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Progressivism in 2004: Transcending the Liberal-Conservative Divide

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As we look at the 2004 political year and the divisive struggles ahead, it seems like a good time to re-examine our roots and see how progressive values can help lead the way out of the liberal and conservative divide that leaves so many Americans disillusioned with our political system in general and Washington in particular.

At its core, progressivism is a non-ideological, pragmatic system of thought grounded in solving problems and maintaining strong values within society.

The original progressive movement at the turn of the 20th century sought to improve American life by encouraging personal and moral responsibility among citizens; by providing the carrots and sticks to promote efficient and ethical business behavior; and by reforming government to provide a level playing field for all citizens and groups.

Theodore Roosevelt’s brand of progressive reform appealed to a broad coalition of Americans and created a legacy of social and political change that battled social decay and modernized urban politics; reined in corporate corruption and abuse; expanded voting rights and democratic input; and – despite its jingoistic enterprises – set the stage for American intervention in defense of democracy.

Progressivism offers a panoply of strong, concrete ideas for today’s America, ideas that can help us move beyond the debilitating ideological debates that dominate our political discourse. Four stand out as we look to 2004:

The role of government. First and foremost, progressives believe the typical liberal-conservative fight over big government versus small government misses the point. We want to focus instead on finding the best solution – public or private – to a given problem, a proven approach that marries American pragmatism and our history of taking all challenges head on.

Progressives believe that there are some issues, such as increasing access to quality health care, improving public education, and providing retirement security, that are so vital to individual opportunity that strong public action is required to ensure basic needs that cannot be met by the free market alone. We know, too, that in other areas, like job creation and economic growth, the private sector must drive progress – and will do it better than government – but we recognize that a mix of public and private incentives and protections for consumers can best provide the framework for prosperity to flourish. And progressives focus strongly on cultivating moral values and personal responsibility in citizens as the best way for individuals and communities to take control of their own lives, ensure societal cohesion, and find solutions to problems that can seem intractable.

For progressives, government should help create an atmosphere that fosters individual and private sector success, but it should not be viewed as either the enemy of freedom or the favored solution to pressing societal needs.

Fairness and opportunity. Like the debate over of the role of government, liberals and conservatives today fight endlessly over the primacy of freedom versus equality in setting public priorities. In contrast, progressives escape this false divide by focusing on fairness – the legal, political, and economic conditions that provide access to equal opportunity and allow people to combine their abilities and aspirations and make the most of their lives.

Fairness does not guarantee that everybody will be the same, think the same, or get the same material benefits in life; it simply means that people should start from a level playing field and have a reasonable shot at achieving success whether they want to go to college, start a business or have their day in court.

A focus on fairness requires strong governmental action to protect basic civil rights and to ensure equal access to opportunities for every American, including laws and programs that provide greater freedom for individuals and fight barriers to personal advancement. But government action alone does not – and cannot – ensure fairness. Citizens have a responsibility to recognize and uphold the decency and dignity of others. This means treating people with respect, understanding different backgrounds and views, and avoiding solely self-interested actions and beliefs.

By stressing fairness, progressives move the debate about freedom versus equality to commonly accepted norms about providing access to equal opportunity, asking both government and citizens to participate in creating a fair and just society.

Citizenship. To many observers, politics and government have become the purview of extreme liberal and conservative elites fighting their own battles at the expense of the broad, largely non-ideological middle in America. In contrast, progressives focus on bringing politics back to the people, and on creating an active and engaged citizenry imbued with a sense of duty and sacrifice to society and country.

Progressives want to banish the notion that elites alone will take care of the nation’s big problems. They seek ways to fight political apathy and general disengagement and bring more people into public debate and decision making, as MoveOn.org has demonstrated. Progressives believe that the best ideas come from the grass roots, and that public officials have a duty to create new forums for citizen engagement and input. In turn, citizens must keep themselves educated on important issues, get involved in the political process, and encourage civic virtues in younger generations.

Most importantly, progressives believe that citizens and leaders alike must give something back by staying involved in the affairs of their community, voting, voicing opinions, volunteering, and placing the country’s needs above narrow self-interest.

Patriotism and national security. Progressives do not cede ground on patriotism or protecting the American people. In this sense, we view the fight against terrorism much as we did those against Nazism, fascism and totalitarianism – American battles that are not the monopoly of any particular ideology or political party. Progressive leaders such as Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy fought to make the world safe for democracy, and progressives are there today to defend America against on-going terrorist threats.

But given the focus on pragmatic approaches to solving world problems, progressives want to return to a bipartisan American foreign policy that focuses on the proven and successful path of building alliances, sharing burdens, using strong public diplomacy, and developing an integrated national security strategy based on prevention in the broadest sense rather than preemptive wars and an over reliance on military might alone.

These norms allowed America to emerge as the world’s leading power, a nation that realized that sovereignty and international cooperation can and must co-exist. Progressives believe that we can reestablish the country as a respected and moral beacon for democracy and freedom. A progressive approach to foreign policy is both strong and restrained, evoking the illustrious tradition of American intervention to fight for our values, while recognizing that with great power comes great responsibility.

In each of these four areas, progressivism points the way beyond the liberal-conservative divisions that are sure to occupy much of the public debate in 2004, to a politics grounded on reasonable action and ethical principles of what constitutes a good society and a strong America.

Progressive political thought provides a blueprint for effective and publicly accepted solutions to major problems. In this framework, government should neither be feared nor favored, but made to be an effective force for good and opportunities for all Americans. Individuals must behave responsibly and take their role as citizens seriously. And ideologies of any stripe should be discarded in favor of the core American values that help lead us to the most sensible solutions to the challenges ahead.

John Halpin is the director of research at the Center for American Progress.

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

Print: Allison Preiss (economy, education, poverty)
202.478.6331 or apreiss@americanprogress.org

Print: Tom Caiazza (foreign policy, health care, energy and environment, LGBT issues, gun-violence prevention)
202.481.7141 or tcaiazza@americanprogress.org

Print: Chelsea Kiene (women's issues, Legal Progress, Half in Ten Education Fund)
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org

Spanish-language and ethnic media: Tanya Arditi
202.741.6258 or tarditi@americanprogress.org

TV: Rachel Rosen
202.483.2675 or rrosen@americanprogress.org

Radio: Chelsea Kiene
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org