THE BLOG
01/04/2011 09:24 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Do Progressives Have True Grit?

Two of the stories I covered last year for HuffPost are leading me to the depressing conclusion that if this country gets what talk radio wants, it'll be the progressives' fault.

This is not my favorite conclusion. I believe in the common sense of the American People -- I can see you rolling your eyes, you know -- and to my mind that faith, touching as it may be, was rewarded when said People repudiated the Republicans in 2008.

But the two stories I'm talking about -- a series of pieces on the ruckus in Sidney, N.Y. when the town supervisor tried to force some local Muslims to dig up their cemetery, and about the opposition to gas drilling, also in New York -- showed me something I really didn't want to know.

Given their head, rank-and-file progressives, over and over, demonstrate that they imagine their entire duty as citizens ends when they vote -- and then don't vote. It's hard to avoid the impression they're more interested in complaining about the right wing, or how things are going in the country, than getting their hands dirty and slugging it out.

Even worse; if they win anyway, they immediately fall on each other in small-minded, petty displays of jealousy that drive away any citizens who really do want to take on the right wing.

Meanwhile, right wingers may seem to progressives to be living in an alternate universe; but they're adults, willing to work for what they want. And they disagree behind closed doors.

If you were a bookie handicapping this race, who'd get the short odds?

When the Sidney town supervisor, Bob McCarthy, moved against the local Muslims -- without a scrap of law on his side -- the good people of Sidney rose against him, did right for the besieged Muslims, and forced him to back down. In the months that followed, the little town's anger at Mr. McCarthy only seemed to grow, and Mr. McCarthy's days in office seemed to be numbered.

It was a display of American democracy at its finest -- a demonstration that fed my belief that the right wing has no real support in the electorate, has gone way over the line, and will be pushed back by an outraged citizenry who at bottom are fair-minded and tolerant. The whole thing could have been scripted by Frank Capra.

Silly me. After two months of raucous town meetings that attracted more than a hundred townspeople each, the town took advantage of the holidays and cold weather to drop the whole thing. At the last town meeting, 15 people showed up.

What Sidney really wanted was for it to just go away, and that's what happened. Even a fresh example of what Mr. McCarthy is made of -- he successfully forced out the County's very successful DWI administrator on obviously phony grounds after a year of loudly announcing he'd do just that -- produced no more than a flutter.

Widely-held opinion in Delaware County was that Mr. McCarthy's two DWI arrests -- which were common knowledge -- had more to do with his loudly announced determination to fire the administrator, Lisa Barrows, than the budgetary reasons given to the local press. Aside from everything else, DWI programs in New York are funded by DWI fines, not taxes; and, as it happens, Ms. Barrows' program was considered the most successful of its kind in the state.

But if the anger at Mr. McCarthy had had any real bottom, Ms. Barrows' dismissal would have been another good reason for getting rid of him. Instead, the story disappeared after a few days. This proved that Mr. McCarthy's rope-a-dope strategy was smart -- he took the licking, and he's still ticking. Unless the state's Attorney General responds to petitions and does something, or the Muslim group moves in court to remove Mr. McCarthy from office, the whole thing shows every sign of evaporating.

If that does happen, it will only prove what one long-time observer of Sidney politics told me -- that as far as people like Mr. McCarthy and his political friends gaining power goes, "This is what happens when people don't bother."

The reason Mr. McCarthy got elected, said this person, was that the citizens of Sidney just assumed the Republican candidate would win, and didn't bother voting. This went double for the local Democrats, who, in a deeply traditional area, nominated a black woman writer to run against Mr. McCarthy, a conservative businessman -- as if they were really living in Brooklyn. Even the Democratic candidate, Dawn Rivers Baker, sees it that way.

But depressing as that is, the gas drilling story was worse.

In this case, the drama that played out demonstrated more clearly than I want to know that the only thing worse than progressives losing, is progressives winning.

The forces that have been fighting gas drilling in New York have done great things. From a standing start 18 months ago, they raised public awareness of the environmental dangers of gas drilling. Eventually, they forced former Governor David Patterson to issue Executive Order 41, which derailed the gas industry drive to approve what many considered a hopelessly inadequate set of new regulations, and sent the entire process back to the drawing board.

The last time the state drew up a regulatory system like this, it took 12 years. And since E/O 41 widens the scope of the inquiry, and the forces are lined up to raise every possible objection to gas drilling in the new round of negotiations, there's every reason to believe this process will take at least as long, meaning that as a practical matter, gas drilling is dead in New York for the foreseeable future.

That's no mean accomplishment. So how did the anti-drilling coalition respond? First was a gush of announcements that they'd been betrayed -- the coalition wanted Patterson to ban drilling altogether; so they figured anything less meant Patterson had betrayed them, even though he'd promised them nothing.

Then, when people realized they'd won, they immediately turned on Walter Hang, the guy who'd correctly understood the situation, devised the winning strategy, marshaled the troops, and won the battle. They took credit for it themselves, minimized everything Hang had done, and bad-mouthed any suggestion they owed him anything.

As it happens, Hang is a seasoned political pro who was perfectly willing to play realpolitik hardball with New York's leadership, while most of the coalition, passionate and devoted as they were, seemed to this observer to be lost in fantasies about how clever slogans and public rallies would win the day against a trillion-dollar industry..

It reminded me of Tom Lehrer's song, The Folk Song Army, when he said that Franco "... won all the battles, but we had the good songs." Voltaire, on the other hand, knew that "Victory belongs to the big battalions."

That reality didn't stop the anti-drilling coalition from acting like the popular kids in high school taking credit for a victory by the audio-visual squad. And you've got to ask yourself: If this is what people can look forward to, why would anybody sign up to fight with progressives?

Why, indeed? Politics is the real world, folks. Eighty percent of winning is showing up. And there's nothing special about these two examples -- it's more the other way around.

If most progressives can't be bothered getting involved, and drive away many of the people they need to win anything, who do you think is going to win a contest with a bunch of people who believe in what they're doing, work hard to get it, and -- most important -- put their hands in their pockets?

Yeats had this right when he said "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity." But what does this bode for our country?