OPINION: Is Progressivism in Philly (Still) Dead?

It's more than just bike lanes and pot, people.

Teddy-RooseveltSo if you haven’t seen it yet, the April issue of Philly Mag features a great profile of Jim Kenney. The piece, written by Liz Spikol, highlights the inherent tension in a mayoral candidate with rowhome roots and an array of union endorsements who has also simultaneously become “the darling of Philadelphia’s progressive movement.”

Kenney as Progressive is a fair characterization, if you’re using the checklist that stands in as progressivism in Philadelphia these days: Pro-bike. (Check.) Pro-LGBT equality. (Check.) Feminist. (Check.) Pro-pot decriminalization. (Check.)

It’s no wonder the young liberal “beer-garden crowd” is taken with the man: These are more than just liberal ideals—they’re modern, crucial steps in the right direction for Philly. No doubt. But are they really new? Are they progressive, in the classic sense of the term? Maybe they are, if you judge by the calcified standards of the Philadelphia political realm.

Still, the word “progressive” evokes different things for different people. (For me, progressivism means more than just progress: It means meaningful social or political reform, modernization, radical new ideas, and so on, and so forth.) If you have any sense of history at all, then you probably also associate progressivism with the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th Century. The movement (which started on a community and city level, it should be noted) aimed to tear down just about every old, institutionalized form of inefficiency, blight and inequality, while gutsy civic types with big ideas (and big cajones) rebuilt everything from schooling to park systems to tax structures. You know — the really big stuff.

All of which makes this particular political moment in Philadelphia seem rather … small.

I don’t mean this as commentary about Kenney in particular. Rather, it’s about us as Philadelphians, and what we mean when we say “progressive.” Because it’s not just semantics: It’s about what happens when certain things that have become a sort of shorthand for Philly progressivism — things like, say, bike lanes, and beer gardens, and pop-up parks, and a commitment to basic liberal tenets—starts to stand in for actual progressivism.

So okay, there’s some debate and deliberation about improving on–reforming, even–the status quo here and there. Some talk about looking into PILOTS to bolster city coffers. Some rumblings about getting more money for the schools from the state. Some nods toward new job creation. But with respects to Peggy Lee, here: Is that all there is? This is progressivism in Philly?

Look, I don’t mean to be glib. Social reform like LGBT-friendly legislation and public space transformations and bike lane creation ARE progressive moves (especially in Philly politics). But these things are also like the pretty, blossoming branches of a movement that should go much deeper, down to the twisted, tangled roots of our city.

Who’s attending to the roots in a progressive way? How can we even talk about progressivism as a movement, or progressive leaders as an entity, when nobody in a leadership position (and nobody vying for THE leadership position) seems to be applying in any meaningful way that fresh, radical, modern, gutsy, reform-oriented perspective to our schools, so many of which are crumbling? Or to our poverty level, which is appallingly high? Or our buildings and bridges and infrastructure, which are literally collapsing on us? At this juncture, the closest thing we’ve heard to a potentially progressive plan for tearing down the old and trying something new has been Sam Katz’s school funding plan. (And he’s not even a mayoral candidate. Yet.)

Arguably, there have been a few progressive flashes in this campaign: Kenney’s pre-K proposal seems gutsy. Anthony Williams’ call for a municipal bank to get capital to small businesses in poor neighborhoods is interesting. Nelson Diaz has a progressive-seeming plan for gentrification: he wants to require that 20 percent of all new apartment units be affordably priced. But these things are just a start—more branches, in a way. What Philly cries for in this election and in its leadership is someone who’s willing to think big, tackle big, start over in a big way, and seek big progress on big fronts. That is real progressivism.

If we’re going to settle for less than that, we should at least find a different word.