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What Is Progressivism?

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  • Written By: Sandi Johnson
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 09 November 2016
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Progressivism is a political movement, belief system, or philosophy, depending on the country and era in question. The exact scope and beliefs of progressives varies, depending on culture, country of origin, and governmental structure under which a particular progressive group lives. At its heart, progressivism supports the greater good of a people. In some countries, that presents as support of equal access to healthcare, career, and educational opportunities. For others, it presents as the support of reduced governmental control and overall improvement for the lives of average citizens.

Generally, a progressive view supports efforts that improve quality of life for the greatest number of citizens. Politicians and political activists are frequently identified as progressives when causes of the greater good are a strong element of chosen agendas, political support, or sponsored legislature. Specific agendas vary from country to country, but the core ideologies associated with progressivism focus on reform for the greater good of a people.

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Although characterized by noble pursuit of reform and social improvements, progressivism does not always enjoy a positive reputation. Past support of progressivism in some countries has been associated with socialism and class-based political agendas. Opposing political views often point to the fallacies associated with focusing on the greater good, since helping the greatest number of people does not help all the people equally. Charges of elitist attitudes are often leveled at both sides of the progressive versus conservative political argument. For example, the US presidential election of 1912 saw the greatest rise of progressivism politicians in US history, with all candidates promoting reform and accusing the other of elitism.

Concepts of progressivism first appeared throughout the world around the Age of Enlightenment during the 18th century. Through the years and political climates of the centuries since, progressivism and its related ideals have garnered and lost favor in waves. To US political observers, progressivism is often labeled as left-wing, referencing a common political term for supporters of egalitarianism, or decentralization of political and governmental power. During the Progressive Era, the time in US history just before and immediately after the turn of the 20th century, progressive politics and governmental reform experienced the height of popularity. In the late 20th century and into the early 21st century, such supporters were often referenced in a derogatory light, compared by opposition to socialists or communists.

Elsewhere, progressive political agendas likewise rise and fall in popularity. Canada, Ireland, and many other countries have political parties self-identified as progressive, such as the Progressive Conservative Party in Canada, the Progressive Democrats in Ireland, and the European Progressive Democrats throughout Europe. Australia's third largest political party, the Australian Greens, offers a slightly different form of progressivism, dubbed The Third Way. While supporting progressive ideologies, Australian Greens seek to combine the best of liberals, conservatives, and progressives with a large governmental presence based on a localized, participatory democracy.

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