Friday, April 08, 2005

“Progressive” – A Liberal in Sheep’s Clothing? -- post by Melody Barnes

It strikes me that we freely use the term “progressive,” but it isn’t clear that we have an articulable definition. While I’m not suggesting that we should or could reach consensus, I do believe we need to achieve some clarity. Right now, the progressive movement is dancing around the issue. We need to do more than erase “liberal” and substitute “progressive” or add “not” in front of “conservative.” Without some guideposts, it will be difficult for us to articulate our understanding of the Constitution and where we want to be in 2020; to define our understanding of the roles of Congress, the President, the courts, and state and local government; or to build a movement – distinct but related tasks.

At a recent conference – “New Strategies for Southern Progress” -- when asked to define “progressive,” journalist Hodding Carter III jokingly responded that a progressive is a liberal in sheep’s clothing. After the laughter died down, he provided an answer that I find personally appealing. He said, “A progressive is someone who remembers and reasserts repeatedly that the history of the United States is a history of constantly expanding opportunity, of constantly expanding the protection society affords those least able to protect themselves, and it is that history that makes the country great.” While meat needs to be added to those bones, I do believe he spoke to the essence of progressivism.

In the course of defining ourselves (hopefully before others do it for us), we should build a progressive narrative that includes our history and our vision for the future. If we probe history it may provide helpful clues to the questions before us. In past progressive movements, did improved democratic processes alone expand opportunity for masses of people or did the drive for improved processes work hand-in-glove with expressed substantive ideals? While many . . . most . . . all of us are disillusioned with the courts, how does the lens of history adjust our view of majoritarian institutions? How should past battles on the state and local level affect our vision for work in that area today? And, on that score, can we be more than outcome-oriented federalists? Perhaps those in academia are clearer in this area, but it hasn’t trickled down to policymakers.

History also speaks to our fumbling around the issues of values, morals and religion. Those are clearly uncomfortable terms for progressives. For cultural, historical and constitutional reasons, the conversations are complex, and added to the mix is the advent of a chilling and powerful conservative religious movement. I believe it is important to remember that part of our history speaks to the achievement of progressive goals through the coordinated work of secular and prophetic/progressive religious leadership. One doesn’t have to marginalize the other, and consistent with the writings of those like Bill Marshall and Melissa Rogers, work can be done well within constitutional parameters. “Values” are not conservative off-spring. Religious and secular, our work and constitutional view are rich with a broad sense of equality, fairness, and justice – sometimes we even vote against our personal/economic interests.

Finally, while defining ourselves, we also need to determine a coherent way to discuss our view of the individual’s relationship to government. Take the issue of privacy – specifically, abortion. Our core argument is that government should generally stay out of the abortion decision; that’s certainly the public relations message. But, those of us making that argument often pull government back into the fray when rejecting the Hyde amendment. This is just one example of our dilemma, and there are others. It is an issue we should consider – not just as an intellectual exercise but also to clarify our goals and views for the public.

The bottom line is that on our way to making the progressive 2020 Constitution real, I believe we must also address the base-line question: what makes us progressives.

-- Melody Barnes