I. Definition and Key Ideas

Progressivism is just what its name suggests: the idea of progress. Specifically, it refers to social progress, the process of a society lifting itself out of ignorance, injustice, and inequality, toward a future that promises enlightenment, prosperity, equality, and (in modern versions of the idea) environmental sustainability.

Progressivism is strongly associated with the idea of taxing the rich at a higher rate than the poor, an idea known as “progressive taxation.” Its opposite is “regressive taxation,” in which the poor are taxed at a higher rate than the rich. Although no one argues for regressive taxes (it’s not very popular to advocate putting more pressure on poor people), some economists argue that the current U.S. tax code is regressive in its effects due to loopholes, capital gains taxes, and extremely limited inheritance taxes. Therefore, modern-day progressives target tax reform as one of their main priorities.


II. Progressivism vs. Populism

Progressivism and populism are related ideas, and often go hand-in hand. But technically they are independent concepts. Whereas progressivism focuses on the idea of social improvement, populism focuses on gaining the support of the masses.

PopulistNot Populist

Society needs to be improved to meet the needs of ordinary people, the middle class, and the poor


Social change must come from the ground up, rather than being imposed from above


Social problems are often caused by entrenched interests, such as corrupt politicians or greedy business owners


Social progress should be driven by activists and ordinary people


Society needs to be improved to meet higher goals such as advancing human science and culture, regardless of whether the majority can agree on these goals


Social change cannot come from the ground up because this process is too chaotic and mass movements are too short-lived to accomplish anything real


Social problems may be caused by entrenched interests, but can also be caused by the fickleness and shortsightedness of mob action


Social progress must be guided by experts or it will go haywire


Not Progressive

The common people belong to the greatest nation on Earth, and we must go to war in order to defend our honor and win glory


Social change is usually a bad thing because it creates new problems for ordinary people

Societies only survive when they have strong, consistent leadership, like a monarchy or dictatorship. The common people cannot be trusted to govern themselves.


Social change is usually a bad thing – it brings chaos and prevents a society from achieving its highest goals


III. Progressivism vs. Liberalism

Progressivism is one form of Liberalism, a philosophical movement much broader than the modern meaning of “liberal (vs. conservative),” or liberal with a small “l”. In fact, the philosophy of big-L Liberalism was so influential in the 19th century that modern-day conservatives are also the intellectual offspring of classical Liberalism.

The following ideas were all Liberal innovations in the 19th century. Notice that both conservatives and liberals today share these views:

  • People can change their society through collective action (voting, protests, etc.)
  • Political action is a moral responsibility – political inaction is morally questionable
  • Individual freedom must be guaranteed by the government
  • The right to govern comes from the consent of the governed, not from the ruler’s inherent qualities

So Liberalism with a big L is a very broad term – helpful for discussing large-scale historical shifts like the one that occurred in the 19th century, but not very helpful for analyzing modern-day politics.

So “progressive” might be a better term for the philosophy that guides the modern Democratic Party in America, rather than “liberal.” Today’s Democratic Party stands for social equality, taxation of the rich, and other ideas inherited from the progressive movement, but both Democrats and Republicans share a Liberal heritage.


IV. Famous Quotes About Progressivism

Quote 1

“A great democracy has got to be progressive, or it will [either] cease to be great or cease to be a democracy.” (Teddy Roosevelt, 1910)

Teddy Roosevelt was president during the first years of the 20th century, and his administration dealt with a host of challenges ranging from rapid industrialization to a war against Spain. Roosevelt tried to blend progressivism with a strong sense of nationalism and imperialism – he believed it was important for the United States to seize foreign territory in places like Cuba and the Philippines so that the nation could flex its muscles on the global stage. Today, progressivism and imperialism are usually at odds, but for Roosevelt they were two sides of the same coin.

Quote 2

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” (Martin Luther King)

This is one of MLK’s most famous sayings, although in fact he borrowed it from the 19th-century abolitionist Theodore Parker. Like Parker, King was a progressive who believed in fighting to change society for the better. In this quote, he expresses a belief that goes right to the heart of progressivism: that ultimately, if you are patient and diligent enough, things will get better. And once that happens, it’s almost impossible to go back: during King’s lifetime, politicians staked their political lives on defending segregation; today it would be political suicide to suggest that we bring segregation back.


