Progressive Politics

For other uses, see Progressivism (disambiguation).

Progressivism is a general political philosophy based on the Idea of Progress that asserts that advances in science, technology, economic development, and social organization, can improve the human condition. Progressivism became highly significant during the Age of Enlightenment in Europe out of the belief that Europe was demonstrating that societies could progress in civility from barbaric conditions to civilization through strengthening the basis of empirical knowledge as the foundation of society.[1] Figures of the Enlightenment believed that progress had universal application to all societies and that these ideas would spread from Europe to across the world.[1] Sociologist Robert Nisbet finds that "No single idea has been more important than...the Idea of Progress in Western civilization for three thousand years." and defines five "crucial premises" of Idea of Progress as being: value of the past, nobility of Western civilization, worth of economic/technological growth, faith in reason and scientific/scholarly knowledge obtained through reason, intrinsic importance and worth of life on earth.[2] Beyond this, the meanings of progressivism have varied over time and from different perspectives.

18th century philosopher and political scientist Marquis de Condorcet pre­dicted that political progress would involve the disappearance of slavery, the rise of literacy, the lessening of in­equalities between the sexes, reforms of harsh prisons and the decline of poverty.[3] "Modernity" or "modernization" was a key form of the idea of progress as promoted by classical liberals in the 19th and 20th centuries, who called for the rapid modernization of the economy and society to remove the traditional hindrances to free markets and free movements of people.[4] German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was influential in promoting the idea of progress in European philosophy by emphasizing a linear-progressive conception of history and rejecting cyclical conception of history. Karl Marx applied the Hegelian conception of linear-progressive history, the modernization of the economy through industrialization, and criticisms of the social class structure of industrial capitalist societies, to develop the ideology of communism. As industrialization grew, concerns over its effects grew beyond Marxist and other radical critiques and became mainstream.

The contemporary political conception of progressivism in the culture of the Western world emerged as part of a response to the vast social changes brought by industrialization in the Western world in the late 19th century, particularly out of the view that progress was being stifled by vast economic inequality between the rich and the poor, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism with out-of-control monopolistic corporations, intense and often violent conflict between workers and capitalists, and lack of effort by governments to address these problems.[5] Progressivism has influenced various political movements. Modern liberalism was influenced by liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill's conception of people being "progressive beings".[6] British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli developed progressive conservatism under "One Nation" Toryism.[7][8] A progressive political movement emerged in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in what was known as the Progressive Era with support amongst conservatives and liberals. American President Theodore Roosevelt of the US Republican Party and later the US Progressive Party declared that he "always believed that wise progressivism and wise conservatism go hand in hand".[9] American President Woodrow Wilson was also a member of the American progressive movement within the Democratic Party.

Progressive stances have evolved over time. In the late 19th century, there were progressives who accepted scientific racism on the grounds of it having a scientific basis; however, this was later discarded as a result of racism being demonstrated to not have a scientific basis.[5] Stances towards imperialism were initially divided amongst progressives in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly in the United States where some progressives supported American imperialism while others opposed it.[5] In response to World War I, progressive American President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points established the concept of national self-determination and criticized imperialist competition and colonial injustices; these views were supported by anti-imperialists in areas of the world that were resisting imperial rule.[10]


The Progressive Movement began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in cities with settlement workers and reformers who were interested in helping those facing harsh conditions at home and at work. The reformers spoke out about the need for laws regulating tenement housing and child labor. They also called for better working conditions for women.[11] It also caused the development to progressive education.

Political parties such as the Progressive Party were organized at the start of the 20th century, and progressivism was embraced in the administrations of American presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson.[12] Moreover, in Europe and Canada, the term "progressive" has occasionally been used by groups not particularly left-wing. The Progressive Democrats in the Republic of Ireland took the name "progressivism" despite being considered centre-right or classical liberal. The European Progressive Democrats was a mainly heterogeneous political group in the European Union.

By country


In the past few years, the term "progressive" has been used in Australia to refer to what used to be called "The Third Way." The term is popular in Australia, and it is often used in place of "social liberal." The term "liberalism" has become associated with free markets and small government; in other words "classical liberalism." Progressivism is used to differentiate between the two-party political system of the classical-economic liberal Liberal Party and the protectionist-working class Labor Party.

The Australian Greens represent the third largest political party in the country, polling around 12%[13][14] with 9 senators and one newly elected member of the Australian House of Representatives (elected in the 2010 Australian federal election). The party espouses progressive ideologies, together with grassroots democracy and participatory democracy.


