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What is a Progressive?


Recently Kim Iversen, the nationally syndicated host of the Kim Iversen Show on radio and YouTube, was a guest on the Braver Angels podcast, and during the wide-ranging conversation she brought up the topic of the hazy mantle of progressivism being adopted by mainstream liberals. Prior to her comments, I’d certainly thought about the distinction between these two labels, but in my mind—one that has been shaped by the ideas of those who call themselves progressives, rather than by a political science degree—the distinction has actually felt a bit synthetic.

“Liberal,” to me, is a somewhat outdated term to describe the stances of the left. It’s outdated not because of any actual deficiency in the word itself, but more so due to the pejorative status it’s gained by being relentlessly conflated with government largesse.

Our Red-Blue Workshops start with an exercise examining stereotypes, and the blues often bring up being unfairly painted as fiscally irresponsible. In their minds, the reds cast the word liberal as relating to freely opening the government wallet.

So in response, the word has fallen out of favor with the overtly political on the left. We prefer to adopt the mantle of “progressivism,” particularly because it reflects the idea of reform that we feel is so urgently needed within our government.

This is obviously very different from the reform sought on the right, which sees government as a metastasizing tumor that should be excised and cauterized, never to regenerate to do its damage again. Ronald Reagan’s famous punchline—“the nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help,’”—very much encapsulates the difference in viewpoints.

Conservatives see many federal programs as mostly unnecessary and even sinister in their distortion of the market’s regulative mechanisms. Progressives see those same programs as a vital corrective to the distortions that are intrinsic to the free market. These distortions include the failure to factor in economic externalities—costs to society as a whole, like pollution from factories—that will often be paid by the most vulnerable of us, like the poor family that can’t afford any other housing than a plot of land downwind from the smokestacks.

But this progressive idea of reform reaches beyond the purely political. To me, at least, to be progressive is to feel that there is a wholesale transformation needed within our society, a shift that expands our sphere of concern from a narrow and tribal one to a more global one that treats all people, and perhaps even all sentient beings, as worthy of care and concern.

So here is my definition of progressivism: the belief that we must create a more inclusive nation and world, which treats every person as worthy of the same rights and responsibilities. This includes the liberal idea that in many cases, government can be the best agent for that progress. For me it encompasses both social and economic issues. Naturally it starts with our political systems writ large, since true democracy ensures that everyone’s political voice should have equal weight, so campaign finance reform must be a primary focus.

My brother Adam has dedicated his career to progressive political reform, and his influence has been very formative for me. He has emphasized the need to address the “wealth primary” that often precludes non-wealthy and non-connected people from running for higher office. There are a variety of prescriptive policies to address this, starting with campaign finance reform that reverses the infamous Citizens United ruling, which allows wealthy donors to give unlimited, unaccountable money in whatever direction they choose, as long as their donation is not formally linked with a candidate’s campaign.

More transformative reforms could include things like full public financing of campaigns, abolition of the Electoral College—which many progressives see as undemocratic—and even more broadly non-partisan ideas like ranked-choice voting, which could allow for more than two competitive parties. (More on that in a future column.)

Progressives also believe we should have a fully “progressive” taxation system, though when the word is used in the context of taxation, it simply indicates that higher earners pay a higher percentage of their income. To us this makes perfect sense, since the more you earn, the lower percentage of your income is required to maintain a reasonable standard of living. Plus, lower earners are more likely to spend the income they retain, which goes straight back into the economy as a direct stimulus.

We fundamentally disagree that this sort of policy is discriminatory towards the wealthy, particularly because it’s built upon a structure of marginal tax rates. If the first $10,000 of income is taxed at the same rate for everyone, with higher rates only kicking in on income in excess of that amount, it means everyone is being treated the same. Progressives feel strongly about returning to the more progressive taxation systems of the past, where the top rate exceeds 70% (compared to today’s 37% top rate). And indeed this 70% number would be applied to the 10,000,001st dollar, which seems eminently reasonable.

The accusation from the right is of “income redistribution.” To a very limited extent this might be true, since it does take income from wealthier Americans to benefit those who are less well off, but there is very little to criticize here in practice, since the programs this money is funding are really just a backstop to the inequities created by a fundamentally rapacious system that rewards pre-existing wealth. As they say, it takes money to make money, and we have a system that—incredibly—taxes income that is much more likely to go to the wealthy, like profits from investing, at a lower rate than wages earned from labor.

The justification here is that this policy encourages investment, but the reality is that the wealthy would continue to invest regardless of tax policy, because it’s the best use of their money. The tax rate would have to be extraordinarily high to erase the earnings advantage from investment over the lower interest rate from savings, and progressives aren’t advocating rates that high.

After hearing some of Iversen’s thoughts on the Braver Angels podcast, I knew I had to talk to her, because I agreed with so much of what she said. Part of our conversation centered around immigration, and the situation at our southern border, but that’s a subject for another day. We ended up talking extensively about the “progressive” label, since Iversen is very passionate about its use and misuse.

