What is a ‘progressive’? Part 2

By DJ Kelly February 24, 2010

This post is part 2 in an ongoing series trying to define “what is a ‘progressive’?” in advance of Reboot Alberta 2. You may view part 1 here.

To define “what is a ‘progressive'” I would recomend we start with defining ‘progressive’. But where do you start when trying to define ‘progressive’? To get the ball rolling, we might as well start with the basics: the dictionary definition of the word ‘progressive’ courtesy

pro·gres·sive [pruhgres-iv]


1.      favouring or advocating progress, change, improvement, or reform, as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are, esp. in political matters: a progressive mayor.
2.      making progress toward better conditions; employing or advocating more enlightened or liberal ideas, new or experimental methods, etc.: a progressive community.
3.      characterized by such progress, or by continuous improvement.
4.      (initial capital letter) of or pertaining to any of the Progressive parties in politics.
5.      going forward or onward; passing successively from one member of a series to the next; proceeding step by step.
6.      noting or pertaining to a form of taxation in which the rate increases with certain increases in taxable income.
7.      of or pertaining to progressive education: progressive schools.
8.      Grammar. noting a verb aspect or other verb category that indicates action or state going on at a temporal point of reference.
9.      Medicine/Medical. continuously increasing in extent or severity, as a disease.

10.   a person who is progressive or who favours progress or reform, esp. in political matters.
11.   (initial capital letter) a member of a Progressive party.
12.   Grammar.
a.     the progressive aspect.
b.     a verb form or construction in the progressive, as are thinking in They are thinking about it.

Of course if we are going to examine what ‘progressive’ means I  suggest we also must examine its root word: ‘progress’.

prog·ress [n. prog-res, -ruhor, especially Brit.proh-gres; v. pruhgres]


1.      a movement toward a goal or to a further or higher stage: the progress of a student toward a degree.
2.      developmental activity in science, technology, etc., esp. with reference to the commercial opportunities created thereby or to the promotion of the material well-being of the public through the goods, techniques, or facilities created.
3.      advancement in general.
4.      growth or development; continuous improvement: He shows progress in his muscular coordination.
5.      the development of an individual or society in a direction considered more beneficial than and superior to the previous level.
6.      Biology. increasing differentiation and perfection in the course of ontogeny or phylogeny.
7.      forward or onward movement: the progress of the planets.
8.      the forward course of action, events, time, etc.
9.      an official journey or tour, as by a sovereign or dignitary.

–verb (used without object) pro·gress

10.   to go forward or onward in space or time: The wagon train progressed through the valley. As the play progressed, the leading man grew more inaudible.
11.   to grow or develop, as in complexity, scope, or severity; advance: Are you progressing in your piano studies? The disease progressed slowly.


12.   in progress, going on; under way; being done; happening: The meeting was already in progress.

Perhaps just as importantly we should take a peek at the etomology of the word ‘progress’. It comes to us through the combination of two latin words: from progressus, pp. of progredi “go forward,” from pro-“forward” + gradi “to step, walk,” from gradus “step”.

What can we take from these dictionary definitions and the etymology? Well, setting aside the political definitions, it appears almost all the definitions revolve around “moving forward” or “improvement” or “advancement”. But is this all there really is to being a ‘progressive’? So long as you keep moving forward or improving things you are a progressive? If so, then almost everyone in politics can be defined as ‘progressive’ because they all are trying to improve their constituency.

On the flip side of things these definitions might prove to be very helpful in getting at what a progressive is, but they are not very helpful when trying to define what is progressive. Surely not all progress is good progress.

Take a look at the history of warfare as an example. We went from fighting with our hands, to sticks, to knives, to guns, to bombs, to the atomic bomb. Fighting with your hands, knives or even guns is one thing, they are all targeted at one individual or a small group, but once you get to the atomic bomb, we are talking about having the ability to destroy the entire planet in a matter of minutes. Is this progress? According to the preceding definitions of ‘progress’ and ‘progressive’, yes, having the ability to destroy the world is progressive.

The same can be said for technology. During the college bowl games, I remember seeing the “e-coin toss” and thinking, did we really need to make a coin flip electronic? Really? What’s wrong with a coin? It’s simple and effective; with little room for improvement. What a waste of time and resources. I’m sure you too can think of a half dozen examples in your own life where ‘progress’ was made seemingly only for progress’ sake.

Clearly there has to be more to being a ‘progressive’ than just progressing.

And clearly this is where we depart from the traditional political definition of ‘progressive’ as well.

I think this is where the three pillars of being a ‘progressive’ – interconnectedness, understanding and adaptability – my group at the first Reboot Alberta came up with, may come into play. Through using these these tools I believe we can find a better definition for ‘progressive thinking’, which, in my mind, will allow us to make decisions that are more wise than the traditional definition of ‘progressive’ allows for.

Tomorrow I will continue in this vein by beginning the exploration of the interconnectedness ‘pillar’.