Teddy Roosevelt (Wikipedia)
One of the first things to remember about progressivism is that it is not the same as liberalism. This is a common misconception: Republicans attack Democrats for “liberal-progressive” policies, and Democrats, afraid of the liberal label, try to rebrand themselves as progressives.
In reality, progressivism is separate from the left-right political divide. Like the modern moderate movement championed by President Bill Clinton, progressivism can be considered a “third way,” (“the original ‘third way’” for that matter).
Unlike liberal and conservative political thought, progressivism lacks a long, well developed theoretical background. Liberalism and conservatism were born out of a long history, the writings of great political thinkers. Progressivism, on the other hand, has its roots in the early twentieth century quest for social and economic justice. According to John Podesta, founder and president of the Center for American Progress, and author of The Power of Progress: How America’s Progressives Can (Once Again) Save Our Economy, Our Climate, and Our Country, progressivism is
primarily focused on breaking the control of privileged economic interests in government and restoring
to its democratic roots, where free people can live their lives and make a decent living from their label. America
Based on this simple definition, and a look at progressivism in action, one can get a better understanding of the ideas that fiscal progressives might promote in order to establish greater fiscal responsibility.
Since there is a tendency on the part of Republicans to accuse progressives of promoting big government, big bureaucracy policies, people must first be aware that progressives believe in “power to the people.”
Since government is made up of the elected representatives of the people, it should be responsive to the needs of the people. For this reason, progressivism seeks to maximize the influence of individuals and the public over government, while minimizing the influence of corporations and big businesses.
Progressivism is about people, and not about privilege. Podesta argues that progressivism is rooted in “moral and political advocacy on behalf of those who lack power, money, and privilege in society.”
For instance, progressives should oppose the recent ruling by the Supreme Court to allow corporations and businesses to influence electoral politics. The idea that money is speech drowns out the voices of regular people, increasing the influence of corporations and the rich.
When the Democrats and some Republicans came to aid the failing financial and automobile industries, they instituted big spending programs that saved extremely powerful corporate entities from collapse. The idea behind this was that the banks and other companies were “too big to fail,” and that their failure would devastate the
As noted, Republicans (and other conservatives) confuse progressives with liberals. The Campaign for
In addition to supporting regulatory reform, modern progressives would launch a series of anti-trust investigations into the companies deemed “too big to fail.” If necessary, a trust-busting Justice Department could break each firm into pieces.
During the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, the Justice Department filed forty-four law suits against large trusts. J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and James B. Duke were among a few of the targets. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil broke, for instance, was broken apart in 1911.
While this involves government intervention, it also involves a perfect balance with free market ideas. After breaking firms into smaller pieces, new, small firms would be left to the whims of the market. They would be forced to sink or swim on their own merits. Since the bailouts actually harmed small businesses by limiting resources to only the largest firms, this method would give small businesses an advantage, as it would make them more competitive in a post-trust market.
Progressives also support sustainable approaches to environmental stewardship, and healthcare reform. Progressives would find the intolerable amount of money spent on over-seas oil obscene, and would thus support greater energy independence. They would see this as a means of saving money, and protecting the domestic economy, and national security. Healthcare reform is also important, because the money it could save would help improve the economy and lead to greater fiscal sustainability.
Some might see this as a hand out. However, “progressives believe in the common good.”
Progressivism isn’t about the establishment of a big government-welfare state, even though progressives believe in helping the less fortunate as a matter of social justice. The support for “economic opportunity and minimum measures of security—food, housing, medical care, old age protection” and other programs may be costly. But, progressives look at the cost to society as a whole, and deem this as a more fiscally responsible approach to governing than leaving people to the whims of the market.
While this may make fiscal progressivism appear at odds with fiscal conservatism, the latter simply “takes into account social and moral imperatives, and the total economic costs” of the nations’ problems.
Progressivism, therefore, could be viewed as proactive instead of reactive. It could also be viewed, in some cases, as an extension of fiscal conservatism.
While modern fiscal progressives may seem like they support out of control government spending, they recognize that a short term hike in spending can actually generate a long term reduction in spending.
So, fiscal progressives should model the moderate policies of President Clinton. They should support balanced budgets, and some government borrowing. They also need to rely on statesmanship, honest compromoise, and healthy debate with members of both parties.
They should also recognize “that government spending is not the only spending that needs to be checked.” For instance, a city that fails to repair a $100 pothole could cause thousands in damage to various cars. Thus, repairing the pothole should be deemed as a necessary expense, as the benefits to society outweigh the need for a balanced budget.
They should seek to avoid large budget changes, because this can be wasteful, regardless of whether or not a program is being cut. They should promote prevention over reaction. They should recognize that privatization could be okay, but that it doesn’t always make sense.
Ultimately, fiscal progressives need to make a case that their policies will:
- “Lower overall public spending as a proportion of GDP”;
- Lower taxation;
- Increase public services; and
- Increase the efficiency of government.
Modern progressives need to appeal to moderates, they need to promote statesmanship and seek compromise through honest dialogue. While he hasn't quite earned an A in Progressivism 101 yet, President Obama's establishment of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform is definitely a step in the direction toward a progressive and sustainable fiscal responsibility.