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Progressivism is a general political philosophy based on the idea of progress that asserts that advances in science, technology, economic development, and social organization, can improve the human condition. Progressivism originated in the Age of the Enlightenment in Europe out of the belief that Europe was demonstrating that societies could progress in civility from barbaric 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 from Europe to across the world.

Modern Progressivism emerged as part of a response to the vast social changes brought by industrialization in the Western world in the late 19th century, particularly out of the view that progress was being stifled by vast economic inequality between the rich and the poor, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism with out-of-control monopolistic corporations, intense and often violent conflict between workers and capitalists, and lack of effort by governments 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.

Progressive stances have evolved over time. In the late 19th century, there were progressives who accepted scientific racism on the grounds of it having a scientific basis; however, this was later discarded as a result of racism being demonstrated to not have a scientific basis. Stances towards imperialism were initially divided amongst progressives 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 American 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.

The term "progressive" is today often used in place of "liberal." Although the two are related in some ways, they are separate and distinct political ideologies and should not be used interchangeably. In the U.S. in particular, the term "progressive" tends to have the same value as the European term social democrat, which is scarcely used in American political language.

The reason for this confusion in the U.S. might partly be rooted in the political spectrum being two-dimensional; social liberalism is a tenet of modern progressivism, whereas economic liberalism (and its associated deregulation) is not. According to John Halpin, senior advisor on the staff of the center-left Center for American Progress, "Progressivism is an orientation towards politics. It's not a long-standing ideology like liberalism, but an historically-grounded concept... that accepts the world as dynamic."

American progressives tend to advocate progressive taxation and oppose what they describe as the growing and negative influence of large corporations. Progressives are typically in agreement on an international scale with left-liberalism in that they support organized labor and trade unions, they usually wish to introduce a living wage, and they often support the creation of a universal health care system. In the United States, liberals and progressives are often conflated, and in general are the primary voters of the Democratic Party which has a "large tent" policy, combining similar if not congruent ideologies into large voting blocs. Many progressives also support the Green Party or local parties such as the Vermont Progressive Party. In Canada, liberals usually support the national Liberal Party while progressives usually support the New Democratic Party, which traditionally has had provincial electoral success in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, and since the recent federal election, in Quebec.[1]