Principles of a Modern Progressive Movement

By Sammy Kayes

©Gage Skidmore/ CC BY-SA 2.0

“I’m not a liberal, I’m a progressive,” Bernie Sanders told a high school student in 2003 as he spoke to a classroom about the importance of civic engagement. “There’s a difference.”

Leading up to his presidential run twelve years later, Senator Sanders would say to the Progressive Democrats of America what he has said countless times in the past: “I have never accepted this nonsense about red states and blue states — in every state of the country there are people who are struggling, and they are on our side. Don’t accept that division. We are the vast majority of people.”

We may not agree on everything, but we have many common interests as human beings and as Americans. “Most people want big money out of politics,” as Sanders often says. “Most Americans do believe that healthcare is a right, not a privilege, and want a national healthcare program.” “The majority of Americans believe that the minimum wage is not enough.”

The implication of all this is clear: the American government has, over the decades, failed to represent the American people. This is more than just partisan grumbling — a 2014 study by researchers from Princeton and Northwestern Universities concluded that the United States is not a democracy, but an oligarchy. Sanders is one of the few politicians to publicly recognize this truth.

“I am worried that we are moving toward an oligarchic form of society,” he says, “in which a handful of people are not satisfied with controlling most of the wealth. They want to control the government, too.”

The concentration of immense political power in the hands of a wealthy few is not a new phenomenon in American history. However, this is not the first time that millions of Americans have chosen to resist oligarchy in favor of a government of, by, and for the people.

A history of fighting back

In the late nineteenth century, wealth inequality in the Gilded Age was reaching critical mass as the divide grew between the haves and have-nots. Contributing to this social tipping point were ruthless business practices, political corruption, and a fundamental lack of human compassion on the part of the upper class. In response, regular people of all kinds came together to fight for fairer wages, shorter workdays, and better working conditions. For the first time, a formal progressive movement had begun to manifest itself in American politics. But progressive ideals, which are in essence the idea of a “people’s government,” are as old as the nation itself.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that “banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies”, already a precursor to the progressives’ fight against concentrated power within the banks.

Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States and leader of his Republican Party, articulated in his Gettysburg Address the fundamental notion of government “of, by, and for the people.”

Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed that “it is necessary that laws should be passed to prohibit the use of corporate funds directly or indirectly for political purposes.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said that “Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob”. He proposed a “second Bill of Rights” which included the right to medical care, sustainable employment, and quality education.

President Eisenhower, a Republican and former military general, warned that “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence… by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist”.

Famed civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. agreed with these former presidents’ notions of fighting inequality. “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” he asked. Since “the system will not change the rules,” King followed, we are going to have to “change the system.”

These similar patterns and principles repeated themselves throughout the history of not just progressive politics, and civil rights movements, but all of American history.

Bernie Sanders’ presidential run in 2016, and all the movements that coalesced around it, have been another part of this long string of American ideals. But more than being a part of the past, this new progressive movement encapsulates what progressives must fight for into the future.

Principles of a modern progressive movement

A truly progressive movement is against corruption. It is fundamentally opposed to the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few at the expense of the many.

A truly progressive movement is against oppression. Progressive movements have always fought, and must continue to fight, for the vulnerable and underprivileged — workers, the sick and powerless, and every other minority group that is marginalized by existing power structures.

A truly progressive movement is against discrimination. We are an egalitarian movement, with a belief in the fundamental equality of human beings. Discrimination is a form of oppression, and a movement cannot be egalitarian and against oppression while tolerating discrimination.

A truly progressive movement is against privatization of the public sphere. We must be fundamentally opposed to the mass privatization of goods and services that should remain public: healthcare, education, and other necessities for a decent life.

A truly progressive movement is for democracy. Democracy is more than voting at the ballot box. Democracy is the constant pursuit of civic engagement and public involvement in the direction of society. Without democracy, the fundamentally American principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are unattainable.

The progressive movement is for transparency. If we the people do not know what is happening in the halls of power — whether in the Capitol building, the statehouse, or the corporate boardroom — we cannot hold power accountable.

The progressive movement is thus for accountability of those in power. In the modern era, this includes the fight to get big money out of the political process and to reform the electoral system so that we can elect those who are best fit to serve the people, not simply the powerful.

A truly progressive movement is for freedom of the press, also known as “the fourth estate.” The purpose of the press is to combine transparency, accountability, and education. Without a free and responsible media, we will never be able to inform the public or hold power accountable.

The progressive movement is for non-violence. While there are examples in the past of violence in progressive movements, these were aberrations and desperate last resorts, not fundamental strategies of the movement.

The progressive movement is for authenticity and integrity. Many opponents have denounced progressives as “idealists”. However, it is not idealistic to seek justice for all Americans in a system that was supposed to ensure this justice in the first place. If cynics had their way, no progress would ever have been achieved. Those who seek to trivialize the progressive movement would do well to remember that this nation was not founded through incrementalist reforms, but through radical, revolutionary change.

Rather than being mere idealists, we fight in accordance to our principles, and for what is possible if we stand together.

Finally, the progressive movement is for solidarity, which is implied in “we the people” and democracy itself. Agreeing on every single thing is beside the point, and will never happen in its totality. Solidarity means that most of our interests as human beings are shared interests, and progress is not possible if we do not stand together on the issues that matter.

Progress is a struggle

“The fight for justice is not a concept we hear a lot about in politics anymore. Justice — that is what we should be fighting for.”

(Senator Bernie Sanders)

Near the end of his primary campaign, Senator Sanders began to coalesce his message around the idea of justice. “Our vision of social justice, economic justice, racial justice and environmental justice must be the future of America,” Bernie Sanders told a rally in Santa Monica, California. And he said it many times before and after. Following Sanders’ primary loss, this message of justice would stick. Many others would repeat it as their mission.

It is crucial that we never stop repeating it. The notion of justice is key to the development of our society, and it resonates with all of us. It is what progressive movements have always been fighting for, and it is what “we the people” have always struggled for. Representing its ideal will carry us forward and bring many more to our ranks.

We’re in this together

The most significant thing we all have in common is that we are human beings. At a Democratic debate in 2016, Bernie Sanders was asked about his religious beliefs. In response, he described an overall philosophy: “Here’s what I’ve always believed. Every great religion in the world… essentially comes down to do unto others as you would like them to do unto you. And when you hurt, I hurt.”

As humans, we strive to preserve our basic rights and live up to our boundless potential. That is the meaning of human progress. It is the goal of progressives to look beyond the political spectrum and welcome all those who believe in these principles and fight for them. Whether one is traditionally conservative, left, or centrist is secondary to our collective willingness to care for each other and create a better world for all of us. This is the mission of progressives going forward, and these principles will guide us along the way.