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Opening Arguments

The line is where it is

Why the progressive movement should find common cause with some on the right who have problems with the NSA's extensive program of snooping on Americans:

If progressives really were to accept the principle that we should defend government no matter what it does just so some people in the Tea Party don't use that same message to attack food stamps or some other program we favor, we'd soon find ourselves with a ridiculous and counter-productive message. We as progressives would not only be defending programs that empower people, like Medicare, but also ones that oppressed people, like the government-imposed Jim Crow laws. We'd have to be in favor of wasting money on the F-22 if we advocate for a national high-speed rail system.

Reflexively backing government, no matter what it does, is not progressive. Progressivism isn't just about supporting government—it isn't now, nor has it ever been. We don't cheer on massive government subsidies for oil companies, Big Pharma, or for-profit colleges. We don't support all government spending—like the costly and illegal war in Iraq.

In fact, it's important that the movement proactively stand against abuses by the government, if for no other reason than political self-preservation. That's the difference between American progressives—for whom basic freedoms of privacy, speech, and due process have always been an important principle—and the authoritarian Left that ruled countries like the Soviet Union.

And it shouldn't have to be said, but I will: Conservative and libertarian critics of the NSA should welcome the support of progressives on the subject, despite their differences on other issues. We have a natural tendency these days, even on issues as vital as this, to look through our political prisms. Supporters of President Obama are likely to be reflexively supportive of the snooping, even though they may have been a bitter critic of it during the Bush years. Ditto for some on the right, who are looking for any reason to criticize Obama, even picking at a program they supported under Bush.

There is a line between securing the nation's safety and violating the privacy rights of citizens. It's important to talk about where that line is, and it is where it is no matter what political perspective we're searching from. I don't want to die from a terrorist bombing, but I also don't want to wake up some day in a totalitarian nightmare. I suspect most of my progressive friends, misguided though they be on most things, have the same incentives I do to make the government find and walk that careful line.