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Progressivism is the support for or advocacy of social reform. As a philosophy, it is based on the idea of progress, which asserts that advancements in science, technology, economic development and social organization are vital to the improvement of the human condition.
The meanings of progressivism have varied over time and from different perspectives. Progressivism became highly significant during the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, out of the belief that Europe was demonstrating that societies could progress in civility from uncivilized conditions to civilization through strengthening the basis of empirical knowledge as the foundation of society. Figures of the Enlightenment believed that progress had universal application to all societies and that these ideas would spread across the world from Europe.
In the modern era, a movement that identifies as progressive is "a social or political movement that aims to represent the interests of ordinary people through political change and the support of government actions" In the 21st century, those who identify as progressive may do so for a variety of reasons: for example, to favor public policy that reduces or ameliorates the harmful effects of economic inequality as well as systemic discrimination, to advocate for environmentally conscious policies, as well as for social safety nets and rights of workers, to oppose the negative externalities inflicted on the environment and society by monopolies or corporate influence on the democratic process. The unifying theme is to call attention to the negative impacts of current institutions or ways of doing things, and to advocate for progress, that is, for positive change as defined by any of several standards, such expansion of democracy, increased social or economic equality, improved well being of a population, etc.
The contemporary common political conception of progressivism in the culture of the Western world emerged from the vast social changes brought about by industrialization in the Western world in the late-19th century. Progressives in the early-20th century as well as now, take the view that progress is being stifled by vast economic inequality between the rich and the poor; minimally regulated laissez-faire capitalism with monopolistic corporations; and intense and often violent conflict between workers and capitalists, thus claiming that measures were needed to address these problems. Early-20th century progressivism was also tied to eugenics and the temperance movement, both of which were promoted in the name of public health, and were promoted as initiatives toward that goal. Contemporary progressives promote public policies that they believe will lead to positive social change.
Immanuel Kant identified progress as being a movement away from barbarism towards civilization. 18th-century philosopher and political scientist Marquis de Condorcet predicted that political progress would involve the disappearance of slavery, the rise of literacy, the lessening of inequalities between the sexes, reforms of harsh prisons and the decline of poverty. "Modernity" or "modernization" was a key form of the idea of progress as promoted by classical liberals in the 19th and 20th centuries who called for the rapid modernization of the economy and society to remove the traditional hindrances to free markets and free movements of people.
In the late 19th century, a political view rose in popularity in the Western world that progress was being stifled by vast economic inequality between the rich and the poor, minimally regulated laissez-faire capitalism with out-of-control monopolistic corporations, intense and often violent conflict between workers and capitalists and a need for measures to address these problems. Progressivism has influenced various political movements. Modern liberalism was influenced by liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill's conception of people being "progressive beings". British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli developed progressive conservatism under "one-nation" Toryism. In France, the space between social revolution and the socially-conservative laissez-faire centre-right was filled with the emergence of Radicalism, which thought that social progress required humanism, republicanism and anticlericalism, and which was until the mid twentieth-century the dominant influence on the centre left in many French- and Romance-speaking countries. Similarly in Imperial Germany, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck enacted various progressive social welfare measures out of conservative motivations to distance workers from the socialist movement of the time and as humane ways to assist in maintaining the Industrial Revolution. Proponents of social democracy have identified themselves as promoting the progressive cause. The Roman Catholic Church encyclical Rerum novarum issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891 condemned the exploitation of labour and urged support for labour unions and government regulation of businesses in the interests of social justice while upholding the rights of private property and criticizing socialism. A Protestant progressive outlook called the Social Gospel emerged in North America that focused on challenging economic exploitation and poverty and by the mid-1890s was common in many Protestant theological seminaries in the United States.
In the United States, progressivism began as a social movement in the 1890s and grew into a political movement in what was known as the Progressive Era. While the term "American progressives" represent a range of diverse political pressure groups (not always united), some American progressives rejected social Darwinism, believing that the problems society faced (poverty, violence, greed, racism and class warfare) could best be addressed by providing good education, a safe environment, and an efficient workplace. Progressives lived mainly in the cities, were college educated and believed that government could be a tool for change. American President Theodore Roosevelt of the Republican Party and later the Progressive Party declared that he "always believed that wise progressivism and wise conservatism go hand in hand". President Woodrow Wilson was also a member of the American progressive movement within the Democratic Party.
Progressive stances have evolved over time. Imperialism was a controversial issue within progressivism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly in the United States where some progressives supported American imperialism while others opposed it.
In response to World War I, progressive President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points established the concept of national self-determination and criticized imperialist competition and colonial injustices; these views were supported by anti-imperialists in areas of the world that were resisting imperial rule. During the period of acceptance of economic Keynesianism (1930s to 1970s), there was widespread acceptance in many nations of a large role for state intervention in the economy. With the rise of neoliberalism and challenges to state interventionist policies in the 1970s and 1980s, centre-left progressive movements responded by creating the Third Way that emphasized a major role for the market economy. There have been social democrats who have called for the social democratic movement to move past Third Way. Prominent progressive conservative elements in the British Conservative Party have criticized neoliberalism.
Progress -- the theory that you can get something for nothing; the theory that you can gain in one field without paying for your gain in another; the theory that you alone understand the meaning of history; the theory that you know what's going to happen fifty years from now; the theory that, in the teeth of all experience, you can foresee all the consequences of your present actions; the theory that Utopia lies just ahead and that, since ideal ends justify the most abominable means, it is your privilege and duty to rob, swindle, torture, enslave and murder all those who, in your opinion (which is, by definition, infallible), obstruct the onward march to the earthly paradise. Remember that phrase of Karl Marx's: 'Force is the midwife of Progress.' He might have added -- but of course Belial didn't want to let the cat out of the bag at that early stage of the proceedings -- that Progress is the midwife of Force. Doubly the midwife, for the fact of technological progress provides people with the instruments of ever more indiscriminate destruction, while the myth of political and moral progress serves as the excuse for using those means to the very limit. I tell you, my dear sir, an undevout historian is mad. The longer you study modern history, the more evidence you find of Belial's Guiding Hand."
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