“But I thought I was Progressive” : A Handy Guide for Confused Liberals (or anyone else)

The election is over. Your New Year’s Eve hangover wore off, and it turned out it wasn’t a dream. President Trump is showing people his seat of power, and millions of women and opposition fighters in multi-colored hair styles are rallying across the country. Only the day before, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, disguised with a turbulent blonde comb over and red tie, delivered an inauguration speech that was something like a cross between a “Batman” villain's bar mitzvah and your high school valedictorian’s piercing musings on the indefatigable promise of the American Dream.

Welcome to 2017. The year we make contact- with those alien beings living down the street from us. So, what happens now? Well, aside from try and keep up with the torrid pace with which a now ubiquitous and nigh-unstoppable GOP can vomit incendiary bile, we can settle a question that’s been eating the Democratic Party alive for the better part of a decade. We can at least have the conversation.

What is a progressive, and why is it important that we have this conversation?

First, some disclaimers. I am no one. I’m a dishwasher at a Christian Liberal Arts College. I’m the cafeteria worker that cleans up after the baseball players cease comparing their top pitch speeds and the bible study groups finish discussing the finer points of whether or not Abraham was married to his sister (unrelated, but unless you’re a Jewish scholar interested in Talmud, he did). When I can get the work, I run audio for musicals in Atlanta. I have a Bachelor’s degree from a community college that was consolidated into a state university by Gov. Nathan Deal’s administration. It’s not a prestigious institution. I volunteer for a Latino organization in the town I went to college in which is mostly concerned with finding a way to overcome Voting Rights Act violations. That’s how I got into “activism”. I only put that in quotations because, all things considered, I don’t do much for them. Sometimes I can say the exact same thing my friend Diana says and people listen. I‘m assuming it’s because I’m white, but I’m spit balling there. I volunteered a lot with the Sanders Campaign in the primaries, helped restart a Young Dems chapter in my county, and eventually worked for the State Democratic Party and a State Senate Campaign. That’s me. I’m not an expert, and the question has been posed many times, but this particular moment requires some critical thought on the subject.

Because, if we don’t, the Democratic Party will go on eating itself alive in a massive and maybe unintentional display of the consequences of political expediency.

Why is this moment so special?

A) Because the Democrats are without solid leadership or direction and in unprecedented circumstances dealing with President Trump’s administration.


B) Because of the success the Sanders Campaign had in animating the populace, and particularly young people, every aspiring Democratic Leader from the heads of Parties to the Young Democrats are going to refer to themselves as Progressive.

They’re going to do this because it sounds more muscular than calling themselves a liberal. They get to avoid being called “libtards” in their own mind. (Newsflash, petulant friedmanites are still going to put you down, regardless). They’re going to do this because it helps them straddle the line between Progressives and Liberals, and by convincing you that these are the same thing, they subconsciously indicate that you are only the next in the cycle of Democrats whether you know it now or not.

But here’s the thing: Philosophy matters. Political philosophy matters even more. Just because someone calls themselves something does not make them that thing, and just because it is convenient to be something does not mean that you should be it. Not everyone will agree with my definition. That’s okay, but please respectfully put forward your own or point out suggestions. My point in writing this is that a delineation would be more helpful than not and that conflation is killing us.

So here’s the thing: a Progressive policy is one which seeks to benefit a community in need, via an action or policy that the community has expressed desire in, through a redistribution of wealth or resources from an advantaged group to the one in question.

That’s it. It seems simple, right? Why all the accusations of hypocrisy and distrust? Because, by and large, social issues aren’t actually progressive. Let’s take a look at the big victory a progressive movement won in the last decade: marriage equality.


Well, yeah. Believing that your fellow citizens deserve all the same protections under the law as you doesn’t make you progressive. It makes you not an asshole. It means you satisfy the most basic requirement of the American ideal. Congratulations, you’re treading water in the quest to be an actual citizen of merit. Even if most of the country doesn’t believe in it, it still doesn’t make you progressive, and it’s actually very dangerous in the long run to believe so. It adds to the sense that conservatives are automatically horrible people. Actively supporting marriage equality or rights for the lgbtqia+ community is a progressive action. It takes resources (time, money, energies) from an advantaged group and devotes them towards winning victories for a community in need, but you have to distinguish the action of supporting from the belief itself. Belief isn’t going to win us anything.

Let’s put it in another context. Think of one of your conservative friends. Don’t have any? That’s a problem. Found one? Great! Think about a conversation with them. If they have a conscious and had trepidation when considering voting for Trump, they’ve probably said something to this effect at some point in your relationship.

“I’d say I’m socially liberal, but fiscally conservative. I don’t care what gay people do with their lives, and I think it’s unethical for us to legislate it.”

Now, this person is a Republican. This person may or may not have voted for Donald Trump. This person has a gay son or niece. I’m leaving out all the Christian-influenced aspects of conservatism when I say this, but if you didn’t devote resources to helping pass marriage equality, then you were only as progressive as this person. Which is to say not at all.

Before we keep going, no, it absolutely doesn’t matter at all, in any way whatsoever, that this person voted against their gay son or niece for the purposes of this piece. People do stupid shit. Conservatives voting against their own interests? Who’s ever heard of such a thing? Back to the point.

You were, also, just as liberal as your friend. Which is to say, pretty damn liberal.

Liberalism is a philosophy of choice. It says that we must utilize the state to make sure that every option in life is available to every individual, thereby increasing individual liberty. This is later summarized as “equality of opportunity.” Liberal does not just mean “left” or “whatever Democrats happen to be prioritizing at this time.” The prevailing public interpretation may say so, but this is a tortuous and unintended consequence of a populace not yet ready for the dual burden of descriptivism and postmodernism in a mass media environment. Since everyone is obsessed with 1984 after the “alternative facts” message, let’s put it more succinctly. 2 + 2 = 4.

