Social Progressivism vs Conservatism

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Social values matter a lot to a society, but people have different ideas about what those values are. In this lesson, we'll examine two opposing viewpoints to see where they're different and what they have in common.

Society and Politics

It's time to reform. Tradition is what matters. Injustice can't be tolerated. Our values have to be protected first. We need to change. We can never change.

If this debate sounds at all familiar to you, you're likely living in a country where people are divided on social issues. It's fairly common. Even when people agree on political matters, they often have different feelings about society, and the right way to improve it. So is it time for society to reform, or do we need to preserve the status quo?

Social Progressivism

Let's start on the left side of the political aisle, with the ideologies of social progressivism. Social progressivism is the belief that society's root issues need to be exposed, dealt with, and corrected. Social progressives are generally not content with accepting things as they are for the sake of tradition, and are willing to uproot even longstanding social traditions to create what they see as a better, fairer, and more equal society. So, if we can sum up social progressivism in a word, that word is reform.

Social progressivism championed ideals like racial integration in the 1950

Of course, what this actually means can change over time. In the early 1900s, progressives fought for the abolition of alcohol because they believed it was weakening society and promoting inequality. In today's world, many social progressives support legalization of marijuana.

So, progressive attitudes shift depending on the values of society at that time, but the root value is almost always injustice. Social progressivism is deeply concerned with justice, equality, and tolerance and is willing to forsake traditional social values and the status quo if it means advancing these ideals. In American history, this has been seen in a number of movements across the 20th century, from women's suffrage to civil rights to gay marriage. In each of these cases, social progressives challenged traditional social values about gender, race, identity, and power.


The opposing viewpoint on this is conservatism, and specifically social conservatism. While social progressives value reform over tradition, social conservatives place great faith in the status quo. From the perspective of social conservatism, it's the traditional social values of a society that hold the nation together. Therefore, challenging these values or seeking to reform them represents a threat to the security and identity of the nation. Under this belief, social conservatives historically fought against issues like women's suffrage, race equality, and LGBTQ rights.

Again, what this actually means depends on the society. In the early 20th century, social conservatives fought against the ability of women to go to college, seeing this as a threat to traditional gender norms. Today, the concept of educating women is so obvious to most people that it's a non-issue. It's become a traditional value.

Social conservatism tends to see changes to the status quo as dangerous and an assault on traditional values

To many people, social conservatism is a reactionary ideology. It's not about advancing a cause; it's about preventing change. So, it really only becomes important when someone else is trying to challenge the status quo. This is one of the big differences between social conservatism and social progressivism. Social conservatism reacts to change, while social progressivism advances change.


Social progressivism and social conservatism are generally understood as opposites. They have opposing goals and attitudes about what matters in a society and how to create the best society for the future. So, do they have anything in common?

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