Chalberg: What is a progressive?

If Democrats insist on sporting — or hiding behind — the progressive label, let's ask them to reveal their real goals and dogmas instead.

President Barack Obama after arriving on Air Force One at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, Arizona in March 2015. (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Now that the Minneapolis City Council elections have come and gone we have learned that the “progressives” on the council have a majority. That result, we are told, could spell trouble ahead for Mayor Jacob Frey, who apparently is not a “progressive,” but only a “moderate.”

The mayor hasn’t revealed his state of mind about any of this. But he is likely displeased, since he no doubt sees himself as a progressive as well. For that matter, pretty much anyone should be able to qualify as a progressive, and therein lies a problem.

But first things first: Just who and what is progressive? The assumption seems to be that it means bigger and bigger government at all levels. In American parlance the term stretches back to the early twentieth century when the original progressive movement came into being. Think both Republican Theodore Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson, each of whom favored a much enlarged federal government.

Since then, three national Progressive parties have come and gone. The first was ex-President Roosevelt’s failed effort to reclaim the White House in 1912. A dozen years later Wisconsin Senator Robert LaFollette revived the party and lost, followed by the one-and-done Progressive party of Iowa’s Henry Wallace in 1948.

Before 1948 liberals had already begun shouldering aside progressives. FDR was an unabashed liberal. After 1948 it was full steam ahead for liberals. Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson and John Kennedy were all liberals, rather than progressives. So were LBJ, Hubert Humphrey, Gene McCarthy and George McGovern. But by the early 1970s, liberals were in the process of tangling with each other, exhausting themselves, and losing.

The last Democrat to win the presidency when Democrats were routinely called liberals was the reluctantly liberal Jimmy Carter, who was challenged for re-nomination by uber-liberal Ted Kennedy before losing his re-election bid to a one-time liberal Democrat by the name of Ronald Reagan.

In the aftermath of that political earthquake, the terms liberal and liberalism were on their way to rhetorical oblivion within the Democratic party. Bill Clinton, after all, was a “moderate” when that was a term of something other than mild opprobrium.

But since the presidency of Barack Obama, it’s been exclusively a story of progressive Democrats pursuing progressive agendas. This rhetorical shift has worked wonders for them. After all, who could possibly be opposed to “progress”? Only stodgy, stick-in-the-mud conservatives, that’s who.

And the Republicans? Long gone are those liberal Republicans who called themselves, guess what, liberal Republicans. Among the last of this now extinct breed was our own Dave Durenberger, who tried to horn in on the progressive bandwagon by completing a book titled “When Republicans Were Progressive” shortly before his recent passing.

Today there are Republicans of many varieties, but there’s nary a liberal or progressive Republican among them. And yet there should be. For that matter, there should be — and no doubt are — many varieties of progressive Democrats. Why? Because virtually every one of us is a potential progressive — or no one is. Let me explain.

The key question for anyone wishing to stand or fall as a progressive should simply be this: What is it that I want to be progressing toward?

Instead of hiding behind the label of “progressive,” each one of us should speak much more directly, and yes even dogmatically, about issues and goals, especially goals, since each of us is likely to be some sort of a dogmatist anyway.

English author G. K. Chesterton offered a slight, but crucial, refinement on this. For him, the only important distinction was not between dogmatists and non-dogmatists, but between those who realized and admitted to be being dogmatists and those who denied as much.

Chesterton included himself in the first group. More than that, he thought that no one had any business appropriating the term “progressive” in the second place without possessing a “definite creed” in the first place. His clincher was this: the more definite one’s creed, whether secular or religious, the more clear-eyed would be one’s commitment to progressing toward it.

Therefore, let’s agree that anyone and everyone can be a progressive. Better yet, let’s just openly spell out our dogmas and goals, rather than define ourselves as progressives or liberals, moderates or conservatives.

Those who would seek to hold political office have a particular responsibility here. They should at least be as honest and forthright as Karl Marx, who did not hesitate to be dogmatic, as he went about stating his end game.

So just what is the end game of today’s progressive? Is it the end of the United States under the Constitution of 1787? Is it some sort of world government? Is it some form of state-mandated equity? Is it the nationalization of pretty much everything? Is the campaign against climate change really a campaign against free markets?

Speaking of climate change, if it’s a good idea to make policy on the basis of what is projected to happen a century from now, why not ask candidates to state their end games, even if they might be a century away, nay especially if they might be that far away.  Whether it’s eliminating all potholes in your ward or eliminating world hunger — or mandating across the board equity, voters deserve to know.

My end game would be to return to the original vision of the founders, meaning a federal government of limited and divided powers. There, mark me down as a dogmatist and a progressive. More specifically, that would be a progressive who thinks that the original progressives’ vision is in serious need of progressive reform.

Of course, if some still prefer the term conservative, let them specify what they seek to conserve and what they don’t — and why. But more to the immediate point, if Democrats insist on sporting — or hiding behind — the progressive label, let’s ask them to reveal their goals and dogmas instead.

Voters can then decide who is the moderate or the liberal or the leftist or the socialist or the Marxist among them. Heck, only then would today’s much-ballyhooed “progressives” be able to sort themselves out as well. The advantages to this approach could prove to be progressively endless.

In other words, no more blanket — and yet highly selective — designation of “progressive.” Either everyone is a progressive or no one is.


Chuck Chalberg

John C. "Chuck" Chalberg taught American history at Normandale Community College.