There Are Two Types of Progressives
In my first submission to Medium, I tried to clarify what exactly it means to be a progressive. I think, given the way the term is frequently being used, some more clarity is needed on this matter. While I maintain that social issues are either secondary to economic issues or irrelevant altogether (in the context of progressivism), I cannot deny that many people who are progressives nevertheless also have social issues as a high priority. This essentially breaks the progressive movement into two components, both of which I shall describe at once.
The first group is what I call the classical progressives. These are the progressives who are primarily focused (at this moment) on getting money out of politics, raising the minimum wage to a living wage, creating a universal health care system, and so on. They see the world’s woes primarily as a product of class and wealth issues. Social issues are not as important to them, or they see their resolution as intrinsically tied to these greater issues of class and wealth.
Identity politics is not a feature of classical progressivism. It also does not prescribe a clear vision in matters of diplomacy or war. Indeed, classical progressivism is the less orthodox of the two varieties, consisting of left-wing, right-wing, and centrist individuals. A good, living example is Senator Bernie Sanders, who almost perfectly represents the true political center. A historical example can be found in Theodore Roosevelt, the first progressive President, albeit a conservative. Roosevelt tackled conceptually similar issues of class and wealth in his time, and he went about busting up monopolies, enacting regulations of business, and making democracy a more populist practice.
Another less overtly political stance was the belief in new science and technology as a means improving society. Classical progressives imagined that class issues could be settled with the implementation of modern methods that would improve standards of living. Public education matured rapidly, electricity spread across the country, government bureaus were made to provide critical analysis of programs, and medical care was vastly improved. Capitalism was not scrapped, but it was reined in to avoid excesses, and the economics of progressives was later formalized under Keynesianism.
This is the heritage that defines a classical progressive.
The other type is what I like to call a neoprogressive. The key feature of neoprogressives is their greater emphasis on social issues. As such, they are largely advocates of identity politics. They tend to see the world less strictly in the context of class and wealth struggles (although that is still a feature). They often look at a general narrative of oppressor versus oppressed. Their views on what constitutes prejudice are rather one-way: sexism is only ever the patriarchy, and racism only favors whites. These social attitudes often take priority over economic ones.
Neoprogressives operate within an orthodoxy and are not guided by general principles of dynamism and innovation. They are a specifically left-wing movement. Contrary to their classical counterparts, their attitudes on science are mixed. While they might accept research such as that behind climate change, they tend to have a dogmatic rejection of science that is interpreted as antithetical to their social priorities.
For example, much of the gender pay gap can be explained by variance in average behavior between men and women. Men and women thus gravitate toward different careers on their own, and if men happen to lean toward the jobs that are in higher demand, their income will consequently be higher. This is not something that neoprogressives easily accept, despite the well established data behind it. They see it as a form of apologetics for the patriarchy or capitalism, and that is where the issue ends for them.
Their emphasis on social issues gives neoprogressives shared concerns with bourgeois liberals, who do not reflect their economic concerns but do have the same views on identity politics. When bourgeois liberals abuse their status to ruin livelihoods and silence dissent, neoprogressives may often support these decisions, which actually undermines their progressive values. Neoprogressives and bourgeois liberals therefore might be lumped together as “social justice warriors.” Where they diverge with bourgeois liberals and even classical progressives is their more hostile assessment of capitalism. Many neoprogressives opine that socialism might be a better course in the end.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is likely a good example of a neoprogressive, at least as current leaders in the Democratic Party allow. Historical examples are harder to find, as the term “neoprogressive” implies that this is a newer movement. The movement is thus also largely generational, mainly consisting of millennials.
As identitarian thinking continues to gain ground, this may prove to be a decisive wedge in the progressive movement over time. Classical progressives may increasingly find themselves disassociating with the left, alienated by the extreme social agenda of neoprogressives. This division may be what defines the shape of the American, two-party system by the middle of the century, with the neoprogressivies dominating the Democratic Party and the classical progressives begrudgingly retreating to the Republican Party.
How soon this occurs is important. If neoprogressives prove too controversial in the short-term, it may nullify any possibility to achieve the goals of the greater, progressive movement. Given the exponential growth of technology and AI and what that means for labor in America (and the rest of the West), this is a problem where room for failure does not exist. The impending lack of employment and income for millions of people will not only be crushing on its own; it will also exacerbate just about every social issue on the map.
How this split in the progressive movement grows is, ergo, something that we should all observe carefully. It is incumbent on classical progressives to help their neoprogressive counterparts stay focused on the economic issues. In the era of Trump, however, with so much heightened tension, this may prove to be a difficult thing to do.
Revision , 8/31/2018:
Some have commented that my pegging of Ocasio-Cortez as a neoprogressive is inapt. To say that she completely fits the mold that I outlined would, perhaps, be unfair. Suffice to say that, for lack of prominent elected persons as examples, she was the closest I could come to that side of the spectrum, especially in comparison to Bernie Sanders.