“Now ‘progressive’ is like the new term for Democrat, but it is not,” she asserts. “It’s a very different movement within the left wing that has way more in common, I believe, with Libertarians than with Democrats.”

While she asserts that progressives have a strong association with the Dems because they caucus together, they don’t actually like the party itself.

“We will begrudgingly vote for Democrats… We actually think the party’s corrupt, we think that the party should just be burnt down and a new one should be built up, or this one needs to drastically change, where it’s not anything like what it looks like today.”

In Iversen’s mind, the number-one issue for progressives is big donor money, and the task of getting it out of our political system. From her conversation with podcast hosts John Wood and Ciaran O’Connor, she seems not to emphasize social issues, particularly when compared with mainstream Democrats. To me, this is an odd disconnect.

Like my brother, who in fact does have a political science degree, I see the social and fiscal issues as inextricably linked. He calls himself a “race-forward populist progressive” in recognition of this fact. To him, progressives who subscribe to a “colorblind economic populism” are reflective of the thinking of Sen. Bernie Sanders before he was confronted with issues that faced people who are disadvantaged in ways beyond just the economic, what Adam called “Bernie 1.0.”

I feel strongly that progressivism encompasses the idea of extending civil rights to marginalized groups, and it’s clear we still have a lot of work ahead of us in this regard. It includes support for Black Lives Matter and amplifying the voices of people of color, particularly immigrants; supporting the LGBTQ community; and the full realization of the goals of feminism. These are all ideas that are quite popular within the Democratic party, and even among the public in general, so I consider the United States to be an inherently progressive country.

I also believe that the more mainstream figures within the party can be called progressive, since the policy differences between them and the ones who’ve been labelled “pure progressives” are actually fairly minimal. Case in point—during the 2016 primaries I went to to see who I lined up with most, and found I was aligned 99% with Hillary Clinton and 98% with Bernie, according to that website’s calculations.

One of the most substantive policy differences I sensed back then involved higher education for all. As I recall, Bernie wanted to provide free tuition for all, while Hillary wanted means testing for higher education tuition. Hillary’s approach makes a lot of sense to me. Why would I want to subsidize higher education for those who can already afford it, who come from families where attaining a college degree has been the norm for generations? That seems pretty anti-progressive to me. Hillary’s plan also seemed much more likely to find bipartisan success.

I will certainly concede to Iversen and her ilk the fact that there are those on the left who are pushing more aggressively to get corporate money out of the electoral system, like Bernie and Elizabeth Warren. However, in terms of actual substantive policy, they don’t seem any more effective at pushing us towards an ideal progressive agenda than the rest. The difference seems to be in the pragmatism of approach, rather than the ultimate goal.

Obamacare was definitely a centrist idea that progressives felt didn’t go nearly far enough. I would certainly advocate for a single-payer system that either eliminates or drastically reduces the role of insurance companies in determining how health care is allocated. But to me it’s more progressive to pass Obamacare and allow millions more to afford health insurance than to fight for single-payer but then wind up with nothing.

Iversen dragged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pretty hard, calling her corrupt, and outmoded. But Pelosi guided Obamacare through Congress, and recently helped to elect the single most diverse Congress in our country’s history. To us “fake progressives,” Pelosi is a skillful political operator, who knows how to get things done against stiff odds.

That leaves one more topic to cover, since we must address the proverbial donkey in the room: socialism. Bernie’s 2016 bid brought the term back to the political fore, with his identification as a Democratic Socialist. For a country whose modern identity was forged by its global opposition to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the socialist mantle can be hard to stomach. But it also happens to be true that our closest allies, throughout northern and western Europe, practice their own versions of socialism today.

One thing that truly bothers me is the wholly inadequate effort by those calling themselves Democratic Socialists to really define the term. When Bernie was asked by Stephen Colbert to lay out what it meant, he responded with items that drew no meaningful distinctions with the agendas of most mainstream Democrats.

“I think that it means, among other things, that if you work 40 hours a week, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, you should be earning a living wage, 15 bucks an hour,” he began, going on to mention a right to healthcare, tuition-free public higher education, and turning away from fossil fuels. While his answer earned big cheers from the hard-left crowd, what perhaps might be more useful for the more mainstream CBS audience at home would be to address the misconceptions that people harbor regarding Democratic Socialism, disabusing them of the notion that the ideology calls for the nationalization of industry. In healthcare, for example, while it’s true that the middleman role played by the insurance companies would be diminished under democratic socialist programs, the doctors, nurses and hospitals providing care would not be government employees, even under a single-payer system.

Like Bernie Sanders, I’m proud to call myself a progressive, and I’ll continue to use that label. And I’ll continue to advocate for the progress that helps to give all people an equal stake in our democracy, and equal protections under the law, regardless of their race, creed, gender identity or other identity factors. If we can come together to represent these values irrespective of our standing on the spectrum of the left, and even reach across the aisle to uphold them, that’s what I call true progress.

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