In the propaganda wars that surround elections, political labels often become detached from reality. The leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, Barack Obama, has been called a "leftist" by Republican flacks and a "progressive" by some of his supporters. Others see Obama as a moderate Democrat only slightly less friendly to corporate capital and to the military-industrial complex than the Republican John McCain. It would be no surprise, then, if many people were wondering, Just who is a progressive?
No one, of course, has the authority to decide who is a progressive and who isn't. Yet if the label "progressive" has meaning at all, it is only because of some shared criteria we have in mind when we use it. So it might be worthwhile to put these criteria on the table, not to draw boundaries and hand out membership badges, but to spark a conversation about the common ground of ideas and values on which progressives stand, and to underscore the point that the center is not the left.
So who is a progressive? You might be one if
• You think health care is a basic human right, and that single-payer national health insurance is a worthwhile reform on our way toward creating a non-profit national health care service.
• You think that human rights ought always to trump property rights.
• You think U.S. military spending is an obscene waste of resources, and that the only freedom this spending protects is the freedom of economic elites to exploit working people all around the planet.
• You think U.S. troops should be brought home not only from Afghanistan and Iraq, but from all 130 countries in which the U.S. has military bases.
• You think political leaders who engage in "preemptive war" and invasions should be brought to trial for crimes against humanity and judged against the standards of international law established at Nuremberg after World War Two.
• You think public education should be free, not just from kindergarten through high school, but as far as a person is willing and able to go.
• You think that electoral reform should include instant run-off voting, publicly-financed elections, easy ballot access for all parties, and proportional representation.
• You think that electoral democracy is not enough, and that democracy must also be participatory and extend to workplaces.
• You think that strengthening the rights of all workers to unionize and bargain collectively is a useful step toward full economic democracy.
• You think that as a society we have a collective obligation to provide everyone who is willing and able to work with a job that pays a living wage and offers dignity.
• You think that a class system which forces some people to do dirty, dangerous, boring work all the time, while others get to do clean, safe, interesting work all the time, can never deliver social justice.
• You think that regulating big corporations isn't enough, and that such corporations, if they are allowed to exist at all, must either serve the common good or be put into public receivership.
• You think that the legal doctrine granting corporations the same constitutional rights as natural persons is absurd and must be overturned.
• You think it's wrong to allow individuals to accumulate wealth without limits, and that the highest incomes should be capped well before they begin to threaten community and democracy.
• You think that wealth, not just income, should be taxed.
• You think it's crazy to use the Old Testament as a policy guide for the 21st century.
• You believe in celebrating diversity, while also recognizing that having women and people of color proportionately represented among the class of oppressors is not the goal we should be aiming for.
• You think that the state has no right to kill, and that putting people to death to show that killing is wrong will always be a self-defeating policy.
• You think that anyone who desires the reins of power that come with high political office should, by reason of that desire, be seen as unfit for the job.
• You think that instead of more leaders, we need fewer followers.
• You think that national borders, while sometimes establishing territories of safety, more often establish territories of exploitation, much like gang turf.
• You are open to considering how the privileges you enjoy because of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and/or physical ability might come at the expense of others.
• You believe that voting every few years is a weak form of political participation, and that achieving social justice requires concerted effort before, during, and after elections.
• You think that, ideally, no one would have more wealth more than they need until everyone has at least as much as they need to live a safe, happy, decent life.
• You recognize that an economic system which requires continuous expansion, destroys the environment, relies on rapidly-depleting fossil fuels, exacerbates inequality, and leads to war after war is unsustainable and must be replaced. Score a bonus point if you understand that sticking to the existing system is what's unrealistic.
No doubt some readers will say this list is incomplete. It is. Many policy issues of importance to progressives go unmentioned. Others might say that the list leans too far to the left, or not far enough. It could also be said that some items are vague (what does it mean to say that human rights ought always to trump property rights?). These are all useful responses. If we hope to work together to transform the social world, we need to know what we agree on, what we don't agree on, and what needs further hashing-out.
In the end, however, it's not labels and identities and criteria for bestowing them that really matter. Political terms have consequences, but only because of how we use them. Which suggests another item for the list. You might be a progressive if you think that it's important to take seriously the meaning of political identities, but that what really matters is living out those identities in ways that help to create more peace, justice, and equality.
Michael Schwalbe is a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University.
His most recent book is
Rigging the Game: How Inequality Is Reproduced in Everyday Life
Read comments at: http://www.commondreams.org/archive/2008/05/30/9310/