Progressivism, like many important concepts, is many things to many people. Nevertheless, it has its own history, its own culture, and its own politics - all wrapped into a potent package that is making its comeback in the political discourse of this great country. The Campus Progress conference is just the latest manifestation of a political movement that is already changing America's political landscape for the better.
So what the heck is "progressive"? Those called 'progressives' of the late 19th and early 20th century, including such figures as presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, were renowned for checking the rise of corporate power and abuses and expanding democratic rights domestically. Later, leaders who followed the progressive line on foreign policy created an American nation that was an international leader in an economic, military, and moral sense.
Today, progressivism is not as easily definable as the ideas of the so-called Progressive Era of TR and Wilson. Nonetheless, the progressive movement's leaders, young and established alike, certainly have something to say about what "progressive" means to them.
"At its core," John Halpin, senior advisor on the staff of the Center for American Progress writes, "progressivism is a non-ideological, pragmatic system of thought grounded in solving problems and maintaining strong values within society." Progressivism is practical and driven by the values that define America morality and have made our country stronger and better. It's a dynamic concept giving the leadership of an up-and-coming generation of politicos - you - the tools to make this nation's future brighter for all.
Sound enticing? It should be: The future of America's progressive political landscape is in your hands.
It's not liberalism
The first key to understanding progressivism is that it's not the same as liberalism, as many might assume. "Progressivism is an orientation towards politics," Halpin said in an interview with Campus Progress. "It's not a long-standing ideology like liberalism, but an historically-grounded concept ... that accepts the world as dynamic." Progressivism is not an ideology at all, but an attitude towards the world of politics that is far less black-and-white than conservatism or liberalism, breaking free from the false and divisive dichotomy of liberal vs. conservative that has dominated American politics for too long.
Said simply (perhaps oversimplifying), American liberalism is an ideology grounded in traditionally liberal American values: individual freedom, democratic government, freedom of thought and belief, and equal opportunity. Government intervention is generally seen as the solution to society's problem.
Progressivism, on the other hand, is far more flexible than any one ideology. Traditionally, conservatives see the world, especially human nature, as predictable and static. Liberals are often burdened with endless optimism - a belief that all problems can be solved through implementing utopian visions (especially through government intervention).
Progressives aren't simply liberals; progressives see the world for what it is, accept it as ever-changing and dynamic, and choose the best course of action in line with decidedly American values.
It is pragmatic
"A progressive skier is unafraid to huck a 40 ft. cliff, but a progressive skier wears a helmet." Once again, Geoff the Philosopher/Intern gives us a glimpse of what progressive means to him. In reseraching this story, I asked several young progressives (including Geoff) what 'progressive' means to them. Many, along with Halpin, emphasized how progressive thought is above all pragmatic and flexible.
Free of ideological structures that tie leaders to strict policy courses, progressivism is averse to simple answers and flourishes within the details of the problems facing our society. That's why asking others - and ourselves - what 'progressive' means to them (and to us) is a crucial part of the never-ending development and growth of the progressive movement, and a key part of progressives' participation in American democracy.
Certainly, government involvement is one solution among many. CAP intern Suzanne Kahn, another young progressive, expressed one insight: "Progressives [understand] that government can be used as a force for good." But progressives don't simply ask "How can government help this situation," but "with the tools we have, both public and private, how can we solve this problem?"
It is value-driven
One reason that Americans commonly equate progressivism and liberalism is that progressive thought is often informed by liberal ethics - it's driven by a desire to promote fairness, human well-being and opportunity. CAP intern Andrew Fong puts it this way: "Progressives believe in maximizing human freedom and helping society (and its individual members) achieve their full potential." Fong reminds us that "power, wealth, and information must flow freely rather than be concentrated in the hands of a few so that all citizens have the means to contribute."
Conservatives often accuse progressives of rejecting a values- or morality-driven perspective on society and government. Nothing could be further from the truth: Progressives encourage personal and moral responsibility, and promote respect for ethical values.
Compare that with the false and empty chants of compassionate conservatives, who gladly engage in reckless and unjustified war; deny gays, lesbians and transgendered Americans their rights as citizens; condemn working families to a cycle of poverty; and err on the side of big business over public health and nature's untouched beauty. These are the same 'principled' conservatives who whole-heartedly defend the most crooked legislator in decades, Tom DeLay.
Radical conservatives who accuse progressives of being unpatriotic are amusingly out of line. Progressivism is about pragmatism and fairness, two ideas that couldn't be more American.
The dynamic outlook of progressives also is inherently democratic, a call for participation and leadership for today's young America. Progressivism is a living tree of pragmatic problem solving, informed by a constellation of bright leaders. Progressives have to stand up and define the future of the progressive movement, founded firmly on the principles that make this nation great.
Progressivism is uniquely American and entirely yours. Be a part of the discussion that defines both a concept and a nation. On the eve of this great conference, let's define "progressive" for ourselves.
Check out the 'What is Progressive?' Campus Progress' Blog here, and join more than 600 young progressive leaders in defining a more progressive America.