Saturday, April 4, 2009

Political labels convenient, but voters beware

(Originally published 4/4/09)

A fellow blogger this week asked readers to list "progressive politicians (or progressive folks who might/should be persuaded to run for office)."

In reading through the list, though, I found that folks on the list stood for a lot of different things.

What is a progressive, anyway?

I had an exchange with another fellow blogger and self-described progressive who tried to define it for me. We both eschew labels, but he used Wikipedia's definition as a jumping-off point:

"Progressivism is a political and social term that refers to ideologies and movements favoring or advocating progress, change, improvement, or reform, as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are."

That didn't help much. I know that my friend and I both believe government needs reform, we have different ideas about how to do it. Are we both progressives? For that matter, I don't know of anyone who is completely happy with government as it is. We all want some kind of reform. But we're not all progressives.

So the key to defining and understanding progressive political thought, then, is to pin down exactly what progressives consider "progress, change, improvement, or reform." Is it a standard set of beliefs and principles, or does it change in relation to the prevailing themes dominating the two major political parties? And what distinguishes a progressive from a liberal?

My friend responded that for his money, there is a difference between "progressive" and "liberal," with progressives generally placing more emphasis on the pragmatic than the ideological.

The Progressive, a magazine for the political philosophy of the same name, celebrates its 100th year in 2009. According to its web site, the magazine "has steadfastly opposed corporate power and reckless U.S. interventionism and has championed peace, women's rights, civil rights, civil liberties, a preserved environment, an independent media, and real democracy."

That's more helpful than the Wiki definition, but you'd still have to define "reckless," "preserved" and "real" to get a firm handle on individual policies progressives could be expected to support.

"Progressive" is going to be the buzz word of choice for the next few years in Alabama. U.S. Rep. Artur Davis is already embracing the label in his bid to succeed Gov. Bob Riley, and Democratic congressional candidates are likely to follow suit in challenging incumbent Republicans. As I told my progressive friend, I just want to know what those candidates are talking about -- and to know that they know what they're talking about -- when I start seeing their glossy mailers and TV ads.

And this goes for all political labels. U.S. Rep. Bobby Bright and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for example, are both Democrats -- but I'm sure the former would take great pains to distinguish his political beliefs from those of the latter. Likewise, there is great variety among Republicans who call themselves "conservative."

Lastly, consider this: Labels that are misleading now might actually mean more under a true multi-party system. More fragmentation would mean less shading and greater homogenization within those groups.

But it may not matter. GOP and Democratic legislators don't agree on much, but when it comes to ballot access for third-party candidates, they can be counted on to work together to keep the drawbridge up against the castle.

How do progressives feel about that?

No comments: