Now the initial inspiration for the progressive movement in the U.S. was a response to the rise of industrial capitalism, along with its abuses of workers and concentrations of wealth in a small elite, initially during the Gilded Age. In a way, the power of large corporations became a stand-in for the social hierarchies and abuses of old that the Enlightenment sought to address: capitalism replaced feudalism but mirrored the same oppressive power structures as the wealthy owner-shareholders took the place of aristocracy. In this sense progressivism echoed socialism’s response to the same challenges — and with many of the same proposals (worker solidarity, civil rights, etc.). But it is really only at that thirty-thousand-foot level that we can draw parallels between those two movements — or track their evolution over time — but we can see inclinations of the Enlightenment reflected in both. Progressives were primarily interested in returning “power to the people,” and having representatives of local and federal government be much more responsive to the electorate than to special interests like the wealthy elite. Initially progressives focused primarily on empowering and protecting white, working poor folks and their families in this way — and included women’s suffrage in that mix. While socialism of that time also shared this focus, only some socialists advocated advocated as vehemently for strengthening democracy overall.
Today, although it not as coordinated or clearly defined a movement, the central tenets that continue to guide progressives is strengthening civil rights and civil society in opposition to plutocratic oppressions, and continuing to champion liberty and equality. So we can say that these have remained the “traditional values” of progressivism since its beginnings.
Interestingly, what has also persisted in progressive ideas and strategies since the beginning is an almost ridiculous (in terms of effectiveness) diversity of approaches. There has never really been uniform agreement among progressives about how to solve the wealth concentration problem, worker empowerment problem, or improving our elected representation problem. Which is why someone might indeed ask the question of whether “traditional progressivism” has really ever existed. So we can say that the intentions — the goals and aspirations — of progressives have always been the same, and unifying in that respect. But methods…no, that’s always been a hodgepodge of tactics and proposals. In fact, sometimes these have been contradictory approaches — for example, some have emphasized centralized federal government solutions, while others emphasized more localized or distributed solutions (via community organizations, NGOs, etc.); some have emphasized collective solidarity (in unions, civil rights movements, etc.) while others have seemed more individualistic (individual freedom of choice, abortion rights, etc.). These differences probably owe themselves to different conceptions of both liberty and equality.
Lastly, there are some reliable commonalities between most, if not all, modern progressives. The original emphasis on liberty and equality is still present, but it has expanded considerably since the Enlightenment. Today these values are championed not just for white working poor, their families, and women’s suffrage, but also for expanding the same rights and protections to people of color, to animals and the environment, to the sick and elderly, to the LGBTQ community, and so on. And the approaches to championing these interests still rely on reason and scientific inquiry to a substantive degree. The ultimate aim? To improve conditions for everyone — this is still how progress is defined — in opposition to those who would prefer to retain the old hierarchies and concentrations of wealth and power. Fighting plutocratic oppression with democracy and strong civil society is really still the heart and soul of progressivism, and what makes it a longstanding “tradition” in almost every respect.
My 2 cents.
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