V. The History and Importance of Progressivism

Social progress is a fairly old idea in European culture, and it has played an important role in the last several hundred years of world history. The idea can be traced back to the Enlightenment, when European philosophers and reformers started to toy with the idea that people could take responsibility for the social structures they lived in. Society, they started to think, was not ordered by God or by the forces of nature – it was created by human beings, and that meant human beings could remake it as they saw fit. This can be called the concept of “social change,” and it was one of the main features of the rise of Liberalism.

This idea profoundly changed the political order of the world, leading to events like the French Revolution and the American War of Independence, which started the world on the path toward modern-day democracy. It also led to the age of colonialism and imperialism, as powerful countries used the idea of progress to justify why they needed to rule over foreign lands.

In the late 19th century, the idea of social change was in full swing, but people were not seeing the results that they wanted. Technology and medicine had improved dramatically in the previous century, yet people were living in deeper poverty than ever before, and inequality, greed, and ignorance were still rampant. Many activists, dedicated to solving these problems, embraced progressive reforms like the minimum wage, the eight-hour day, the weekend, and restrictions on child labor. In America, these activists ultimately coalesced into the Progressive Party.

Ironically, the Progressive movement was originally associated with both Republicans and Democrats, whereas today it is exclusively the territory of Democrats. Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican president, was part of this movement and eventually founded the Progressive Party. He enacted progressive reforms like breaking up the so-called “trusts,” or monopolies similar to today’s “Too Big to Fail” banks. One of his great rivals, the Democrat Woodrow Wilson, also pursued similar policies – Progressivism was so popular in America that both parties fought over who could claim to be more progressive! It’s not clear exactly when the Republican Party moved away from progressive ideas, but it seems to have started sometime around the 1920s, when a string of Republican presidents prioritized business interests over progressive reform, believing that this would create economic growth and ultimately help everyone prosper.


VI. Progressivism in Popular Culture

Example 1

In the latest edition of SimCity, players have the option of leading their city into the future with advanced technologies and new futuristic problems to solve. One possible path is to build The Academy, which develops advanced technologies for clean energy, responsible waste management, green public transportation, etc. This path is rich in progressive themes, especially the idea that advanced technology can lead to a more prosperous and environmentally friendly city. The alternative path is to let the Omega Corporation take over your city and create enormous wealth at the expense of equality and the environment – exactly the sort of future that progressives want to avoid.

Example 2

The Star Trek universe shows strong progressive themes. This universe imagines a future world in which human beings have put aside war (at least amongst themselves) and dedicated all their energy to exploration and science. If this is your vision of the future, you probably imagine human progress as a constant forward march toward justice, peace, and prosperity, rather than as an endless cycle of violence repeating the same mistakes. In addition, the Federation has a strong central government and well-funded public services, all part of the progressive agenda for political reform.


VII. Controversies

Taxing Wealth

For the last hundred years, the question of tax reform has been hotly debated in America and throughout the world. On one side, progressives argue that the wealthy should pay a higher share of their income in taxes, since they can afford to help the less fortunate. The government should then use this extra money to build infrastructure, educate children, and rebuild communities that have been affected by natural disasters. On the other side, conservatives argue that this is unfair, and that wealthy people should not be punished for their good fortune.

There are economic arguments on both sides, but usually the argument isn’t really about economics – it’s about people’s vision for the future. In general, the best economic policy is always a mix of different approaches rather than a single ideology, but in politics people often fight for their visions rather than for humdrum practical solutions, and as a result there are people in the political landscape who advocate extreme approaches to wealth taxation – either doing away with wealth taxation entirely (in the hopes that this will stimulate economic growth and result in greater prosperity for all) or want to place an extremely high tax burden on the rich (in the hopes that the government will find better and less frivolous ways to spend money than on luxury goods).


Progressivism and populism are…





In America, the original Progressives were…





____ was a major progressive leader/thinker.





Modern-day liberals and conservatives are both the intellectual offspring of…





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