Idealism Has a Place in a Pragmatic World

The idealist is often perceived as something akin to a knight of Arthurian legend: a man of exceptional virtue, who sidesteps the pitfalls of temptation by strength of will alone, whose fallible mortality is made adamant by his steadfast belief in certain eternal truths.

He not only espouses virtue; he personifies it.

But there is a fine line between Galahad and Don Quixote, and more often the idealist turns out to be not a chaste Adonis with a judicious heart and piercing mind, but an addled husk of a man: a man sadly deluded about the nature of reality, whose aspirations exceed his talents and whose supreme hubris is thinking well of the callous recipients who throw his sacrifice back in his face.

The failure that seems to inevitably loom at the end of a quest for perfection, and the heartache that accompanies it, are generally reason enough to brand idealistic endeavors unpragmatic. An unrealistic end begets lesser goals, equally unattainable because they are gauged against the abstract potentiality that is the ideal and are therefore misaligned with the reality of the here-and-now.

Compromise. Go along to get along. We are, after all, all of us flawed, so why yearn for that which is impossible: the perfect. So runs the maxim of the pragmatist. Nowhere is this so evident as among the political class.

Idealism in politics is a complicated affair, particularly in any nation that does not wish to “immanentize the eschaton,” or, even if it does, leaves individuals free to determine for themselves what Eden looks like within the context of their respective private lives.

But idealism in politics, which by definition involves action oriented around advancing the good of what is held in common, has an uncertain toehold. Good is a matter of perspective; it demands the question, “Good according to whom?”

Democratic systems must strike the proper balance between deference given to the will of the people, the virtue of which is often determined less with reference to any empiric metric of right and wrong and more in terms of the coalescing of a majority around a particular viewpoint.

The proper balance between deference given to the will of the people, the virtue of which is often determined less in reference to any empiric metric of right and wrong and more in terms of majoritarian opinion, and some more durable standard of values in which law is rooted, to hold to account corruption in government and private activity alike, must be struck.

The history of political rulers past is the history of another kind of idealism: of leaders imbued with an infallibility, both of intent and action, designed to shepherd along a populace too ignorant to create for itself the conditions conducive to its own welfare.

Then, as now, perspective mattered, but it was not a matter of mediating between the relative merits of arguments laid out by differing factions, but of the interpretation of events shifting around the actions of a leader.

Machiavelli controversially counseled that a truly wise ruler, while knowing that integrity is a quality that endears men to a leader, will recognize his long-term interests — wherein the long-term stability of his reign lies — are not served by strictly adhering to agreements if changing circumstances turn the outcome from a positive to a negative.

He adroitly argued, “Therefore a wise lord cannot, nor ought he to, keep faith when such observance may be turned against him, and when the reasons that caused him to pledge it exist no longer. If men were entirely good this precept would not hold, but because they are bad, and will not keep faith with you, you too are not bound to observe it with them.”

This, in effect a pragmatic argument, yet one that also advances a certain strain of idealism. In it, the leader is incapable of doing true wrong; it is not he who has erred, but external situations beyond his control which have shifted and which, if the political good is to be attained, demand a shifting of course. Such a line of reasoning is not a far departure from modern political pragmatists who counsel that expectations be reevaluated to ensure outcomes that meet a desired end.

But such reasoning is also a rallying cry and a crutch for dictators. It puts the emphasis of political actions not truly on reason, but on the judgment of the man in power. It is his power of discernment, not that which he scrutinizes. He is the single solid point around which all else revolves, like a sun reaching out and plucking at the planets that revolve around it to keep them forever in the same orbital position.

Men, we know, are fallible. But does this mean their intellection must be?

The connection between character and leadership, which Machiavelli does not discount but suggests may be adroitly manipulated to the advantage of the ruler — and thus the ruled — has a home in American politics in the idea that character matters.

The decision to run for public office effectively eradicates the distinction between public and private action so crucial to placing limitations on government. The whole of a prospective politician’s past is laid out for scrutiny. His business dealings, his treatment of his spouse, his affiliations with civic organizations: all these are examined to contain potential alarms for voters. Has he engaged in shady business ethics? He might be open to bribery. Has he strayed from his marriage vows? His word cannot then be worth much. Has he made friends of dissidents whose opinions seem contrary to public morality? He may be vulnerable to subversive influence or extortion.

And, in the individual’s judgment, there may seem very good reasons for disqualifying a candidate from competition for one’s vote. But men are more than one event. They are an amalgamation of interests and actions, of thoughts and feelings. And they are dynamic creatures; what side of an individual’s constitution is brought out in a given situation is often hard to predict. This is perhaps the greatest argument against unchecked power. But is it also an argument for clemency in judging a man’s character?

If rule of law is to exist, if statutes are to be applied equally to all who find themselves in similar predicaments, then there must be something of unchanging substance at the heart of government, some ideals or principles from which the application of law never deviates. And, since government requires men to enervate its organs, this means there must be men who cleave to these ideals and principles as to a lodestar.

The innumerable imperfections of man’s character that manifest from time to time are not a reason to discount idealism, but rather a reason to espouse it enthusiastically. The perfect may be something that exists outside the all-corrupting plane of nature in which man exists, but that does not mean something of bedrock virtue should be cast away completely. To attempt to bring perfection too completely to the natural world is folly, for it involves allowing the judgment of one man to subvert all others. But to completely expel it has the same effect, for it gives relativism and perspective free reign, allowing the loudest voices to pervert the course of public action.

Just as American government marries majoritarian will to obdurate principles, so too must pragmatism be tempered by idealism.

As a creature of will, man’s judgment may lapse from time to time, but this is a reason to redouble the efforts to cleave to an ideal, not to throw in the proverbial towel. Defeatism — the idea that perfection is out of reach and therefore not worth pursuing — condemns man to a reality of complacent mediocrity. It is not accepted in private enterprise, so why should it be the standard in public action? One man has the right to surrender ambition in his own life, but he has no such authority to make that judgment where the affairs of others are concerned. And politics inherently involves the affairs of others beyond the self.

The variability of man’s nature, and the innumerable factors which contribute to its richness, is a boon to private life and a curse to public life. In private life, the diversity of men’s skills allows for achievement in a bevy of industries. And free exchange allows one to benefit from talents another possesses; the lives of both are enriched.

But in government, such differences are a fissure in the foundation of public institutions. The sort of efficiency that generally connotes stable government is undermined by bickering over whether a particular course of action is right or wrong and, more abstractly, whether it is undertaken for the right reason. This kind of dialogue, however, is a useful check on runaway government; it stymies efforts by certain partisans to capture public institutions and put them to their own purposes. It prevents Machiavelli’s ruler, whose infallible judgment possesses the moral and physical force to railroad any opposition it encounters, from rising to power.

America needs idealists, even if their records of personal conduct are imperfect. Those who espouse ideals but who err in action demonstrate a desire to hold themselves to a higher standard. They deserve censure for their lapse in judgment, as, since thought precedes action, it speaks of a lack of sufficiently rigorous engagement of the mind. The overwhelming odds of failing to bring one’s desired end into being speaks of true independence of spirit. It is not any expectation of material gain that motivates the idealist, these being difficult to attain, but an internal need to assuage one’s conscience, to know at the end of the day that one has sought to the fullest capacity the greatest of which one can conceive. This is a standard of conduct that ought to be lauded, not spurned, in political life.

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All content protected by copyright. The Politics of Discretion, 2016.
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