By Fraser Turnbull, Contributor to The Progressive Column
All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
That line, uttered by “Reg” in the Monty Python movie, “Life of Bryan”, was absurdly funny when I was a twenty-year-old. I was first coming to grips with my own political identity and watching the cinematic member of a radical Jewish group hell-bent on destroying the Roman Empire was hilarious. As night falls on the first lap of the MAGA race- and hopefully the last- the disconnect that Python skewered seems more relevant now than ever.
For decades, I have been puzzled by how arrived at a point where the word “progressive” is repeatedly and disdainfully used as an insult. One must question the state of the history curriculum, or who is controlling the public messaging.
In an article he penned for the New York Post, social media poster-boy Ben Shapiro that “Progressives have convinced us American is evil- and must be destroyed.” His manure-stanched attention seeking knows no bounds. There is no leash on his motor-mouthed invective nor control on his boundless energy for twisting narratives.
Clearly, Shapiro is cherry picking and fear mongering- that’s his schtick. Like many, he has conflated the concepts of communist totalitarianism with social and economic progressivism. The tribal underpinnings that fuel American exceptionalism have created a significant portion of this generation that are all to willing to buy the message and wear the red hat. Those selling and those buying are threatened by a loss of wealth, social position, racial standing and even political clout. Most shouting in approval from the rallies have almost none of those assets to lose. Not unlike those running powerful banks and corporations who rail against socialism, but who run to the federal government for bailouts when their own incompetence leads toa financially catastrophic precipice- the average MAGA voter vilifies a political philosophy that has protected them against pre-progressive era threats.
Progressivism was responsible for the now universally accepted education of children as a means of bolstering democracy. It fueled the fire against unfair labour laws and monopolies and pushed for the establishment of a now deteriorating living wage. It snatched children from dangerous and abusive labour, created social security and Medicare, national parks, women’s suffrage and while it had not yet been labeled as such- can correctly be cross-labeled with abolitionism. As with all political movements, progressivism has not been without flaws, many of them serious. But to forget its powerful push in the creation of the middle class is to miss the point entirely.
Progressive flaws and achievements have been scrutinized and studied to death- entire careers have been based on its analysis. With such voluminous dissection and discourse, it gives rise to the question of when the term became a profanity in the lexicon of politics.
The root word “progress” means nothing more than to move forward. It’s worth repeating that why they were not yet labeled as such, progressives would have been fueling the abolitionist movement. One could rightly ask then, which of the American progressions would society cast in the dust bin of history?
In the year 1942, two Canadian political parties- the Progressives and the Conservatives- merged to form what many consider an oxymoron, the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. At the federal level, that party has been dissolved and reformed as the Conservative Party, fueled in some part by western populism. But the PC wing of the political canvas still exists at the provincial level. To my mind, this serves to support the argument that progressivism need not be a philosophy deserving of sneering derision. There exists- on the political spectrum- a happy marriage of moving forward on social issues while maintaining a robust belief in the benefits of a mixed-market economy that supports workers in their quest to stake a claim in the middle class.
Not everyone aspires to be a captain of industry. Most people are just hoping to work to provide for their family and have some time and money for that purpose. They want to work towards a secure retirement without combining two minimum wage jobs and praying that a medical crisis will not hurl them into bankruptcy. The time for universal health care of some kind is long past due- even a public-private option is an improvement. Wage stagnation and the wealth gap are an embarrassment that need not exist. Those would signal progress.
For those on the right that seek to smear progressives as radicals, they can breathe easy. There is no platoon of gun-toting Marxists around the corner seeking revolution or 90% tax rates. No, those voices you hear are merely calling for progress- to move forward. It’s a western tradition and it needs to be revived, not reviled.