What Are Progressive Values?

Why values are important

Progressive political parties around the world – like the Labour Party in the UK and the Democratic Party in the United States – face a number of challenges.  Arguably one of their primary challenges is to reclaim and rearticulate a set of deep values that underpin their philosophy and worldview.  This challenge is important for three reasons.

First, political parties on the Right (such as the Conservative Party in the UK, or the National Party in New Zealand) have succeeded since the 1980s in framing particular public understandings of certain values: they have managed, for example, to define “freedom” and “equality” in cramped terms, so that it is widely accepted that freedom should mean liberty from State intervention, whilst equality should mean equal opportunity.  And progressives have too often accepted these accounts of core values, and succumbed to arguing on conservatives’ terms, as Stuart Hall has pointed out (for example, in this article).  Progressives have failed to take part in shaping the terms of the public policy debate, and have set themselves up to lose by playing a game with conservative rules.

Secondly, articulating values is important because without a coherent account of values, progressives have suffered identity crises and have lacked philosophical rudders to steer their policy development.  One of the reasons that progressive political parties moved to Third Way politics in the 1990s and 2000s (exemplified by the Clinton, Blair, and Clark governments in the US, the UK, and NZ, respectively), which involved a partial embrace of markets and a conservative-style hardening of welfare and criminal justice policy, is that these parties were unsure where to go after the apparent electoral success of parties that privatized and deregulated in the 1980s.  Getting progressive values right can avoid this waywardness in policy development.

Blair Clinton

Tony Blair and Bill Clinton – leaders of Third Way progressive governments (http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0910/41756.html)

Thirdly, reconnecting politics to values is a way to make politics relevant to ordinary people again.  Many aspects of politics, but especially economics, have become highly technocratic in recent years, alienating the general public.  Explaining political moves in more value-laden terms is a transparent and effective move away from that technocratic style.  My sense is that there is also an appetite amongst voters for politics to be connected back to everyday ethics again – and a focus on values might achieve this, too.  Values matter to people; they are intelligible, and relevant.  (I can still recall first learning about values from an inspirational primary school teacher.  I remember struggling to understand the concept of “values” when all I could associate with “values” was pricing and numbers; an ironic indication of where our society has come to.)

The values project will have to involve more than trite invocations of values that sound nice but mean very little; I think there is some cynicism about policy documents that customarily list off values such as “respect” and “tolerance” without giving these values concrete content.  In other words, the project will have to be backed by some intellectual heft and conceptual weight.  Nonetheless the general point still stands.  If progressive parties re-engage with values, this may have the potential to reignite a general interest in politics, at a time of declining trust in politicians and low voter turnout.

A progressive values manifesto

What is needed is an open debate amongst progressive political parties about what values matter – to them, to their members, and to the general public – in the twenty-first century.  The debate must be situated firmly in our time.  It must take into account recent trends (global warming is one), recent events (such as the global financial crisis), new intellectual leaps in insight (insights in psychology, systems theory, and behavioural economics come to mind), and more intangible emergent feelings amongst the general population (such as increased anxiety or unease).  It must of course, pay due regard to history and past party manifestos, which represent much accumulated wisdom.  And the debate would do well to consider developments in progressive politics in places too often ignored by Western intellectuals and commentators: places like Latin America and India, amongst others.

My own reflection on the question of what values matter for progressives today – based on personal experience and consideration of the factors just described (and perhaps influenced by my study of political philosophy) – leads me to ten values, which I think can be teased out to develop progressive policy ideas.  My provisional “progressive values manifesto” would contain the following:

  1. Freedom
  2. Equality
  3. Community
  4. Identity
  5. Dignity
  6. Security
  7. Responsibility
  8. Inclusiveness
  9. Creativity
  10. Integrity 

Why these values? And what do they mean?

The famous catch-cry in the French Revolution was for liberty, equality, and fraternity – and if we modify the labels slightly, freedom, equality, and community remain three important values in a list of modern progressive principles.

Freedom for progressives today means not just protection of freedom of speech (subject to reasonable limits) and other civil freedoms; it must also mean freedom to develop our own personalities to reach a higher plane of personal achievement, as Roberto Unger has pointed out powerfully (here).  This is “positive liberty”, in Isaiah Berlin’s terms.  Commitment to freedom of this kind requires public commitment to an education curriculum and system that stretches young people and creates space for curiosity and self-development.  This form of freedom may also entail robust support for the arts, since it is so often the arts (either experience of the arts or performance of the arts – and where “arts” means everything from poetry to spoken word, from literature to digital film, from opera and ballet to hip-hop dance) that brings out of us self-fulfilment and joy.  Equality today must mean more than equality of opportunity, and we must also explode the simplistic equality of opportunity–equality of outcome dichotomy, because equality can be understood in more than just these two ways.  Equality as a value requires public support of all citizens to a minimum standard of living, as well as provision of public healthcare, education, housing, transport, and other services.  Community, meanwhile, has renewed resonance in our world of gated communities and at a time when there seems to be increased separation (geographical and economic) between the richest and the poorest in our societies.  A modern progressive view of community demands scrutiny of institutions (like private schools) that segregate populations, and which deny individuals the opportunity to mix with a broad array of individuals with whom they share a society.  The value of community also calls for policies to empower voluntary groups and civic society, and policies that give a voice to the voiceless (such as decent legal aid provision).  Further, the presence of community in this manifesto is an important counter to the ruthless self-interestedness embodied in the operation of some markets.

