Redefining Progressivism

Lean Forward. For those enlightened individuals who spurn the cable news kool-aid, that is the tagline for MSNBC, the forefront in left wing news media. To say MSNBC does not have a blatant liberal bias is akin to saying FOX news channel is a populist vision for America, and MSNBC has seemingly embraced its leftist disposition with its tagline. According to the folks at MSNBC, liberalism is the only way forward, while conservatism is nothing more than a roadblock towards American progress. Distorted analysis of news aside, here lies MSNBC’s greatest mistake—the equation of liberalism with progressivism. The left wing news channel isn’t alone in blurring the liberal-progressive distinction, a mistake also made by the liberal think tanks ThinkProgress and the Center for American Progress. The American left has successfully framed liberalism within a paradigm of progress, giving the impression that their view for the country is its ideal state. However, progressivism is not a philosophy identical to liberalism—it is not the antithesis of conservatism, as the left would have you think. The desired process through which America perfects itself as a society is progressive, but not necessarily liberal (or conservative, for that matter). The nation’s opinion makers would do best by the American people if they start spelling out this distinction. Pay attention MSNBC.

The modern liberal political philosophy in America embraces a redistributive approach to economics, meaning a desire to tax the more affluent members of American society at a higher rate, and channel that ensuing revenue to less affluent members through social programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Admittedly, a degree of redistribution is necessary for a modern democracy to survive. But despite the likelihood of financial collapse for these programs in the near future, the liberal caucus of the Democratic Party opposes cost-saving proposals offered by conservatives, and continues to fund these programs with increased deficit spending and proposed tax hikes on the rich. Continuous tax hikes hinder economic production, while continuous deficit spending builds up sovereign debt, both threatening our nation’s credit rating and increasing the likelihood of future economy crushing austerity measures (See: Europe).

Another important pillar of modern liberal philosophy is increased government encroachment on the business community for means other than economic growth—most apparent in 2010’s Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare to its (increasing number of) critics. The massive federal overhaul of the healthcare industry purports to provide health insurance to 30 million uninsured Americans through state-run, online exchanges. While the ACA will undoubtedly make health insurance available to many individuals who beforehand could not afford it, the law imposes steep penalty fees on those who do not comply with its individual and employer mandates. Despite the employer mandate’s one year delay, business leaders across the country are cutting both the hours and numbers of workers they employ as a result, in an effort to stay below a 50 worker, 30 hour per week threshold at which the employer mandate kicks in. Many businesses would be forced to close were they to fully comply with the burdensome regulations of the ACA. Many workers who before had a job but not healthcare now lack healthcare and take home less income due to this ill-conceived law.

The crowning legislative achievement of the Obama presidency is hardly the progressive achievement that its supporters make it out to be. Laws like the ACA demonstrate how liberalism and progressivism are not identical ideologies. No law that steers a nation towards a part-time worker centered economy should ever be called progressive. For progressive implies betterment, a gradual improvement towards a more perfect end. In the contemporary United States, the Democratic Party has designated itself the progressive party, giving the impression that a liberal approach to governance and economics will guide the U.S. towards a pristine future state. Unfortunately for the Left, Obama’s record as President has undermined the liberal claim that excessive taxation and mandates on America’s job creators is the way forward in the country.

Despite my earlier dig at FOX news, I do worry I’m coming off as a right wing hack, an image I wish to avoid. I will remedy this by giving credit to the Democratic Party for espousing socially “liberal” policies, such as marriage equality. The reason that liberal is in quotations is because I don’t necessarily believe that common sense social policies like allowing homosexuals to marry as they please should be seen as a liberal policy. The Supreme Court’s recent decision in United States vs. Windsor, which struck down the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act has been hailed as a great progressive achievement. This it is. But should a ruling that expands equality at the social level really be seen as liberal when it was wrong to discriminate against Americans based on sexual orientation to begin with? I would hardly say so, and the allotment of same-sex marriage rights in the United States should be seen as progressive not because support of same-sex marriage has been designated the “liberal” position, but because it expands long-denied freedoms in our country, taking us down the path towards a more just, and perfect society.

A gay rights advocate celebrating the repeal of DOMA in front of the Supreme Court in June 2013.
A gay rights advocate celebrating the repeal of DOMA in front of the Supreme Court in June 2013.

Democrats definitely carry the progressive torch at the social level, but luckily for our country, a number of progressive economic positions find bipartisan support. Smack dab in the middle between liberal calls for unsustainable levels of spending and the Tea Party’s pleading for irresponsibility, there are common sense economic approaches that are progressive because they perfect our economic system by holding the right individuals accountable. The most obvious example of this is the ending of “too big to fail” or in other words, the federal government’s promise to bailout the nation’s largest banks if they go under, feeling that they are too important to the greater economy. The past two years have seen both Democrats and Republicans support the end to the government’s commitment to these megabanks. It’s no surprise to see the Democratic Party, inherently skeptical of Wall Street tyranny, champion such a proposal, but some pro-business conservatives are starting to see the light as well. As things stand now, the largest banks in America are encouraged to take irresponsible, economy-threatening financial risks, due to the fact that they can be rest assured that taxpayers will foot the bill for any collapse of Wall Street, as witnessed in 2008. The growing support among the Republican Party for ending too big deal fail was evinced in last year’s presidential primary, when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Utah Governor Jon Huntsman stated their desire to break up the nation’s biggest banks. Doing so would both protect American taxpayers and fight the crony capitalism of the Wall Street-Washington relationship, which are also pillars of a conservative political philosophy. These proposals are both conservative and progressive, again proving the point that liberalism and progressivism are not interchangeable terms.

The Republican Party is beckoned to embrace progressive policies such as marriage equality and ending ‘too big to fail’. Liberal Democrats have successfully undermined the GOP’s conservative mission by painting Republicans as the antithesis of progress, a sentiment that their voting base has eaten up. Republicans can be progressive without abandoning their conservative principles, as long as they are able to communicate the distinction between liberalism and progressivism. Republicans can win back the progressive title by continuing to be the party of business and fiscal responsibility, albeit within a progressive framework, as articulated above. Additionally, the GOP must distance itself from its obstructionist element in order to regain credibility. The GOP can be the new party of progress, the centerpiece of a twenty-first century, winning conservative formula. A conservative formula that is progressive.

41 thoughts on “Redefining Progressivism”

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