Western Canada began to receive an influx of political ideas at the end of the 19th century. The Progressive Party of Canada was founded in 1920 by Thomas Crerar, a former Minister of Agriculture in the Unionist government of Robert Borden. Crerar quit the Borden cabinet in 1919 because Minister of Finance Thomas White introduced a budget that Crerar felt did not pay sufficient attention to farmers' issues. Crerar became the first leader of the Progressive Party, and he led it to win 65 seats in the 1921 general election, placing second (ahead of the well-established Conservative Party). The Progressives also had a close alignment with the provincial United Farmers parties in several provinces. However, the Progressives were not able to hold their caucus together well, and progressive-leaning MPs and voters soon deserted the Progressives for the Liberals and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (later the New Democratic Party).

Dating back to 1854, Canada's oldest political party was the Conservative Party. Following that party's disastrous showing in the 1935 election during the depths of the Great Depression, the party was leaderless and lacked new ideas. The party drafted Manitoba Premier John Bracken, a long-time leader of that province's progressive "United Farmers" party, who agreed to become leader of the Conservatives on condition that the party add Progressive to its name. The party adopted the name "Progressive Conservative", which it kept until its dissolution in 2003. Despite the name change, most former Progressives continued to support other parties.

During the debate over the merger of the Progressive Conservatives and the Alliance (2003), the meaning of the word caused contention again. Since the Tories have stopped using the word "progressive" in their name federally, it has been used as a synonym for "centrist and centre left". This has been apparent in the debate on a possible merger between the NDP and the Liberals,[15] or in discussions of strategic voting among leftist voters.

At the provincial level in Alberta, the "progressive" element of the PCs was used in advertisements by Allison Redford's leadership to attack the allegedly "regressive" nature of the Wildrose Party in the 2012 election. Liberal leader Raj Sherman challenged the PC's right to use the label.[16]


In India, there are a large number of state and national political parties. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) are the two political alliances in India, previously composed of leftist political parties that lean toward socialism and/or communism, but since economic reforms took place in 1991 both national parties have established themselves as right wing reformists which lean toward more capitalism. Thus, the definition of "progressivism" may be interpreted differently in India, as communism was not a branch of thought that played any major role in the original western progressive movement. Furthermore, on a social level, the leftist parties in India do not espouse policies that would be considered progressive in the West, though policies in regards to the caste system, worker's rights, and women's rights are far more progressive than the non-progressive Indian parties. The Bharatiya Janata Party and the Indian National Congress are currently the chief members of the NDA and UPA coalitions respectively.

New Zealand

The New Zealand Progressive Party, led by Jim Anderton, states a particular focus on the creation of jobs, full employment, the environment, free education, free healthcare and raising the legal age of alcohol consumption to 20.[17] The party was a junior member of the governing coalition in New Zealand from 2005 to 2008 during the second and third term of the fifth Labour Government of New Zealand. The coalition continues in opposition after the 2008 election.[18]

The Progressive Green Party was formed in 1995 as an economically right-wing "blue-green" environmentalist party. After a poor showing in the 1996 election, the Party did not contest any further elections. It is now disbanded.


The Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine (Prohresivna Sotsjalistychna Partiya Ukrayiny/Progressivnaya Sotsialističeskaja Partiya Ukrajiny, Прогресивна соціалістична партія України) is a political party in Ukraine, created by Nataliya Vitrenko, a flamboyant former member of the Socialist Party of Ukraine in 1995. The Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine is a radical left-wing populist party that supports integration with Russia and Belarus as an alternative to the European Union. PSPU traditionally campaigns on an anti-NATO, anti-IMF and pro-Russian platform. During the 1998 parliamentary elections the party got 4% of the vote, and its candidate for the 1999 presidential elections, Nataliya Vitrenko, came in fourth. She received 10.97% of the vote in the first round.

In the legislative 2002 parliamentary election, the party established the Nataliya Vitrenko Bloc alliance, including the Partija Osvitjan Ukrajiny. It received 3.22% of the votes, below the 4% threshold needed to enter the Verkhovna Rada. PSPU was a vocal opponent of President Leonid Kuchma but supported Viktor Yanukovych, Ukrainian prime minister since 2002, during the 2004 presidential elections. After the Orange Revolution of 2004, the party joined the opposition to the new president Viktor Yushchenko in a coalition with the "Derzhava" (State) party led by former Ukrainian prosecutor Gennady Vasilyev.

In the 2006 parliamentary elections, the party again failed to gain seats in the parliament, participating as People's Opposition Bloc of Natalia Vitrenko. At the 2007 parliamentary elections the party failed once more to enter the parliament.

United Kingdom

In the UK there are several parties who claim to be progressive, including the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party of England and Wales. The current coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats also claims to be progressive.[19]


The Progressive Party was the name of a defunct municipal political organisation that operated in Scottish local government in the 20th century based around the Unionist Party, Scottish Liberals and Independents. The Scottish Progressives, a party with the same registered name as the defunct party, was also established in 2007.

National political parties were rarely active in local politics, but the rise of the Labour Party led to a process of party politicisation of private government. At first Labour were opposed by the Progressives before other national political parties entered local government elections on a significant scale.

