18. Progressive Values & Philosophy

The beginning of this book provides a short primer on values. This section is for those who are interested in a deeper discussion of how those same progressive values describe a consistent and politically effective progressive philosophy.

To articulate a philosophy that persuades, you need to understand persuadable voters. They are extremely individualistic. Even when they say they want what’s best for the larger community, they are actually persuaded by how policies affect them personally.

Individualism is our nation’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. It drives innovation and progress, but it also consigns millions of Americans to poverty. In the same spirit, competition is the very bedrock of our governmental, economic and social systems. Elections and court cases, education and job-seeking, are all competitions. Our economy is a gigantic and complex competition. Obviously, where there’s competition there are both winners and losers.

Progressives would gladly espouse a communitarian philosophy. We wish American culture was more oriented toward altruism and community, but it isn’t. A realistic progressive philosophy is one that accepts our national culture of individualism and competition and, nevertheless, seeks to make the American Dream accessible to all. So how can one envision such a philosophy?

Imagine a balance scale: the old-fashioned kind with two pans, one suspended from each end of a bar. It’s the scale that symbolizes equal justice under law. In a progressive world, the role of government is to help balance the scale when powerful individuals or organizations compete against weaker ones. Government should function as a counterweight on the scale of justice. The greater the disparity of power between competing interests, the greater weight the government should provide to the weaker side. Balance is justice.

A system in balance rewards hard work, efficiency, and innovation—which benefit all of society, and discourages crime, corruption, and schemes to game the system—which rob all of society. As a practical matter, to apply the broad principle of balance, we must break down public policy into three situations, where: (1) government has no proper role; (2) government acts as a referee; and (3) government acts as a protector.


Where government has no proper role, because public action would violate our individual rights, progressive policy is based on freedom. Freedom means the absence of legal interference with our fundamental rights: freedom of speech, religion, and association; the right to privacy; the rights of the accused; and the right of all citizens to vote.

Compared to an individual, government wields tremendous power, so a progressive policy adds great weight—in the form of strong legal rights—to the individual’s side of the scale. For example, freedom of speech is absolutely sacrosanct unless it immediately and directly puts others in danger, “falsely shouting fire in a theater” as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it.

Thus, freedom is a fairly simple concept. It is a defense of our basic human rights and civil liberties. Nevertheless, progressives rarely say the word freedom. They’re embarrassed, or think it’s been co-opted by the right wing, or don’t understand when to say it. But freedom is the most powerful political value in America. If you can’t cry freedom, you can’t explain why you are progressive.


Where government acts as a referee between private, unequal interests, progressive policy is based on opportunity. Opportunity means a level playing field in social and economic affairs: fair dealings between the powerful and the less powerful, the elimination of discrimination, and a quality education for all.

Competing interests usually hold unequal power, so progressive policy adds weight—guarantees of specific protections—to the weaker interest. For example, unskilled low-wage workers have no leverage to bargain for fair pay, so government needs to mandate a minimum wage.

More than anything, opportunity stands for a fair marketplace. Although progressives tend to feel most comfortable advocating for the rights of consumers and employees against businesses, we need to make clear that opportunity also ensures fairness between businesses—especially helping small businesses against large ones—and fairness for stockholders against corporate officers.


Where government acts to protect those who cannot reasonably protect themselves, including future generations, progressive policy is based on security. Security includes protecting Americans from domestic criminals and foreign terrorists, of course. But it also means insuring the sick and the vulnerable, safeguarding the food we eat and products we use, and preserving our environment.

There is always a threat that larger or unexpected forces will attack any one of us, so progressive policy adds weight, in the form of government institutions and programs, that helps protect us from harm. For example, society has a responsibility to protect the elderly, the disabled, widows, and orphans and that’s why an aptly named federal program has functioned in that role for more than 80 years: Social Security.

Progressives certainly support the concept of security, but we usually detour around that word. Like freedom, the word security seems to stick in the throats of progressives, perhaps because we’re concerned that we’ll sound like conservatives. But in fact, when you say security it makes you sound like a mainstream American.

You saw this chart previously in Chapter 2.

 Family of Progressive Values

or similar values:


or similar values:


or similar values:

Liberty Equal opportunity Safety; protection
Privacy Justice; equal justice Quality of life
Basic rights Fairness; fair share Employment security
Fundamental rights Level playing field Retirement security
Religious freedom Every American Health security

Why . . .

It would be awfully confining to say the words freedom, opportunity and security in every debate, over and over. But you don’t have to. Instead, substitute other terms from the same family of values. If you’re talking about auto emission standards, for example, you don’t have to say the word security, but it’s essential to evoke the concept.

As this book has tried to demonstrate, every issue can and should be supported by one of these three values. Moreover, you can use all these values together.

When you say that you support freedom, opportunity and security for all, you are expressing a progressive message that polls better than any other. And it’s an accurate description of what we stand for. The right wing favors these principles, but only for some, the affluent. Progressives insist on providing freedom, opportunity and security to each and every American.

It is true that progressives also believe in softer values, like compassion and communalism. Those appeal to our base but not to individualistic persuadable voters. Freedom, opportunity and security succeed because they project our strength; they declare that progressives accept the responsibility to extend freedom, opportunity and security to all while conservatives shirk that responsibility.

If this concept sounds vaguely familiar to you, perhaps you are remembering our nation’s foundational values. When Thomas Jefferson wrote “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” his life meant the same as security, his liberty meant freedom, and his pursuit of happiness meant opportunity. Thus, our values are the principles that fueled the flame of the American Revolution. This same torch of American ideals was passed from Jefferson to Lincoln, and from TR to FDR to JFK. Let us stop hiding our glorious light under a bushel!