More 'progressive' than thou

Is a progressive just a liberal fearful of using the word? Rather, progressivism and liberalism are two complementary traditions brought together in organizations like the local Fuse.
Crosscut archive image.

Teddy Roosevelt, patron saint of the Progressive Movement

Is a progressive just a liberal fearful of using the word? Rather, progressivism and liberalism are two complementary traditions brought together in organizations like the local Fuse.

Crosscut readers trying to get some bearing on what it means to be progressive or what the advocacy group Fuse is about were hard-pressed to do so last week. Writer TM Sell argued that Fuse is too liberal to be truly progressive in one article and John Fox suggested in another that Fuse is not liberal enough to be truly progressive. Rather con-Fuse-ing.

I am weighing in to offer a broader definition of what it means to be progressive — and a clearer, factual picture of Fuse, an organization I head.

Fuse is a progressive advocacy network that uses online communications and grassroots organizing to give people a stronger voice in government. We connect 100,000 people into critical issues and election campaigns, aiming to generate bolder leadership from our elected officials and important advances in what we consider progressive public policy.

Which begs the question of what "progressive" is. Neither Sell nor Fox offer much vision in their essays. Sell'ꀙs definition of progressive, cloaked in a narrow version of 1890-1912 American Progressivism, appears to be 'ꀜmilitant moderates'ꀝ like himself. Fox'ꀙs definition of progressive is generally more hard left and appears to be based on what he thinks is required to protect low-income housing.

Our notion of progressive at Fuse is broader and more inclusive. It'ꀙs based both on values and political philosophy. It'ꀙs also a bit Obama-inspired, as Fuse was created while the Obama campaign transformed our country'ꀙs political landscape. And while our brand of progressive is grounded in history, it'ꀙs not locked in time. We disagree with Sell'ꀙs implication that the definition of progressive was frozen in place 100 years ago, or Fox'ꀙs attitude that it includes only the far left.

We believe that progressives are committed to core values of freedom, opportunity, and security for all, and to community responsibility. We believe that progressives are forward-looking, action-oriented, and practical. We believe progressives are generally inclined to reform, unafraid of change, and committed to civic engagement and democracy.

Progressive values are connected to issues, of course. Our full progressive issue platform can be seen on our web site. What we stand for includes affordable, high quality health care for all; a cleaner, safer environment; better wages, benefits, and working conditions for working Americans; the protection of civil rights and elimination of discrimination; reproductive freedom; fiscal responsibility; and corporate accountability.

We believe it'ꀙs reasonable to call the groups that advocate for these values and issues progressive groups, even if their track record isn'ꀙt always perfect or consistent. Our definition of progressive includes many groups and people, since we believe that progressivism is inclusive. Our definition is not partisan; party affiliation is not a litmus test. And our definition of progressive is incomplete, needing continuous input.

So what'ꀙs the difference between a progressive and a liberal? Is a progressive just a liberal who doesn't want to use the L-word, as Sell suggests? The progressive and liberal traditions are both important and distinct, but complementary. They have never been uniformly defined. Progressivism has over time placed a greater emphasis on reform, open government, and using government power to make businesses play by a set of rules. Liberals have placed more emphasis on economic opportunity and using tax revenues and big government programs to help improve society.

At Fuse we are inspired by values from both, but identify more strongly with the progressive tradition. If I tried to explain why in one sentence, I'd use a definition of progressive based on a blog comment I once saw: progressives aim to improve people'ꀙs lives with whatever works best.

One more thing: our Progressive Voters Guide, at which both Sell and Fox took potshots. Fuse distributes this guide, compiling compiles the endorsements of a wide range of progressive organizations with the goal of making it easier for voters to identify and vote for progressive candidates. The participating organizations include groups such as Washington Conservation Voters, SEIU, Planned Parenthood Votes, and Progressive Majority. Using such endorsements as an indicator of candidates'ꀙ progressive standing is not a perfect system, but it'ꀙs standard procedure for elections.

Sell mused over the proper meaning of "progressive" and also wondered about the word "Fuse." He pondered whether 'ꀜFuse'ꀝ stands for joining together or igniting, adding that neither sounded promising. He also asked when progressives would rise up from the dead. I think the answers to his questions are very clear: Fuse stands for both. We believe progressives can spark progress by coming together. And it'ꀙs time to stop waiting and join in. Progressives have never been dead — just disorganized.

- Aaron Ostrom is the Executive Director of Fuse  

Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors