Promoting Progressive Values

From Commonweal Institute

Why Values Matter

We all have values, but we don’t all talk about them. Progressives, in particular, are often more inclined to talk about policy and programs than their personal stories and the values that motivate them. We’re missing opportunities to connect with others if we do not express our values.

To a great degree, people decide whom to trust, whom to believe, based on feelings of similarity or kinship – and also on values. Superficial similarities, such as age, sex, clothing, language, are often taken to imply a greater likelihood of similar world view and values.

Polls show that a great many Americans are tired of cultural division and animosity. They seek to move back toward more tolerance and mutual understanding—a greater sense of our common values as Americans–as our country seeks to deal with its present challenges and those of the future.

Values matter to us as individuals as we seek to restore a sense of shared interests, values, and commitment in our society. Each of us can be a part of that healing process. To do that, it is not enough to talk about programs or policies – we need to talk about how we see ourselves as Americans, what are hopes are for the future, and what we have in common with those we’re speaking with.

Progressive Values

Defining the values that underlie and unite the Left has become an urgent question in the past few years. We have come to recognize that, to a great degree, our political choices emerge from our sense of cultural identity and our emotional responses to stories and images, not from ‘rational’ cost-benefit analyses.

Modern Progressive Values: Realizing America’s Potential [1], an analysis of contemporary progressive thought by Institute Fellow Kyle Gillette, was written with the intention of enabling progressives to come together around a common values platform. Dr. Gillette’s report consolidates the work of many other groups and individuals, who have used a variety of methodologies during the past decade to create lists of values. These lists had many similarities, but differences, too. Gillette analyzed their work to identify a set of six core value clusters (three pairs) that define modern progressive thought. 

While each of these six terms might also be used by conservatives, progressives define them differently. Several tendencies, or ‘moral intuitions’, mark these values as different for progressives than for conservatives. These include empathy and responsibility, a proclivity for non-hierarchical patterns, pragmatic attention to real-world problems, acceptance of diversity, and recognition of interdependence.   

These attitudes distinguish the six core values in ways that are uniquely progressive and ground them in human emotion and behavior. Like all values, they are experienced and expressed through emotions, images, narratives, and action.

Freedom / Security

These two core values describe what progressives value for individuals, including what the state allows its citizens to do (speak, marry, travel, etc) and what it protects its citizens from (violence, exploitation, illness, and so on).

Freedom. When progressives say they value Freedom, they mean that they value the Freedom for individuals to do what they wish and to pursue desirable opportunities. Because they respect individual autonomy in matters of political views, religion, and sexuality, progressives believe that the government should give individuals Freedom of choice and speech and allow people to determine the course of their own lives. Freedom extends also to the collective self-determination upon which representative democracy is founded. The differences between what progressives and conservatives mean by “Freedom” have to do with the role of empathy and responsibility, and the definition of who counts as an individual. Progressives value the Freedom to succeed and determine one’s own life, but also Freedom from systems that, left unchecked, create unjust imbalances in economic status.

Security. When progressives say they value Security, they mean that they value Freedom from illness, hunger, violence, war, chance disasters, poverty, exploitation and ignorance. While progressives respect the power of the “free market”, they consider protection from capitalism’s excesses and exploitations crucial to being “free”, since progressives believe that one of the essential roles of government is to provide security against the harm and the vicissitudes of fate. Since such protection is not free, they support taxation for the purpose of providing Security against fate, even if taxation lessens individuals’ right to do what they choose with their money. Security also extends to threats from non-human actors such as natural disasters, illness, and the like. This is why the left regularly promotes policies that benefit emergency response infrastructure, public health, universal healthcare, and social security.

Community / The Commons

This pair of values refers to how citizens relate to one another as groups, and how those groups relate to the resources we all share.

Community. For progressives, to value Community means to value people, human bons, social structures, and healthy families. Progressives particularly value communities characterized by creativity, equality, diversity, and a strong sense of mutual interdependence. It is this “mutuality” more than any other concept that differentiates progressive Community from conservative Community.

Progressives believe that individuals must be responsible, but not only for themselves. Society is responsible for every individual and every individual is responsible for society. Moreover, every individual is responsible for every other individual – it is not merely a bureaucratic or autocratic but more basically a human principle. While conservatives often depict this strong progressive notion of interdependence as a form of socialism, the key human feature derives from empathy and responsibility. Progressives, in contrast to conservatives, value communities in which rules are questioned — where the material demands of the present trump following traditional rules for the mere sake of tradition. The progressive worldview is distinct from both liberalism and conservatism in the sense that it attends more directly to concrete needs than to abstract concepts.

The Commons. The Commons are what we share, what no one can claim as private property and what all of us need to live healthy, happy lives. We need The Commons as individuals and our communities need to use The Commons effectively in order to function and thrive. The Commons include the environment, transportation and power infrastructure, healthcare system, electronic commons, education, language, and cultural heritage. Our government, created by and responsible to the citizenry, is also part of The Commons. What differentiates the progressive value of The Commons is our proclivity to share – to recognize, for example, that not only our families, cities, or countries need access, but that all people do. Progressives recognize that all humans have The Commons in common. To the degree that some individuals exploit the environment more than others, or devote less labor to its preservation, they violate the moral imperative that results from the progressive value of The Commons. Another difference from the conservative view regarding The Commons lies in the size of the Community and the longevity of its benefits. Progressive policies place a much greater emphasis on providing a livable world for future generations.

Truth / Justice

This pair of values pertains to the formal structures of language and law, and is rooted in progressives’ commitment to reason, transparency, and fairness.

Truth. Truth includes not only facts but also more generally a stance of honesty and integrity, transparency in government, and a strong commitment to reason. The progressive version of Truth places a distinct emphasis on telling citizens what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear.

The progressive value of Freedom, though genuine and complete unto itself, both depends upon and supports the value of Truth. Freedoms of speech and the press are only free when what is said or written is true; lies fall under libel and slander laws. Rather than interpreting data according to preconceived ideological positions, even if said positions might support other progressive values, this value of Truth dictates a strong progressive desire for objective and rational analysis. Reason and accuracy, far from being only ideological concepts, are vital to progressivism’s pragmatic character.

Justice. Progressives believe that everyone should play fair, and that the terms of fairness derive neither from birthright nor from mere convention or tradition. The terms of fairness derive rather from a rational sense of Justice that lies beyond power, beyond privilege, and even beyond the traditions established by legal precedent. Progressives gauge the Justice of a law based not merely on its effectiveness at advancing progressive causes or its acceptability within existing legal frameworks, but also and more importantly on the degree to which it makes rational sense, to which it is fair. Justice is akin to Truth’s formal consistency but operates in the realm of the world as it is legislated and lived.

Progressive Values Are American Values

Progressive values are fundamental American values. As the Center for American Progress says [2], “[M]any Americans are positively predisposed toward progressivism as an ideology but… many people remain unaware of its proud past and vision for the future. Progressive reformers at the turn of the 20th century led the charge to create decent working conditions; challenge corporate abuse and special privileges for the wealthy; ensure full equality under law; pass social benefits for the poor, elderly, and unemployed; promote humanitarianism and cooperative security; and implement public interest regulations to protect our natural resources, ensure safe food and medicines, and pave the way for a more humane and efficient economy. These reforms set the stage for broad-based economic growth and increased political equality throughout the 20th century.”

Act on Your Values

Figure out what your values are. If you start with what you care about, ask yourself WHY you care about that. What do you want to have happen in our society? What are you afraid will happen if your values are not acted upon?

Tell stories about how you got your values. Example: “My mom taught me the Golden Rule. That gave me the idea that everyone in our society is basically the same underneath – we all deserve fairness and respect.” When you’re aware of your personal stories, you can bring them into conversations with others. This may lead those people, in turn, to think about their own values and where they got them from.

Be influential [3]. Find ways to join public conversations through which you can spread your progressive values.

Read the full report Modern Progressive Values: Realizing America’s Potential

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