The words “progressive” and “populist” are bandied about on a daily basis, but I wonder if those who use the terms understand what they mean. Knowing the difference can – well – make a difference.
Populism can be defined as follows:
- any of various, often anti-establishment or anti-intellectual political movements or philosophies that offer unorthodox solutions or policies and appeal to the common person rather than according with traditional party or partisan ideologies.
- grass-roots democracy; working-class activism; egalitarianism.
- representation or extolling of the common person, the working class, the underdog, etc.
A populist is a person who follows the populist philosophy.
Progressivism can be defined as follows:
- a broad philosophy based on the idea of progress, which asserts that advancement in science, technology, economic development, and social organization are vital to improve the human condition.
- the principles and practices of progressives.
A progressive is a person who follows the progressive philosophy.
Can one be both? Perhaps, but doing so requires walking a thin line or embracing changes in the traditional definitions which have resulted in a third option – that of “progressive populist.”
Populism tends to be anti-establishment and anti-intellectual while progressivism tends to rely on the establishment, the educated intellectuals, and existing political structures to implement its goals.
Populism is older than Progressivism and was a response by the agrarian establishment to the rise of industrialization. During the 1870s, farmers began to chafe against the high cost of money and the low price of crops. Angered by what they saw as unresponsiveness by the political parties, populist leaders called on the people to rise up and seize the control of the government. Populists exalted farmers and laborers as the true producers of wealth. The original populist movement was short-lived with its most intense impact from 1889-1896.
The Progressive Movement – the Era of Reform – began as a response in the 1890s to problems created by the seismic shift from an agrarian society to an industrialized urban society. Corporations and trusts controlled more and more of the country’s finances, immigrants arrived in large numbers competing for jobs and moving into slum tenements, and party bosses and political machines sprang up to control the new arrivals. In the eyes of many, the country was falling apart and action needed to be taken to restore a semblance of democracy to the nation. That philosophy gave rise to the Progressive Movement.
Progressives typically lived in cities, were college educated, believed that government could be used as a tool to better the human condition, and rejected social Darwinism. Many were “privileged” members of society and believed they had a duty to the poor and those in need. The Progressive, middle-class reformers attempted to restore what they saw as a loss of democracy by limiting big business. Immigrants were to be “Americanized”, and political machines were to be curbed. The Progressive Movement was in its prime from 1901-1918; Theodore Roosevelt was a proponent of progressive ideas.
A final conundrum is the increasing philosophy of a “progressive populist.” While this new formation uses both terms, it is not the populist or progressive movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is, instead, built on a foundation of the majoritarian “submerged agenda” – an economic agenda that the majority of Americans support – increasing the minimum wage, restoring workers’ ability to bargain with employers, and taxing millionaires and giant corporations at levels that reflect how much of the country’s wealth and income they now have.
The submerged majoritarian agenda is unable to gain support in Washington, D.C. because it reflects goals and philosophies that work against the very entities and contributors who maintain the power structure in D.C.
As yet another cycle of campaigning rolls around, the words “Populist”,”Progressive”, and “Progressive Populist” will continue to crop up in debates and conversations as candidates and the public attempt to pigeon-hole their ideas and philosophies. Regardless of viewpoints, understanding the nature of these movements is key to how we debate and how we ultimately resolve issues.