Great Expectations: Idealism in Current Politics


As a blossoming high school freshman, I was already a strong leftist. Opinionated, oblivious, and politically charged, I thought I knew what was right and wrong and which government policies I disagreed with and why. Politics was simple. Good things that help people should happen and bad things that hurt people shouldn’t.

Although I was slightly above average in political consciousness as a young teenager, I was much further behind than I knew. I never considered that the American political system didn’t function with my logic.

I had big plans for America. I supported people who promised fast universal healthcare, huge environmental undertakings, free college, and peace above all as a foreign policy. The semantics of these plans weren’t important to me. It was the glorious end result that captured my attention and my hopes.

The 2016 presidential election was a shocking wake-up call. Suddenly, right and wrong shifted and my idealism was shattered.

Quickly, I understood that America now had to focus on controlling a political disaster, rather than pushing for a progressive future.

Although I admit I’m still learning at 16, my beliefs now encompass a healthy amount of realism and perspective.

However, this poses a problem. My drive to support progress persists, sparring often with real-world complications.

All of this leads to the age-old question:

How can we balance idealism with realism?

Idealism on the Right

No doubt, in recent times, idealism has swept the nation.

In a highly polarized environment, each side resorts to pushing ideas across to the public in hopes to capture the vote and minds of the people.

Consider the massive swing to reactionary conservatism that accompanied Donald Trump into office.

The “wall” was a wild idea. The dream of a concrete block tracing the U.S.-Mexico border enticed anti-immigration conservatives and flagrant racists alike. However, once Trump took office, the wall became more of a symbol than a work-in-progress.

But no matter.

Trump supporters continue to leave the slogan in Instagram comments and shout it at rallies.

“Build a Wall!”  provides many the illusion of protection and strength against an “enemy.”

This way, Trump succeeds in appealing to his audience by giving them the idea of exactly what they want…even if they aren’t actually getting it.

Idealism has captured the right, especially those who still support Trump, to an extreme extent.

Idealism on the Left

While conservatives struggle to maintain the status quo, progressive Democrats push for change. Often, specifics of money and possible ramifications are ignored in favor of enacting an idea as quickly as possible.

Idealism drives Democrats to dream of progress.

In a stunning example of the power of ideas, young Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won an upset in her New York primary this year. She ran on an ambitious platform of tuition-free higher education, a single payer healthcare system, abolishing ICE and private prisons, and social justice for people of color and the LGBT+ community.

At 28, she had never run for political office and ran a grassroots campaign which her opponent out-funded 10 times over.

So how did she succeed in defeating a strong incumbent?

Her idealism enraptured her community and idealist liberals all over the country. Her $600,000 in campaign funds were raised in small-dollar amounts. She continually uses social media and in-person visits to community events to spread her message and connect with constituents. When someone comes into your community and promises you solutions, especially face-to-face, those ideas become lifelines, and that hope becomes a vote.

The Pitfalls

Clearly, strong ideas and politics make a potent combination on both sides of the political spectrum.

However, in the past, heaping amounts of idealism have provided questionable results.

Take the invasion of Iraq by President Bush in 2003. The idea of a steadfast American power saving the world from “weapons of mass destruction” led to a violent intervention, now widely considered a blunder.

Many even attribute the underwhelming success of Obamacare to an imbalance between ideas and planning.

With this realization, a question arises. Is it time for American politics to turn to realism?

The problem with idea-driven politics is clear. Even with scientific evidence, people can argue that an idea will or won’t work for many reasons, especially if that idea proposes a major change to an existing system.

It’s also undoubtedly clear from the turmoil of current events, divided politics, and public demonstrations that many of our systems need work. But major shifts both to the archaic past or a Utopian, progressive future have historically not been favored by the U.S. government or populous. This country is simply not used to radical change.

Major change, social in particular, has mostly happened within existing systems, through organizations and people who are considered “safe”, “stable”, and “agreeable.”

Everything in Moderation

Idealistic organizations that strive toward large shifts in American society or government are typically shunned as a whole.

For example, during the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panther Party, armed, confident, and idealistic, was considered dangerous and radical. They adopted a more militaristic form of black empowerment, primarily aimed to protected black communities from police violence. They worked to defend against the institution, and therefore they were not widely accepted. However, Martin Luther King’s campaign of love and peaceful change reached millions and was accessible to people within the government. It was eventually impactful enough to legally raise the rights of African-Americans. King’s message blended the idealism needed to strive for a brighter future and the realism of working within the current system.

In August of 2017, far-right activists in Charlottesville raged against people of color with “white pride.” Widely, the rally was condemned as deplorable.

However, white Republican politicians regularly preach anti-immigrant rhetoric. They label immigrants of color as a danger to American jobs and culture and even support Trump’s Muslim Ban, a clear persecution of a perceived ethnic group.

This more veiled form of racism and xenophobia is popular with many Americans, and is somewhat considered a valid point of view.

Clearly, a less violent opinion on this issue is more widely accepted.

In both of these cases, “safer” opinions are generally what is acted upon on any given issue.

What about now?

Much has changed over the past year of the Trump presidency.

Many are falling back on the cliché that “desperate times call for desperate measures.”

Many still want to build a wall.

Many call for Trump’s immediate impeachment and a replacement of all cabinet members.

People in the streets demand change, and change now.

We all want a quick escape from our current problems. We all see different routes and solutions to whatever issues we see in our country and government. Sometimes, ideas become so enticing that meticulous planning and realistic thinking escapes us.

In truth, ideas inspire our country. We need them to improve our systems and to raise awareness about things that need change.

But if we rely on ideas alone, we will remain divided and disillusioned.

If we believe only our ideas will succeed, we won’t listen to those whose ideas would contradict ours.

We’ll spend so much time arguing about which future is the best for us that we’ll leave the present in shambles.

The balance between idealism and reality is delicate, but it must be reached.

As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger states best,

“The idea that we have to choose between realism and idealism is a “false dichotomy,” one must begin with an assessment of the situation as it is; if one cannot do that, one cannot make any predictions of the future… but one cannot rest on the situation as it is.”

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