Roberto Unger - political theorist and a Minister of Strategic Affairs in Lula's progressive government in Brazil (http://www.thecuttingedgenews.com/index.php?article=74360)

Roberto Unger – political theorist who has written about redefining freedom and who was also Minister of Strategic Affairs in Lula’s progressive government in Brazil (http://www.thecuttingedgenews.com/index.php?article=74360)

The next four values – identity, security, dignity, and responsibility – have acquired paramount importance in recent times.  These are modern values, which will nevertheless stand the test of time.  Public recognition of our particular identity is central to the development of human personality, and the centrality of identity has been highlighted through the explosion of discussions of identity on online social media in recent years.  (Online networks have been used particularly effectively by LGBTI and feminist groups.)  Progressive governments must acknowledge this through policy that fights discrimination on the basis of identity, and positive advocacy of the contributions that different identities can make to a community.  As well, sensitivity to identity requires progressives to redouble efforts to achieve gender equality (on issues like reproductive rights, pay equity, family violence, parental leave, differential rates of political participation, and promoting positive masculinity) and to be aware of the way that history shapes identity (for example, for indigenous people).  Security, the fifth value on the list, does not mean only a government committed to public safety (though trying to wipe out crime through smart policies such as evidence-based rehabilitation must be part of the agenda).  Security means that all individuals and groups should feel secure in a society, where “secure” is understood in a broad way.  It is security that justifies safeguards on government surveillance and limits on police powers.  And it is security (in particular, for minority groups) that demands prohibitions on hate speech and racial profiling.  Security may also have an economic dimension: robust regulation of financial markets and meaningful health and safety laws should aspire to the goal of keeping people secure in employment and in the operation of the economy.  Dignity underpins our system of human rights (governing humane conditions in detention, and fair trial rights, for example), while providing a supplementary rationale for public service provision.  In addition, the value of dignity forms the basis of progressives’ commitment to industrial relations, social security and redistribution.  The final value in this cluster, responsibility, may seem like a surprising inclusion – but what is relevant is how this value is interpreted.  In a progressive society committed to community and dignity, responsibility cannot require the State (either in the field of criminal justice or the field of social security) to cast aside individuals for making bad choices.  What responsibility does require in 2014 is individual action that accepts and reflects that we all live together in a society that amounts to a shared project.  The notion of responsibility leads us, then, logically towards policies ensuring the payment of tax, increasing states’ contributions to overseas development, and guaranteeing stewardship of the environment (through the reduction of carbon emissions and other measures).

The eighth, ninth, and tenth values on my suggested manifesto – inclusiveness, creativity, and integrity – are not mentioned as often in lists of this kind.  But they are values that connect clearly to ethical precepts that we all adhere to in our personal lives (being inclusive, creative, and honest), and they importantly shape not just the substance of progressive policy but how it might be developed and communicated.  The value of inclusiveness, for example, should prompt progressives to adopt an open starting point on immigration policy – recognizing the cultural and economic benefits that immigration can bring to a country – while also encouraging further government experimentation with deliberative policies (such as citizens’ assemblies and participatory budgeting) that involve all members of a political community in policy-making.  Creativity spans recognition of the arts and support for intellectual endeavours.  Acknowledgment of this value could lead, as well to a reconceptualization of the public service: as an innovative engine of ideas, which does not just execute politicians’ directives, but also creatively suggests new frameworks and policy proposals for a government to take up.  Lastly, integrity is a value which has particular application for politicians, the media, and foreign policy.  Progressives should call for politicians that maintain the highest professional standards (in the way they use their resources, and in campaigning).  They should support a media that is honest, critical in its scrutiny, and resistant to being captured by pressure groups.  And they should craft foreign policy that is fair and even-handed, demonstrating integrity in the sense that foreign policy orientation is not motivated by self-interest and is consistent across different contexts.

These values sweep across policy areas and apply to policy formation and communication.  They are a provisional list only.  But I think they are bold enough, intellectually hefty enough, and embedded enough in the public’s ethical consciousness to provide a promising basis for a new progressive agenda in countries like New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America.

Assessing the list – further points and criticisms

We should be clear about what this list is not.  It is not, of course, a complete manifesto for personal ethical living; there are some values appropriate to ethical living (such as humility) that do not translate easily into the political sphere.  Nor is the manifesto of values a complete solution to the philosophical challenges of the Left.  The values discussed operate at a particular level of abstraction, above frameworks for understanding the economy, for instance.  So there is still much to be done to work through how these overarching values might produce frameworks in particular policy areas, as well as specific policy proposals around which the general public might rally.  Further work might also reveal that there is a supreme progressive idea (such as justice) unifying all of these values; I myself am skeptical that such an idea exists.

