Progressive Primer

Through The Power of Progress, former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta invokes the progressive spirit that made America great under the aegis of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson. Podesta believes that rediscovering progressive ideals and policies will help get us back on track. In the process, we also save our communal soul by doing what is right by all citizens, not just a favored few.

The book starts with the core beliefs of the progressive movement, describes how its values were woven into the Clinton administration, and ends with policy solutions to daunting problems that face us and the next generation. At times it reads like a think-tank policy paper and leaves one wanting more, considering the stories Podesta could tell. This comes as no surprise. Podesta is the president and chief executive officer of the Center of American Progress, a neophyte research and educational institution that has managed, within five years, to gain a voice in current discourse. The Center’s senior fellows can be seen offering analysis and opinion on cable news shows and debating their more conservative counterparts in DC panel discussions.

The Power of Progress’ chapter titles sum up the progressive credo: (1) Progressives Stand with People, not Privilege; (2) Progressives Believe in the Common Good, and a Government That Offers a Hand Up; (3) Progressives Hold That All People Are Equal in the Eyes of God and Under the Law; (4) Progressives Stand for Universal Human Rights and Cooperative Global Security. While Podesta considers progressivism and liberalism complementary, he points out that “they are not exactly the same in substance, emphasis, or origin.” He is also candid about progressivism being a less developed political theory. It is more pragmatic.

A conversation with someone from the progressive movement admits that the debate about what progressivism is continues. Wikipedia lists as its most common tenets democracy; efficiency; regulation of large corporations and monopolies; social justice; and conservationism.

Podesta pens some lines that stand out and is worth highlighting as we listen to Democrats and Republicans plead their cases this election year. As operatives foment discord, we are reminded that:

If the heroism of King and others during the civil rights movement teaches us anything, it is that we must fight and stand up for our beliefs no matter how hard our opponents might hit back. We must fight efforts to divide Americans along lines of race, gender, or sexual orientation, and instead find common ground and engage in a unified struggle to improve lives across all boundaries. It is incumbent upon all of us to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of full economic and political equality a reality for all, rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight (p.83).

As we consider the party platforms and policy imperatives, it is worth emphasizing that:

We now live in a country where almost everyone is working harder but where tax cuts go almost exclusively to the very wealthiest. We live in a nation where forty years of efforts to protect the natural environment now have been shredded like trees into wood chips. Where the oil companies write the energy policy. Where the pharmaceutical companies determine which of their products are safe. Where the line between lobbyists and legislators has disappeared. Where the lessons of creationism are taught alongside those of evolution while the health insurance system becomes more Darwinian every day. And all this is presented to the American people live on Rupert Murdoch TV (pp. 104-5).

Yes, we are at another defining moment in history. Will Americans move forward or fester?

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