As a liberal, you might vote Democratic or Republican. More likely, Democrat, but none the less, with 330 million people, let’s not draw lines so sharp they can not adapt to individuality. Now, if you, as a Democrat, support gay marriage, and they, as a Republican, support gay marriage. You both believe in the notion of individual liberty. So, who is being more progressive?

No one. Unless they put resources or wealth into actively supporting it. Even then, that doesn’t make them a political Progressive. It makes that specific action progressive.

If you think having that belief makes you a progressive, then you are sipping coffee on your front porch, patting yourself on the back of your bath robe for believing that your neighbor is actually a human being.

Yeah. You’re a dick.

Not only are you a dick, but you’re actually, semantically, eliminating the possibility that a conservative could agree with you on a social issue. This is exploited by the mass media, and bipartisanship becomes more difficult. That makes you twice the dick you thought you were. You say, “No, I’m not eliminating that possibility,” but if only one out of every five Republicans you might have found common ground with turns away because they feel like it’s a no win situation, that’s still 20% of all the possible crossover votes lost to our inability to make it obvious that we believe other people can be forward thinking on specific issues and still disagree with us on others. That’s a major failure of critical thought. We don’t have the luxury of waiting on Republicans to become Democrats. We need political coalitions with people on specific issues.

How about another example? Let’s look at abortion. Do you believe that it’s wrong for the government to suspend habeas corpus, take control of a woman’s body, and force her to have a life threatening (to say nothing of altering) procedure? Congratulations, you’re not an asshole. You believe in not doing to women what you would not do to men. That’s a minimum.

Let me be clear, I’m in no way suggesting that women’s struggle for adequate healthcare isn’t progressive. It absolutely is. When a man says he agrees, but does nothing to help, that’s not progressive because there is no redistribution of resources or wealth to solve the problem of a community in need. The belief doesn’t make him progressive. It means he’s made it.

Before the heart of the matter, let’s set another thing straight. Those examples exist in vacuums. Activism, in and of itself, isn’t really progressive unless the burden of the solution falls disproportionately on the most advantaged. For instance, if you were to tax all women to create planned parenthood clinics, that’s obviously not progressive. Women, on this point, usually don’t advocate for taxation of men (as a category) for the healthcare they lack. That’s because

A) They’re not mostly assholes. Even if it would be just.


B) Because the resulting social friction might not be worth it.

So, let’s think about healthcare. Single payer healthcare, paid for by a progressive tax which places the burden mostly on the richest in society is progressive. Wanting everyone to have healthcare is liberal. A Carbon Tax on the most carbon emitting corporations and entities that funds the fight against climate change is progressive. Asking everyone to recycle is not. Utilizing public funds to create land trusts that give ownership of the land to the democratic control of a community at an affordable rate is progressive. Starting a nonprofit to advocate for affordable housing is not (unless it derives most of its money from wealthy people, but even then, a public solution is highly preferable).

Liberals love choices, but a racist society, when given the choice, will choose to be racist if only in a lazy way. Neoliberalism is a failure because, while it may make sense in the long run to invest in workers, in the short term, to the individual, it makes more sense to pocket as much of the profit as possible. Workers get left out. The point isn’t that actions speak louder than words. The point is that unless it redistributes wealth and resources to a community or their struggle, it’s not progressive, and nonprofits don’t really count. We want a progressive country. The more progressive nonprofits and groups around that are willing to do the work for the public, the less pressure the government will feel to be progressive. You don’t have to be socialist to be progressive, but you do have to believe in redistribution of wealth. And you should. Because it’s happening to you already.

Now all that’s left is to distinguish between little p and big P progressives. A person is a Progressive if their dominant political ideology is a little materialistic. That is to say, whatever your thoughts on the matter, it is undeniable that we live in a capitalist society. It is undeniable that the single most determinate factor when considering the lifespan of an American is their wealth. Money IS life. Don’t be ridiculous and act like I’m suggesting that things like family, laughter, and the arts aren’t important parts of life. I’m asking you to be realistic. The more money you have, the better food you eat. The better education your children get. The better healthcare you get. The less stress you have. If we, as a society, do, as is about to happen, dissolve the NEA and collectively cease to fund art, then we have decided, as a society, that art isn’t a part of our shared values system. Today, the richest people in society live anywhere from 6–16 years longer than the poorest. Maybe the rich side of town doesn’t need another park. Maybe your neighborhood has enough personal gyms and yoga spots. Maybe, with all this wealth, there’s *literally* no reason slums should exist. That’s a planning problem. There is no “natural rate” of unemployment. There is no “acceptable” amount of poverty.

If you, as a citizen, are unwilling to put your money where your mouth is, then you are not a Progressive. If you think the quickest way to solve inequality is through a redistribution of wealth down, and that redistribution is your primary economic motivation, then you are a Progressive. That doesn’t mean ignoring conservative concerns like sprawling bureaucracy, corruption, corporatism, or local control. It does not mean diminishing, in any way, the fight for racial justice or women’s justice. It does mean, to badly paraphrase some well known quotes, that there’s no point in being able to sit at the counter if you can’t afford to eat from the menu. It does mean that it isn’t enough to stop stabbing somebody. You have to pull the knife out, bandage the wound, give continuous medical care, and pay punitive damages to be used in whatever way the person you stabbed sees fit. It does mean disadvantaged communities get to decide the best way to fix the problems they’re facing.