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Progressive Friendly Fire

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CommonDreams.org is among progressive groups calling for a confrontation with President Obama. Five reasons why we should think twice.

CommonDreams.org, the prominent progressive news and opinion website, recently sent an email fundraising appeal with the subject, "It's time for a confrontation." Signed by Executive Director Craig Brown, it begins, "When Americans voted overwhelmingly for 'Change' last November 4th, I, like so many of you, was hopeful." After a rundown of his post-election expectations, Brown proclaims, "but frankly, seven months into the new administration, my hope is fading."

Brown quotes author and environmental activist Derrick Jensen: "We can follow the example of those who remembered that the role of an activist is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much integrity as possible, but rather to confront and take down those systems."

As a lifelong progressive, I find this position exasperating. And what worries me is that more of my progressive friends seem to be adopting this position.

Here are five reasons why I hope cooler heads will prevail.

1. We won. We're responsible, not entitled.

We successfully contested our own party's establishment and thrashed the GOP because of the Obama campaign's basis in movement politics. It was the real deal from the bottom up. Nobody imposed it on us -- we opted in and created something miraculously inclusive and diverse. No single group can claim, "we got him elected." Not big donors. Not party insiders. Not African Americans. Not labor. Not movement progressives. No one is entitled. Everyone is responsible.

2. Sabotage is not dissent.

Brown is absolutely right that, unlike conservatives, progressives tolerate and even welcome dissent, but "taking down the system" is not dissent. It's a form of sabotage. It's also the easy way out, not unlike the way that launching a cruise missile is easier than diplomacy. Dissent should include reasonable alternatives, and is taken more seriously if it comes from people who are in the game, not just sitting on the sidelines.

Confrontation in this context only serves to create resentment among all the people who are working so hard inside the government to make change happen. What those people need is a helping hand, not a slap down. I would urge CommonDreams.org and its network of 180,000 progressives to figure out how to mobilize broader support for the big ideas Obama has put on the table.

3. Americans are renting our ideas month-to-month. They haven't bought them yet.

America liked Barack Obama, but they had come to hate Bush-Cheney-DeLay Republicanism even more. Obama was able to reach new constituencies by articulating a pragmatic brand of progressivism. He didn't seek to persuade Americans that our values and policies were morally superior. He persuaded Americans that, with him at the helm, they just might work.

While the president rebuilds "the system," he must deliver results along the way. I'm sure the White House would, like many of us, prefer to rebuild the machinery first - like the banking and health-care systems -- but that is not a luxury we enjoy.

4. Protest-by-default is seductive but deadly

There is a long and glorious history of progressive victories rooted in oppositional protest movements. It is seductive to conjure and reapply those feelings of righteousness in the service of the effort of the moment. But those movements existed in their own time and context, and there is a real cost when that tradition is misused.

This tendency was one of the things that Obama made a call to "turn the page" on. When he talked about getting past the dorm room debates of the 1960s this is what he meant. Stick-into-the-gears activism pulls us back into the ideological clashes of the culture wars, and to the tail end of the Clinton years when there was such disdain between centrist Dems and liberals that they could barely stand being in the same room together. Progressive ideas fare much better in the pragmatic frame of the Obama era.

5. Compared to what? That is the question.

By temperament, progressives tend to be idealists, but dreams that come true are built on the ground, not in the sky. We should always strive for better, but we can't let the perfect eclipse what in reality is extraordinarily good -- maybe as good as it gets in 2009 America.

Let's put ourselves back four years ago when we were reeling from all the talk about a permanent Republican majority. Imagine we were told that in 2009 we'd have a progressive, African-American president who came of age in politics as a community organizer, who was being compared to Roosevelt in terms of his early accomplishments, but who, after seven months, had not yet revamped America's energy policy. Could progressives imagine being in that situation and losing hope?

I admire CommonDreams.org's devotion and passion. At the same time, I am dismayed by what I view as an appeal to our lesser instincts as progressives.

Bill Clinton used to quip that in affairs of politics Democrats want to fall in love, while Republicans want to fall in line. I'm not advocating for blind loyalty. I'm just saying that progressives should treat this presidency as a marriage, not a passing love affair.