Democrats & Liberals Archives

Idealistic Vision & Practical Considerations

I’ve always been an idealist. At times that’s led to naivete, but it scarcely means that I can’t weigh practical concerns in reaching conclusions. Indeed it is never necessary that idealism be naive. Martin Luther King Jr was extraordinarily effective because of his ability to predict the practical outcomes of group actions he endorsed, while never losing sight of the idealistic vision, which was the underpinning of the changes he espoused.

It strikes me that a very common course is for people to follow their ideals early, but after getting burned one or more times, to become cynical and start to favor practical courses of action over idealistic ones as a matter of policy. The world very much needs pragmatists skilled in predicting outcomes, but when pragmatism becomes the goal, and idealistic vision is mocked as naive, then pragmatism loses its point altogether.

It is my intent to present the ideal and ask "Why not?" Sometimes there's a good answer, but even then keeping a vision of the ideal gives us a yardstick against which to measure the various outcomes - short of the ideal - which are within reach. After that it is all cost/benefit analysis, but proximity to ideals needs to be kept as a highly desired benefit, else we stray down a random road without much meaning.

In politics, the tendency is to think of the political extremes as ever harkening to their ideals, while moderates and centrists favor pragmatism. Certainly, whether you agree with him or not, Kucinich is a candidate of ideals, while Lieberman in contrast is a pragmatist. Nader and the Libertarians both focus on ideals, though differing ones. It is not always the case, however, that centrism implies a lack of idealism. McCain has been described as a radical centrist, and I think his hallmark is his usual refusal to compromise ideals, which is why he is so appealing to many across the political spectrum.

In Bush and Kerry we have two candidates who try to play it both ways. I would put Kerry more heavily in the pragmatist camp, though he can point to his idealistic youth as perhaps underpinning his current philosophies. Bush in contrast started out practically, using his family influence to gain political stature. Now that he has been President, though, his stubborn persistence on a course, once started, can be seen as a refusal to compromise ideals, misguided though some of us believe them to be.

In judging candidates, my first consideration is to what extent I believe that they share my ideals. Since, once they are elected, they must operate in a complex political environment, it makes sense that I question how effective I believe they might be. It seems that I rarely make it to that second step, since the first step is usually pretty decisive. I'm not going to vote for someone who will effectively implement programs contrary to my own ideals. It's also difficult to predict effectiveness up front for anyone who is not an incumbent.

Posted by Walker Willingham at May 31, 2004 4:07 PM