The Definition of Progressive is the Least Interesting and Least Useful Fight in American Politics Today

Montana farm in Sweetgrass County. Photo by Don Pogreba

I always tell my students that there is nothing lazier than opening an essay with a dictionary definition, but please bear with me. This morning, I was asked by a candidate running for office in Montana to rename this site because we are not “progressive.” This candidate followed up with this definition:

of a group, person, or idea) favoring or implementing social reform or new, liberal ideas.

I think the fact that the term includes “reform” is enough to suggest that we are, in fact, progressive, but the dictionary also provided another definition that seems relevant:

happening or developing gradually or in stages; proceeding step by step.

And that might be the key to understanding the endless, noisy fights between the two wings of the American Left.

I’m no political scientist, but I can’t think of a social movement in the United States that has achieved significant liberal reform without developing in stages, step by step. The very structure of our government is weighted against massive change, and every successful progressive movement I can think of required the work of both the radicals and the middle to bring to fruition.

Take the legalization of marijuana as an example. Advocates have been calling for its legalization for generations. They have been forcefully writing about the need to end the racist War on Drugs, and the mass incarceration it generated for almost as long as I have been alive.

Of course, we should legalize marijuana. To get to where we are today, though, where eleven states and D.C. have legalized it for recreational use and where full legalization seems inevitable, the answer was reform “happening or developing gradually” from early decriminalization efforts to legalized medical use to legalized recreational use.

And the progress can’t stop there: progressive reform demands that we not only legalize marijuana but expunge the convictions of so many people who were wrongly punished and incarcerated.

How did we achieve progress on marijuana legalization? Slow, steady reform.

The debate over healthcare also illustrates the point quite well.

Let me be clear: access to healthcare is a fundamental human right. I can’t think of a moral, practical, or economic argument that could justify denying our fellow human beings access to medical care, and I think we are far behind much of the world on that front.

That being said, it would be foolish to condemn those working for incremental reform because that reform saves lives. Back in 2009, I was regularly savaging Senator Max Baucus on the blog because his healthcare reform package, the one that eventually became the Affordable Care Act, was a corporate giveaway that didn’t do enough to help the American people.

I was right that Baucus should have given more credence to the idea of the public option and done more to listen to those who called for a single-payer system, but I was wrong to dismiss the ACA as a whole.

As it turns out, the Affordable Care Act has saved at least 20,000 lives and $2.3 trillion in health care costs. It has saved rural hospitals in states that expanded Medicaid, opened up substance abuse and mental health treatment for some people for the first time in their lives, and it has dramatically improved the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of Americans.

The ACA was far from perfect, but it was a step forward in a country that waited far too long to increase healthcare access.

And that brings us to today. There are candidates on the left who are still pushing for a single-payer system, and I admire them for that. I probably even think they are right. Some are still calling for a full option. Others are calling for a gradual expansion of Medicare to include people as young as 55.



All of them would improve access to healthcare. All would bring us a step closer to the realization of the right to universal healthcare. For some, though, what seems to matter most is to narrow the definition of progressive to only include their version. I just don’t get it. While we should vigorously debate the merits of these proposals, I don’t know what we gain when try to define the people who share our core values, if not our same strategic and political thinking outside of the umbrella of progressivism.

In the end, the candidate and I found ourselves at a polite exchange, even though neither of us was fully persuaded by other. And that’s wonderful. I appreciated the chance to think about where I position myself and I was able that we were able to get past the initial testy opening to our conversation.

There is no fight in American politics less interesting and less useful than the battle over the definition of “progressive.” What matters is progress and the reform we all know must come.

Let’s put aside the semantics, roll up our sleeves, and push forward, even if some of us want to move a bit more cautiously and others want to move more rapidly.

Let’s just move forward.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.


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  • It comes down to a very stark choice: do you want people in charge who will strip away any progress that has been made to improve people’s lives or do you want people in charge who may not want to go as far as you do but aren’t going to burn it all down? The second scenario gives you breathing room to continue working for the progress you want. The first one kills you.

  • The fight for universal health care has been a long one. Frances Perkins, Labor Secretary under FDR, told FDR she would take the job only if he would commit to pursuing seven key policies: a 40-hour work week, a minimum wage, unemployment compensation, worker’s compensation, abolition of child labor, direct federal aid to the states for unemployment relief, Social Security, a revitalized federal employment service and universal health insurance.
    Perkins became the longest-serving labor secretary in history, holding the role from 1933 to 1945. During that time, she accomplished all but one of her original goals: universal health care.
    What we forget are all the accomplishments of the past by Progressives that have improved our way of life against big business.
    That is why I like the Lyndon Johnson Philsophy of how you get the whole loaf of bread, “one slice at a time”.

  • Once this author’s generation is removed from political power, then we will be able to make progress that matches up to the scales of the crisis that we are facing. There is not time for this type of neoliberalism if we are wanting to avoid major climate tipping points.

    • Since we’re talking about definitions, does neoliberalism mean anything you disagree with?

      It’s great that you are more moral and enlightened than the rest of us. I truly appreciate that, but maybe you can put away your buzzwords and catchphrases to engage in a discussion here. How does the climate justice movement do what no other social movement in the history of our country has done and leap into revolution? How does that happen?

      And how does it help the climate justice movement to treat every potential ally who doesn’t fully agree with you as the enemy? My generation is about 65 million people in the US. Since we’re all out–and I assume the Boomers and older generations are too, who’s left?

      I think what we neoliberal, elderly, power-mad oligarchs are asking you to engage in a conversation that includes an actual plan, not just childish insults half-understood buzzwords.

      I’m still waiting, by the way, for an answer on healthcare. Are you really saying that it’s better to have let tens of thousands of people die because we couldn’t pass a liberal enough healthcare plan? Or is it just possible that sometimes we have to make incremental reform?

      • Too hard on Daniel, Don? I think he deserves, at 22, to be a bit more
        idealistic than we older chaps and gals. I say Giddy Up! And vote!

      • Great article Don – I admire what you do! I also want to applaud you for this specific comment: “how does it help the climate justice movement to treat every potential ally who doesn’t fully agree with you as the enemy?”
        I’m grateful that you had the courage to speak up on this matter. It is extremely disappointing to see Daniel himself, along with his whole campaign team constantly bully / harass people online and stretch the truth to misinform voters. I constantly see Daniel and his campaign treat every potential ally who doesn’t agree with them as an enemy rather than engaging in meaningful discussion. I also continue to see awful comments and remarks to anyone who endorses his opponent. This behavior is extremely concerning and immature. Thanks for speaking up – keep producing great work!

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