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Opinion: Obama, Roosevelt, and the Power of Progressivism

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“Many people will hear the word Progressivism and immediately think of liberals or Democrats—but they’re not synonymous.” - Glenn Beck

I’ve always thought of President Obama as more of a Progressive than a Liberal.  I know, I know.  Labels again.  But sometimes they are helpful. On Tuesday, with his speech in Kansas, harking back 100 years to Theodore Roosevelt, Obama confirmed my suspicions.

How so?  Well consider the definition of Progressivism:

Progressivism | n. | a political and social term for ideologies and movements advocating changes or reform, usually in an egalitarian direction for economic policies and a liberal direction for social policies. (Webster’s Collegiate, 2011)

The term “progressivism” emerged in the late 19th century, into the 20th century, in reference to a more general response to the wide-ranging changes brought by industrialization, as an alternative to both the traditional conservative response to social and economic issues and to the more radical streams of anarchism and socialism which were real movements in opposition to them.

The Progressive Movement started in earnest in urban centers, with settlement workers and reformers who were endeavoring to help those facing harsh conditions at home and on the job. Reformers spoke out about the need for laws regulating tenement housing and child labor. They also called for better working conditions for women.

The Progressive Party sprang up at the start of the 20th century, and progressivism made great strides under Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, FDR and Lyndon Johnson.  But especially Teddy Roosevelt.  Despite being associated with left-wing politics, in recent years, the term "progressive" has occasionally been used by groups not particularly left wing.

Which gets me to libertarian pundit, media mogul and prolific author Glenn Beck, who I quoted at the top of this post.  With that introductory line to a chapter he calls “The Cancer of Progressivism, in his best-selling book Common Sense (2010), Beck leads us to believe that he and his Tea Party followers actually understand these distinctions.  But, in very short order, it becomes apparent that he does not.  Instead, Beck dangerously and incorrectly conflates “progressivism” with “liberalism.”

Let’s dissect. 

Does Progressive = Liberal? While Beck is not alone in this mistake (the term "progressive" is today often mistakenly used in place of “liberal"), these are very separate and distinct political ideologies.

Progressives have an orientation towards politics.  But it is not a long-standing ideology like liberalism. It is a historically grounded concept that accepts the world as dynamic. Progressives see progressivism as an attitude towards the world of politics that is broader than conservatism versus liberalism.  It is, specifically, an attempt to break free from what they consider to be a false and divisive dichotomy.  So, to conflate the two, is precisely wrong.

Liberals believe in natural rights and civil liberties; they believe that the major purpose of the government is to protect those rights. Liberals are often called “Left Wing” (versus “Right Wing.”) This is, I am quite sure, what Glenn Beck loathes.

President Obama’s speech was, in my view, designed to align his administration with the Progressives.  It was meant to echo the historic address given by Teddy Roosevelt in the same Kansas town more than 100 years ago.  President Obama railed against "gaping" economic inequality and pressed the case for policies he insisted would help ordinary Americans get through hard times.  He portrayed himself as a champion of the middle class.  He laid out, in stark terms, the populist themes of his re-election bid.  It seems clear that Obama quite deliberately sought to align himself with the poster boy of American Progressivism, Theodore Roosevelt. 

And why not?  When Teddy Roosevelt became president, the U.S. was at the dawn of the Progressive Era. Capitalism had grown out of control throughout the last half of the nineteenth century, and reform was necessary. Workers were treated badly, slums in cities were horrific, and politics were rife with corruption. Roosevelt stepped in and helped to clean up the mess that had been created during the Gilded Age.

As a Progressive, one of Roosevelt’s major areas of interest was conservation, and he did a tremendous amount to further the cause of protecting America’s natural resources. Roosevelt’s major contribution to American history was arguably his vigorous performance as a Progressive leader.  

The Progressive Movement was born of a populist desire to take government to task for corruption and greed.  The Progressives came of age at the turn of the last century, in response to political powers unwilling or unable to address the rapid economic and social changes brought about by the industrial revolution in America; the movement grew outside government and eventually forced government to take a stand and deal with the growing problems.

Progressives today want the same things: Good government at all levels. Progressives want aggressive, proactive government that foresees problems and acts to prevent calamities before they occur.

Progressives have traditionally demanded safety legislation, closer regulation of public health issues and better management of public utilities. They also seek to make government more efficient, so that taxpayers get what they are paying for. If Americans do not have good government, say Progressives, then they have only themselves to blame. Among their more notable achievements were the direct election of Senators and women's suffrage.

Today few Americans would claim that this country provides a level playing field for all citizens and workers, or that our political system is free from corruption. And so, the progressive beat goes on.

Jami Floyd is an attorney, broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues. You can follow her on twitter.