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New Leaders Council

Progressives: How Did We Get Here and Where Are We Going?

I started my presentation to New Leaders Council-Houston by asking the cohort to complete this sentence: “To be a progressive, a person must __________.”

The responses were wide-ranging and touched on economic, social, foreign policy, and cultural issues. It struck me that members of our cohort not only understood the history of progressives, they actually embodied it. How so? The diversity of their answers. Nearly every response lined up with one of the major progressive movements in U.S. history. To recap, those movements were:

#1: The Original Progressives

These crusaders of the early 1900s battled for clean drinking water, workplace rights, urban park space, an end to child labor, regulation of big business and much more. Ultimately, they achieved a great deal, including women’s suffrage, progressive taxation, the 8-hour workday, and direct election of U.S. senators.

#2: New Deal Progressives

No event demonstrated the failure of conservative, top-down economic policy better than the Great Depression. In response, a new generation of progressives pushed the country to embrace an activist federal government and a new social contract. Working with President Franklin Roosevelt, they reformed labor laws, guaranteed the right to unionize, created Social Security, and developed jobs programs that brought unemployment from 25 percent down to 3 percent. (They also won World War II, you know, in their spare time).

#3: Right-based Progressives

With the coming of the civil rights movement, the parameters of progressive debate changed. Pushing beyond economic issues, activists demanded social and political equality. African Americans, feminists, immigrant communities, young people, LGBTQ activists, and many others fundamentally altered the possibilities for progressive change. Yet they also embraced and built on earlier movements for economic fairness.

As we go through training this spring, I hope we will follow the lead of these path-breakers to ask ourselves: What is possible? The answer to that question might surprise us.

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