What the Heck Does “Progressive” Mean, Anyway?

“Progressive” is a problematic word. What does it mean, exactly? Are “progressives” more or less “liberal” than Liberals? Even within this Institute – and “progressive” is our middle name – there’s a broad diversity of political views.

I can only speak for myself. While I view myself as a political centrist, I believe laws should be based on what’s best for our society as a whole, not on any particular religious or moral code. And that political decisions should be guided by the best scientific research and data, taking into account our society’s goals and values. This usually seems to put me left of center on most issues.

I also believe that our society’s main goal should be the greatest good, for the greatest number, for the longest time. Not  “to each according to his needs”. Communistic socialism has shown that it doesn’t provide great good to a great number. Capitalism does a better job, but pure capitalism has proven to be far from ideal as well. The right kind and right amount of government involvement in an economy can and does improve on many market outcomes.


Beyond that, I like to think about Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy was a Republican when he was President. After leaving office he went on to found the Progressive Party, which made a good showing in the election of 1912. Some of the Progressive Party’s positionsBull Moose Party Charter Member Certificate may not sound revolutionary today, but at the time they were pretty extraordinary:

  • A National Health Service
  • Social insurance for elderly, unemployed, and disabled
  • Minimum wages for women and women’s suffrage
  • An 8-hour workday
  • Farm relief
  • Workers’ compensation for work-related injuries
  • An inheritance tax
  • A Constitutional amendment to allow a Federal income tax
  • Citizens’ referendums (decide on a law by popular vote) and initiatives (petitions)
  • Judicial recall (allowing popular vote override of court unconstitutionality rulings)
  • Strict limits and disclosure requirements on political campaign contributions

While the specifics differ now, most of these positions apply to my vision of “progressive” today. Treating women – and everyone – fairly, both socially and legally, is progressive.

Decreasing the influence of money in our political system is progressive.

Providing financial and healthcare support to those who need it most is progressive.

Requiring the people who can most afford it to pay a larger share of government expenses is progressive.

Hardly an exhaustive list. But you get the idea.

Progressives, quite simply, want real progress. Social, political, and economic progress. Not just for the richest people. For everyone.


Speaking of progressive, let’s talk taxes. By coincidence, progressives I know advocate a progressive tax system. That means that richer people don’t just pay more taxes, but a larger percentage in taxes. Our federal tax system generally is progressive, but there are many exceptions. And despite this, income inequality in the U.S. has been increasing for decades.

There are good arguments for progressive taxes. The richest can most afford to pay more taxes, and they feel the least pain in paying them. Progressive taxes and redistribution increase fairness. A strong and healthy working class can help the economy. Poverty imposes lots of long-term costs on a society. Redistribution – at least up to a point – can pay off.

There also are arguments against progressive taxes. Conventional economics says they decrease economic growth, though recent research is bringing that idea into question. Some call redistribution “theft” or “social warfare” that punishes the most productive people for being successful.

I might be able to go along with some of that, if higher incomes were 100% due to certain people working harder and being smarter than everyone else. But lots of people are smart and work hard. The fact is, plain dumb luck plays a big role in whether a smart, hard worker becomes a millionaire or becomes homeless. Some of that luck might be in being born to the right parents, or it could be being in the right place at the right time.

Yeah, some differences in income are due to working smarter or harder. But far from all.

So it comes down to balancing rewarding hard work and taking care of the most vulnerable in society. And right now, the U.S. leans far too lightly on the latter.


At the end of the day, we need more progress and more progressiveness, in our tax system, in our economy, and in our society.

And Evergreen’s here to push for just that.


One thought on “What the Heck Does “Progressive” Mean, Anyway?

  1. Pingback: Systems, Ideology, and the Need for Rational Conservatism | Everblog

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