Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On progressivism

Joe Fantauzzi explains his reasons for avoiding the term "progressive" in defining his own political beliefs. But I'll argue that the proper response to Fantauzzi's concern is to work harder in defining what terms mean - not to abandon them altogether:
The achievement by marginalized people of social citizenship. Collective movement toward big goals that make life better on a societal scale. State intervention with the aim of lessening the burden caused by the market. Smoke from an oil field and tailing ponds as the economy chugs along.

Progressivism is typically identified as a synonym for activist liberal and is often associated with the types of things talked about in the first three examples above.

But the conflation of the economic, as seen in the fourth example above, with the political leads to a conflict that I can’t resolve.
I'll readily agree that we shouldn't accept that even destructive economic development should be classified under the term "progressive". But does that mean we should throw away the term altogether?

Let's first ask where it fits in comparison to other political terminology. And most prominently, "progressive" (both on its face and in its most common usage) serves as an ideal foil for "conservative". Conservatism can generally be defined in terms of a belief in the primacy and desirability of enforcing power relationships, including all the unfairness and imbalance that entails; progressivism can then be defined in terms of one's belief in the importance of instead ameliorating that unfairness or imbalance.

From that starting point, there's plenty of room for subsets under the "progressive" banner, depending primarily on one's perception as to which power relationships most require collective action and how to go about challenging them. A personal preference for addressing economic, social or environmental issues, as well as an inclination toward state, cooperative or individual action can give rise to a wide range of policy proposals - while still being consistent with a broadly progressive view. (Likewise, conservatism can include individuals focused on enhancing the accumulation of power within states, churches, corporations or families.)

But what about, say, John Tory's attempt to define airport enlargement as "progressive", which seems to trouble Fantauzzi?

There, the proper answer seems to be that Tory is stretching the term further than it should go. But we should treat that as a reason to criticize the spinmeisters trying to bend language to fit their political purposes, not a reason to abandon useful terms altogether.

And indeed, other terms can be abused in similar ways - and almost certainly will to the extent they're seen as carrying positive identifications.

Replacing one's "progressive" framing with "liberal" certainly does nothing at all to eliminate any confusion: in fact, large-L Liberal parties in Canada include some of the most conservative governments in the country by any reasonable definition. And on a case-by-case basis, other potential identifying terms can also be spun toward regressive ends - such as flat-taxers using egalitarian language to claim that "fairness" and "equality" should be based on how much one pays in income taxes rather than one's standard of living.

In sum, we shouldn't let the people most motivated to corrupt the language of collective action dictate the terms of political debate. And while "progressive" may not be everybody's choice of identifying term, we're better off ensuring that it keeps some meaning - particularly when it can serve as a useful shorthand and rallying point for a majority of Canadian voters.

1 comment:

  1. Well put, Greg. That was also my initial reaction to Joe's post. We can't allow the right to redefine the identity of progressivism. To the contrary, we need to reclaim the name if only to help resuscitate the ideals.