Some might complain that particular values do not make the list.  For example, there is no reference to progressive policy needing to be evidence-based.  While I do not deny the importance of backing policy with rigorous research (especially in fields such as climate change and criminal justice), I suggest that the manifesto values ought to be substantive – and that the requirement of “evidence-based” policy is more of a process-based condition of policy than a normative foundation of policy.  I also share the concern of some progressives that excessive emphasis on evidence-based policy-making lurches towards a technocratic style of politics, and may convey an undesirable air of superiority on the part of the Left (a “we-have-all-the-answers” disposition).  I therefore think there are good reasons to omit this “value” from the list, and while there will inevitably be disagreement, I suggest that there are good reasons to exclude other contenders for the list, too (such as civic-mindedness or autonomy).  These other possible values are either not substantial enough to warrant a special place within the progressive manifesto, or are already encompassed by existing listed values.

It might be said, too, that some of the values on the progressive list I have constructed could be co-opted by conservatives: values such as freedom and security, in particular.  But part of the attraction of the values chosen is that they are open-ended enough to be persuasive to most (if not all) members of the public; it is not desirable for the values to be so thickly progressive as to be sectarian.  There will invariably be argument from progressives and conservatives about what each value requires; indeed, this is the very stuff of democratic negotiation and deliberation.  I have presented only one view here.

A related criticism could be that some of the specific policies I have mentioned in brief do not properly follow from the values that I have sketched.  For example, it might be said that inclusiveness does not lead necessarily towards an open immigration policy; some might say that it all depends on the assumptions one starts with (and whether, in particular, one believes that inclusiveness should operate only within certain constraints).  Again, this is a matter of argument.  I have offered one line of reasoning and some policy suggestions in passing, which I hope will be persuasive and interesting to most (but perhaps not all) readers.

Immigration: an issue which reasonable people committed to values of inclusiveness and community could disagree on

Immigration: an issue which reasonable people committed to values of inclusiveness and community could disagree on

Finally, it could be contended that the values are not wholly distinct from one another, and that they overlap.  Identity shades into community, and creativity shades into freedom.  But I did not mean these values to be discrete ideas; some overlap is unavoidable.  In addition, part of the appeal, I think, of the ten values explored above is their interconnectedness.  Understood together, these values provide the foundations for a progressive agenda that takes a holistic view of society.  That big-picture perspective is valuable in a world where the usual pressures are towards specialized and segmented thinking that misses the wood for the philosophical trees.


For some, all of this will be too abstract and high-level; not practical enough for the nitty-gritty day-to-day of progressive politics.  In response, I accept that there are challenges for progressives aside from philosophy: these include, most prominently, voter turnout, party membership, and messaging.

But I do also believe that progressives’ failure to articulate their underlying values has fundamentally hindered progressive policy development, and has actively contributed to the neoliberal ascendancy of the last 30 years.

Articulating values is, therefore, an essential plank in the construction of a new progressive narrative – and a prerequisite to devising innovative policy ideas.  I’ve tried to make a modest, constructive contribution to that effort here.  But the broader project is a lot bigger, and will require the contribution of many minds, and many hands, to fight back a meaningful politics – a Fourth Way, perhaps – for the twenty-first century.

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2 Responses to What Are Progressive Values?

  1. KRiT says:

    Great read, Max! Really waiting for New Zealand to shake things up a bit.

  2. Kia ora Max,

    This is an excellent post – the best so far!

    I agree with most of what you say, especially as the piece progresses (!) . I really hope you’ll develop this into something more substantial – as your ideas deserve a wide audience (and, unfortunately, a blog post will only achieve so much…).

    I have a few thoughts:

    1. I like your emphasis on values. (A basic point, but an important one!) We can, and should want to, say what is important to us – but we should also be able to interpret and re-interpret (creatively and critically) those concerns, in response to new (as well as old) problems. Values allow us to do this.

    2. You begin by emphasising the importance of ‘reclaiming’ and ‘rearticulating’ values. I wonder, though, whether it is important to ‘first’ ask what our values should be, and then focus on ‘reclaiming’ those values that were articulated, and articulating all of them (new and old)?

    3. Your list of values (and your explanations of those values) is, I think, too focused on community. I think community is very important (VERY important). But I also think it’s important that the values you articulate give adequate expression to individualism. I say this because so often it is by acting alone that we are able to do the most for ourselves and each other (as you are doing, in articulating these provisional values…). If these values are going to inform debate as they should, you should endeavour to give them as ‘balanced’ an expression as you can (that is, you should express yourself fully) – because things will change, but we cannot confidently say how!

    4. Of course, I wondered whether any values might be added to your list. A value that might be missing is one that suggests our ‘commonality’ – our ‘sameness’. I don’t mean political / moral equality (the idea that we are all deserving of equal respect, etc., and which you capture). I mean, the idea that we have more ‘similarities’ than differences. Perhaps this, the recognition of it, could be captured by the term ‘mutuality’…? I don’t know – it could be covered by dignity, equality, or inclusiveness, I suppose, or some combination of those. But I think it’s important that this idea is articulated (!) .

    5. Finally, I love what you say about responsibility – in so few words, you do it justice…

    Excellent, excellent work, e hoa!


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