Progressivism may be defined briefly as the core principles and beliefs of Progressives.
However, this begs the key question: what, exactly, are these principles and beliefs? A fuller definition therefore requires an exposition of Progressive convictions. As no two Progressives hold precisely the same beliefs, and as Progressive views have developed and changed over the course of time, precise definition will always be somewhat elusive. Nevertheless, a more complete definition can be offered; but this will require us to provide a bit of background.
The first citation of the term "progressivism" in the Oxford English Dictionary is dated to 1892, in England. At that time the St. James Gazette used it as a term of derision, equating it with "radicalism". However, the St. James usage doesn't suggest that a neologism was being coined for the occasion (nor does the OED say as much).
The term, therefore, seems to be of indeterminate late 19th century British origin, and originally meant something rather different from what the term has come to mean today.
It also began to be used in the United States toward the close of the 19th century. The need for a new term for reform-minded Americans was driven by the undesirably close association of the term "liberal" with the policies of President Grover Cleveland, and the association of the term "populism" with the political radicalism of the 1890s.
The need for political reforms and the broad appeal of the concept of progress was, then, rather neatly conjoined in the term "progressivism"; and initially the term had considerable appeal to what would today be considered Liberals and Conservatives alike.
All things both Liberal (in the American sense of that term) and Progressive have their ultimate origins in Rationalism. This is, roughly, the belief that only reason and evidence can properly serve as the foundation of our convictions. If we try to subsititute something else for reason and evidence, the question immediately arises how we are to justify that something else — and the moment we try to do that, we begin to employ reason and evidence.
The three great branches of rationalism are mathematics, science, and philosophy. While rationalism had its origins in ancient Greece, it was largely eclipsed during the Dark Ages, and didn't re-emerge as an influential current of thought until the Renaissance, and later during the historical period now known as The Enlightenment (which ran its course throughout the 18th century in Europe).
While many Christians had viewed the presence of humanity on Earth as deservedly miserable and fleeting (and as something soon to end in a final Judgment), the philosophers of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment opened the door to a novel and entirely different perspective: that of a better quality of life here and now.
Once that possibility began to be further examined another idea surfaced: there was no obvious reason why the quality of life could not be improved indefinitely. Here, of course, was the essence of the idea of progress.
As an abstract concept, progress might have seemed like so much empty rhetoric had not developments in mathematics and science led to numerous advances in technology and medicine that in fact, and pretty inarguably, improved the quality of life; while developments in philosophy led to the advances in governance that culminated in modern democracies — democracies that in fact, and pretty inarguably, improved the quality of life of their citizens. In short, rationalism began to deliver handsomely on its promises of progress.
The idea of progress received a further impetus with the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) . In a celebrated passage there, Darwin had remarked:
Here was a startling and unexpected argument from biology to progress; but Darwin was a naturalist, and the implications of his suggestion remained to be worked out for ethics and politics. This task was initially undertaken by another Englishman, Herbert Spencer (1820 - 1903), and later by Americans William Graham Sumner and Lester Ward.
As it turned out, the identification of biological evolution with social advancement was based on confused and ultimately false ideas; but Spencer's elaboration of an essentially inevitable and indefinite social progress proved extraordinarily popular — even among those who would today be described as conservatives. (Spencer and Sumner were both arch conservatives.) Among those most taken by Spencer's ideas was the young Englishman Winwood Reade, who popularized them in The Martyrdom of Man. Reade's book, originally published in 1872, was read so widely that it reached an eighth edition just twelve years later — shortly before the St. James Gazette would use the term "progressivism" in its pages.
But if biological evolution and social progress were entirely different things, it remained to be understood what was properly meant by social progress. There also arose in tandem issues concerning the best means of achieving progress.
The reform-minded Americans of the late 19th and early 20th centuries began, at least, from a very clear picture of what they didn't want. Perhaps first and foremost, many Americans had first hand experience of working long hours at grinding labor for minimal pay, frequently in dangerous conditions; and this included both women and children. Moreover, such labor often occurred far from public scrutiny, in meat packing plants, sweatshops, and coal mines. This was a startling development in a country where the majority of Americans had been proudly independent farmers just a few short years before.
Moreover, those who didn't have such experience first hand, soon learned of it at second hand in the magazines of the day. Pretty clearly, young children losing fingers and toes in factories didn't amount to progress.
Further shocking revelations concerned political corruption, and living conditions of poor families in cities like New York and Chicago. The business activities of men like John Rockefeller included dynamiting competitors — and having striking employees shot dead. Much of what was so clearly wrong had, in one way or another, a great deal to do with the large corporations that the industrial revolution was giving birth to.
And then there were so many other troubling matters. American women had no right to vote. African Americans were being lynched in the South. Foods and "medicines" were often contaminated or poisonous. (For additional details, see the Progressive Living Progressive Era Timeline, and Brief History of Progressivism.)
If nothing else, it was apparent that regulation of businesses and business practices was badly needed. The hands-off approach, known as "laissez faire", and extolled by businessmen, was recognized by most to be a thoroughgoing catastrophe. So while populism and Progressivism began from a strong sense of shrinking economic opportunities, they soon broadened into a more general recognition of the need for social justice; and the key obstacle to both was the large corporation or "trust".
It was precisely this tension between the desire for a better life for all, and its obstruction by the very wealthy owing to the instrument of the corporation that gave Progressivism its most distinctive characteristics. (Europe, broken up into many smaller countries, and rife with cultural and linguistic barriers, gave rise to liberalism; but European liberals never had to contend with anything quite like the titanic, monopoly-seeking American corporation.)
We are now in a better position to offer a fuller definition of Progressivism: it is the specifically American development of Liberalism and populism that seeks social justice above all else, and specifically with reference to the obstacles posed to social justice by large corporations. Though Progressives strongly support civil liberties, the "progress" in Progressivism is thought to lie, most fundamentally, with ensuring, as the American pledge to the flag puts it, "justice for all".
It should now be clear where, broadly, the differences between Liberalism and Progressivism lie. In the United States today, elections are broadly controlled by the mass media (which are themselves among the largest of big businesses) and by a system of legalized bribery (sometimes referred to euphemistically as "making campaign contributions"). In this system, the very wealthy owners and officers of large corporations are vastly better placed than most Americans to influence political outcomes. Progressives would say that many of the politicians who have called themselves Liberals — and who must daily face the reality of a need for a great deal of cash in order to be elected — have largely resigned themselves to the political corruption this entails, and have been weak critics of corporate abuses. This has led to a dissatisfaction with the term among many of those who consider themselves to be Progressives. Progressives also tend to be somewhat more populist in outlook than Liberals.
Like other forms of Liberalism, Progressivism represents a commitment to the rule of law, with governance of the people, by the people, and for the people. Progressives seek such governance as the means to the greatest good of the greatest number. Progressives would say that political and economic conservatism (but not cultural conservatism) is committed to political and economic elitism, with governance of a wealthy elite, by a wealthy elite, on behalf of the economic interests of a wealthy elite — by force, if necessary, but preferably by means of bribery, rigged elections, packed courts, and mass media propaganda. Recently, conservatives have sought an all-powerful "unitary executive" role for the Presidency, in keeping with authoritarian ambitions.