Am I still a "progressive"? It depends on who you ask

I have always considered myself to be “progressive” but, over the last few years, I’ve become uncomfortable with the term. I am certainly in favour of progress but many “progressives” seem to have fashioned it into a hard and fast dogma from which there is no room for variation. Because human knowledge and circumstances are constantly changing, a hard and fast dogma cannot truly be progressive. 

Part of the problem, from my perspective, is that many of the ideas of the “progressive movement” are rooted in the labour movements of the early 20th century, or in the idealism of the 1960s. They do not seem to have adapted to changes in society, or scientific and technological advancement. To make matters worse many do not seem to recognize the need to prioritize and believe that every battle on every front is of equal importance and that all of them can still be won. It is a trap that many movements and religions fall into and it never ends well.  

To me, the four basic planks of “progressive politics” are economic/labour, environmental, foreign policy and civil and human rights. For the most part, I still agree with the goals in each of these areas, but not necessarily the approaches or priorities laid out by many self-proclaimed progressives. Within some of these areas I see contradictions in the progressive agenda, in other areas I see an outright split with reality. 

On the economic front, I believe in unions. While there has certainly been corruption and overreach within unions, the same can be said for every public institution. Despite any problems, unions have done more good, for more people than political institutions, religious institutions or any other base of power available to ordinary people. 

Despite all of this I think the time of unions is nearly over. It is not politicians or strong arm corporations that will undo them, it is technology. According to a study by the Oxford Martin School 47 percent of current US jobs will be replaced by automation (including robotics and artificial intelligence) over the next few decades. The jobs that are lost will cut across the economic spectrum, but are likely to include most of the jobs that make up current unions including manufacturing, shipping, warehouse jobs, mining, transportation, personal services, retail and communications.

It is worth noting that the 47 percent does not include jobs that will be lost if half of all workers become unemployed. It is also not clear, at all, to anyone, what jobs, if any will replace these. Optimists will tell you that something will rise to replace them but none of them I’ve talked to so far could come up with a single example. 

Instead of fighting for their own small slice of the pie, what is left of the labour movement needs to start working for progress for everyone. Every one of those slices of pie is going to disappear and those who depend on it will find themselves on the outside looking in. There is nothing that can be done to stop it. No one is going to ban automation, we just have to create a system where “jobs” aren’t a necessary component of the economic equation anymore and that is doable.

We need to create a system that does not set a ceiling on individual advancement but does create a floor. Every individual, regardless of circumstances, should be guaranteed the basic tools of survival including housing, food and necessary utilities as well as health care. All individuals should also have the tools to advance themselves, such as education, at their disposal at any time. If paying for this makes it a little more difficult for individuals who have a great deal to accumulate even more, then that is the price of living in a just society, designed to allow everyone to reach their full potential. 

The environmental part of the agenda is far more complicated. We are facing several, simultaneous crisis on this front. Climate change, the pollution of our waterways and the ongoing mass extinction are interrelated and should be the top priorities on any political agenda. Many of the other issues that “environmentalists” have gotten dragged into are secondary, non-existent, or worse; counter-productive. 

At some point large parts of the environmental movement departed from science and reason and embraced a sort-of ‘return-to-eden’ ideal. They’ve left people with the impression that the only way to save the world is to abandon modern comforts; to give up their cars, their appliances and their modern lifestyle and pretend to be Amish. They’ve pushed chemophobia, technophobia and an ideological agenda that suggests that corporations are out to destroy the planet. Most of this isn’t true. Yes there are problems but much of the environmental movement seems more interested in pushing an ideological agenda and gathering donations for “green” organizations than actually fixing the problems. I am in favour of solving the problems, but not creating artificial problems, fighting non-existent boogey-men or encouraging a fear of science and technology. 

Even in cases of the actual crises, we have to prioritize. We won’t be able to save all species and we won’t be able to do much about most invasive species. We’ve changed the climate. The extent of the damage remains to be determined but, historically, when you change the climate, species move around and some become extinct. If we’re going to seriously address environmental issues, we have to acknowledge reality and stick to the science. 

As for the rest, foreign policy, civil and human rights I’m still largely comfortable with the traditional “progressive” agenda. I would like to see traditionally protected civil and human rights, domestically, safeguarded and expanded to include “freedom from poverty” (at least as much as this is humanly possible). Foreign policy and civil and human rights abroad are a somewhat different matter. 

No country can or should be able to extend sovereignty over another and as long as that is true, we cannot force our version of civil and human rights on everyone. Even if we could legally do this on paper, it wouldn’t necessarily fix anything. Other cultures have different traditions and different versions of these rights and a culture cannot be changed overnight, it certainly can’t be changed by words on a legal document nor can it be changed at gunpoint. 

I am something of a pragmatist in this area. I accept that change will be slow to come to some places, and may not come at all in others. I am in favour of international cooperation and support and of doing good where we can. I am in favour of peace keeping, liberal immigration policies, diplomacy, disaster assistance and of promoting health and education internationally, but I am not in favour of trying to force out will or our ideas of “right” on others who are not interested. I believe that trying to force our ways onto others only breeds resentment. 

To tell the truth I am a pragmatist in most areas. I am willing to accept that there are some things that the country isn’t ready for yet and I am willing to accept a small step forward, if that’s all that’s available. This sometimes puts me at odds with idealists and ideologues who prefer an all or nothing approach. 

Above all I believe in evidence based solutions. I put a great deal of faith in science and statistics and I do not buy into conspiracy theories without strong evidence. I simply do not believe that, in the information age, any large group of people can keep anything very important secret for very long. I find the “alternative” press a good source for opinion at times, but rarely are they a good source of facts (unless those facts have been widely reported elsewhere). The alternative press, for all of its good intentions, simply does not have much of a research budget. Again, these things frequently put me at odds with left wing ideologues.

Putting me even more at odds with much of the left, I do not consider corporations or wealthy people to be evil. Wealthy people and even large corporations do a tremendous amount of good and provide the bulk of the funding for most private charities. Some of them do terrible, or thoughtless, or irresponsible things but some poor people and small businesses do those things as well, it just isn't as widely publicized and usually doesn't have the same impact. The system, overall, is broken and many of the evils of the rich and powerful are a result of operating under that broken system.

We need to correct the system. We need to lessen the disparities between rich and poor. We need to fix the capitalist system so that blind greed and negligent or irresponsible behaviour that negatively impacts communities is no longer rewarded. We need to diminish the excessive political power that comes with wealth. Once these things are done I believe that resentment will diminish and large corporations and wealthy individuals can play a vital role in society, without being vilified. 

I also believe in engaging with the world, through trade, immigration, open dialogue and cultural exchange. I don't think that anything is gained by hiding, retreating or building walls. I am not a protectionist either in terms of economics or immigration. Ideally, I hope that someday the differences between the world's nations can become small enough that borders become meaningless. 

While I am aware of the world’s problems I am also aware that, by every measurable standard, the world is better than it has ever been. If there have ever been any “good old days”, these are them. There are environmental problems that need to be fixed and inequality problems that need to be fixed but we have to be careful not to undue the progress has been made while we strive to make these corrections. 

So, am I still a progressive? According to my definition, yes I am. I am in favour of progress and am optimistic about the future. According to the definition of many progressives, those of the progressive ideology, I am not. I’m not paranoid enough, I’m not pessimistic enough, I’m not frightened enough and I am not willing to tow-the-line and cling to the past. 

Progressive should never have become an ideology, or a euphemism for the far left. Progress should be a goal shared by all parties, ideologies and individuals. Everyone, who is not looking to move backward, should be able to call themselves progressive and no one should be trying to move backward.  
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