CAN solve.

    Another example is something like freedom of religion. If a community is 99% X religion, the 1% who is Y religion should still have the freedom to practice their beliefs, I think we would probably agree. Without some oversight or larger authority, it would be easy for the 99% to outlaw the 1% if there were only the hyper-local government. The constitutional rights that are meant to apply across the board sometimes have to be enforced by a larger entity.

    Maybe those are highlighting some of the areas where we might have some genuine differences in perspective about how a situation should be handled, but in the bigger picture, I think we probably agree on a bunch of other things too. I definitely agree that the more distant anyone gets from the issue, the more likely they are to apply solutions that won’t actually work and that someone has to watch the watchmen else we end up with corruption as we have now.

    So I think we’re on the same page in that regard – we DO need a different form and approach – more direct involvement and less top down mismanagement, and I don’t know how we get there either.

    Going to keep thinking about this, thanks again for the thoughtful reply. 🙂