The Progressives formed as a loose alliance of unofficial Liberals, Unionists and independents. Apart from a distinct focus on their urban localities, the essence of the Progressive groupings was opposition to Labour policies and control, plus a desire to avoid splitting the anti-Labour vote.

Progressive groupings formed in Edinburgh in 1928 and Glasgow in 1936 before spreading to other cities and towns. Their members were mainly drawn from small businessmen opposed to the introduction of what they saw as municipal socialism and Labour control. They dominated Scottish local politics for almost 50 years and as late as 1972 Edinburgh council was made up of 21 Progressives, 9 Conservatives, 33 Labour and 5 Liberals.

United States

In the United States there have been several periods where progressive political parties have developed. The first of these was around the start of the 20th century.[20] This period notably included the emergence of the Progressive Party, founded in 1912 by President Theodore Roosevelt. This progressive party was the most successful third party in modern American history. The Progressive Party founded in 1924 and the Progressive Party founded in 1948 were less successful than the 1912 version. There are also two notable state progressive parties: the Wisconsin Progressive Party and the Vermont Progressive Party. The latter is still in operation and currently has several positions in state government.[21]

Today, members of the Green Party of the United States are most likely to self-identify as liberal progressives. In the U.S. Congress, the Congressional Progressive Caucus is the most liberal wing of the Democratic Party, and it is often in opposition to the more centrist or conservative Democrats who form the Blue Dogs caucus. It is also in near-continuous opposition to the Republican Party. However, some long time Republicans have spoken out for more steeply progressive taxation than their leadership has supported, including Bruce Bartlett, Paul O'Neill, David Stockman,[22] and Sheila Bair.[23] Similarly, Republican Wall Street Journal opinion columnist Peggy Noonan has called for a renewed focus on jobs instead of debt and deficit.[24]

Relation to other political ideologies


The term "progressive" is today often used in place of "liberal". Although the two are related in some ways, they are separate and distinct political ideologies. In the U.S. in particular, the term "progressive" tends to have the same value as the European term social democrat, which is scarcely used in American political language.

The reason for this confusion in the U.S. might partly be rooted in the political spectrum being two-dimensional; social liberalism is a tenet of modern progressivism, whereas economic liberalism (and its associated deregulation) is not. According to John Halpin, senior advisor on the staff of the center-left Center for American Progress, "Progressivism is an orientation towards politics. It's not a long-standing ideology like liberalism, but an historically-grounded concept... that accepts the world as dynamic." [25]

Cultural liberalism is ultimately founded on the belief that the major purpose of the government is to protect rights. Liberals are often called "left-wing", in contrast to "right-wing" conservatives. The progressive school, as a unique branch of contemporary political thought, tends to advocate certain center-left or left-wing views that may conflict with mainstream liberal views, despite the fact that modern liberalism and progressivism may still both support many of the same policies (such as the concept of war as a general last resort).

American progressives tend to advocate progressive taxation and oppose what they describe as the growing and negative influence of large corporations. Progressives are typically in agreement on an international scale with left-liberalism in that they support organized labor and trade unions, they usually wish to introduce a living wage, and they often support the creation of a universal health care system. In the United States, liberals and progressives are often conflated, and in general are the primary voters of the Democratic Party which has a "large tent" policy, combining similar if not congruent ideologies into large voting blocs. Many progressives also support the Green Party or local parties such as the Vermont Progressive Party. In Canada, liberals usually support the national Liberal Party while progressives usually support the New Democratic Party, which traditionally has had provincial electoral success in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, and since the recent federal election, in Quebec.

See also



  • Tindall, George and Shi, David E.. America: A Narrative History. W W Norton & Co Inc (Np); Full Sixth edition, 2003. ISBN 0-393-92426-2
  • Lakoff, George. Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004. ISBN 1-931498-71-7
  • Kelleher, William J.. Progressive Logic: Framing A Unified Field Theory of Values For Progressives. The Empathic Science Institute, 2005. ISBN 0-9773717-1-9
  • Link, Arthur S. and McCormick, Richard L.. Progressivism (American History Series). Harlan Davidson, 1983. ISBN 0-88295-814-3
  • Kloppenberg, James T.. Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870-1920. Oxford University Press, USA, 1988. ISBN 0-19-505304-4
  • McGerr, Michael A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920 (2003)
  • Schutz, Aaron. Social Class, Social Action, and Education: The Failure of Progressive Democracy. Palgrave, Macmillan, 2010. introduction

External links

  • United States Congressional Progressive Caucus Membership Rosters
  • 500 Leading U.S. Progressive Organizations
  • Common Dreams
  • AlterNet opinion piece, July 25, 2005
  • The Fifty Most Influential Progressives of the Twentieth Century: Part III — slideshows by The Nation
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