What makes a progressive anyway?

The bedrock of Minnesota’s Democratic voter base will head to the polls next week. As voters in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth prepare to cast ballots in their local elections, we’ve seen a progressive arms race break out.

Candidates with all sorts of different policy positions and political ideologies are vying to be “the progressive.” Even Minneapolis Works, a right-wing political action committee of downtown business leaders, promotes its candidates as progressive. The silly season has arrived.

While it’s good news for progressives that so many are vying for our attention, now is the time to ask: What makes a candidate a progressive?

In our two-party system, a party label is not enough to identify a candidate’s core beliefs and policy positions. As voters, we should start by examining how a candidates’ values match their actions. Racial equity, social and economic justice, interdependence between people and our environment, and sustainability are core to who we are and what we believe as progressives.

As voters, we should investigate a candidate’s vision and seek out those who aspire to make our community a place where all people live in joy. Progressives are about more than mere survival. We’re about joy. Actual joy.

A minimum wage of less than $15 an hour is still a poverty wage. Without access to paid sick time, affordable housing and transportation, no one can get ahead, let alone fully enjoy life.

A progressive also understands that deeply ingrained inequities stand in the way of this pursuit — especially if a person is of color, if that person also happens to be a woman, lives in a rural area or is low-income.

A progressive knows that the barriers to progress are not partisan — they’re American. Structural racism, gender oppression and unfettered corporate power are older than our country and have always been a part of it. These structures and systems of oppression that drive inequity are deeply entrenched in our culture, media, schools and both political parties.

The way to spot progressives is by their work to tear down these structural barriers and build up the power of regular people. A progressive’s work is to achieve the unfulfilled promise of American democracy: a country where all people have power to affect the decisions that impact them, where everyone is in and no one is out. This includes fighting for voting rights and local democracy, and curbing the influence of hidden money in politics.

But a progressive doesn’t only want people to have a louder voice in public decisions; a progressive also wants to change who benefits from those decisions. This is what equity is all about.

Our choices for progressive candidates are those who will change power structures in the long term, while fighting like hell to make a difference today. Candidates who connect a vision for a better world to the difficult and demanding pragmatism of making meaningful change, even when those decisions are unpopular with the wealthy and powerful. This is why a real progressive is bold — pushing the envelope of what is possible today because we know so much more must happen.

The Star Tribune Editorial Board recently made its endorsements in local races in Minneapolis and St. Paul. In almost every case, it chose candidates who sound progressive but are not endorsed by people’s organizations. In the case of its endorsement of Jacob Frey for Minneapolis mayor, talking a good game while cautiously following the lead of others is not leadership, let alone progressive leadership.

While the progressive arms race rages on, we urge voters to do their research on the candidates. Find out who has endorsed them. Look for candidates whose messages matches their work. Most important, vote on Election Day.


Dan McGrath is executive director of TakeAction Minnesota.