Contemporary liberals find it disturbingly vogue to eschew idealism. In personal conversations I constantly find myself surrounded by friends who insist that they avoid speaking of what ought to be and focus instead on what they believe has a practical chance of actually being; Democrats in the Senate often tout “centrism” as the path toward the future because anything farther to the left is viewed as “unrealistic”; even President Obama has recently taken to proudly asserting that he is a “pragmatic”, as opposed to an abstract thinker or, heaven forbid, an outright dreamer. Even though liberals have taken control over America’s policy-making apparatus for the first time in three decades, most of them have adopted what can best be described as the outlook of defeatists who are willing to be as optimistic as their cynical mental framework will permit – they know what is ideal, but have already conceded in their own minds (and thus to the world) that that ideal is impossible, and therefore impose limitations on their own vision before their enemies have the opportunity to do so and shoot only for what they have collectively deemed to be possible.
That philosophy can already be seen to have contaminated the Obama administration. When they proposed their first economic stimulus package to Congress (weeks before Obama was even inaugurated), they did so by demanding far less in the way of funds then would be necessary to make it viable. This isn’t to say that the basic premises of the package itself were faulty; quite to the contrary, Obama’s ideas on how the economy could best be fixed were absolutely correct. The problem, rather, was that Obama was unwilling to ask Congress for the full amount of money that would be necessary to take his excellent ideas and actually make them work. He had already conceded, before Congress had even taken session, that he Congress would never grant the amount of money his program required, and so settled for something second-rate without ever having made an honest effort toward what was best. That same attitude can now be seen in Obama’s policies toward health care reform, housing relief, and even the war in Iraq, which had served as one of the central issues of his presidential campaign.
The reluctance of liberals to embrace idealism is understandable, given recent history. Although the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt ushered in an era of unprecedented accomplishment for liberals and humanitarians everywhere – from the economic reforms of the New Deal and the international peacekeeping efforts of the early United Nations to the later successes of the civil rights movement and the pioneering social, economic, and even cultural reforms of the Great Society – the failure of the countercultural movement and New Left to bring its principles to political fruition created a culture of disenchantment among liberals that remains today. The Vietnam War was brought to a close, but the lessons were never learned, as seen by our current entanglement in Iraq; the sexual and cultural revolutions were successful, but managed to trigger a reactionary backlash among cultural conservatives that has yet to receive the widespread social condemnation it warrants; the civil rights movement granted legal equality to African Americans and other oppressed minorities, but social discrimination continues to spread over society like a metastasizing cancer toward not only blacks, but Latinos, homosexuals, and women; the anti-materialism championed by the Sixties Left suffered a grave blow and has since been replaced by a celebration of greed so pervasive that even our current economic plight has failed to snap us out of it; and thanks to Ronald Reagan and his successors, the one area of undeniable left-wing progress, economic policy, has been almost thoroughly reversed, leaving the nation in a state frighteningly similar to that in which it existed before the Great Depression, and with conventional thinkers still denying the obvious lessons taught to the world by Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal.
I point to all of these examples in order to show that while I criticize the cynicism that overwhelms modern liberals, I certainly don’t condemn it. It has borne out of terrible historical circumstances, and is not only understandable, but inevitable. Yet despite the sympathy which liberal cynicism is due, it is high time that someone pointed out a truth which we can no longer afford to ignore: The cynicism that has enveloped the left, and which manifests itself in the self-imposed limitations of “pragmatism”, is itself dangerously impractical, and conversely, idealism is the only practical approach to the future.
I make this assertion for two reasons:
1) We live in an era of great consequence. This is a time in which weapons of mass destruction, ecological crises, infrastructural globalization, and continued scientific development into the very workings of the human soul all raise the stakes and exponentially increase the potential consequences, beneficent and adverse, of humanity’s collective actions. In the past mankind was spread over the earth so thinly, and with so little to connect one civilization with even its geographically closest neighbors, that virtually nothing existed which could endanger the human species as a whole or the value of the human condition itself. Such is no longer the case, and hasn’t been for nearly a century.
2) There are moral imperatives which demand immediate action, and any compromises that are made in the measures which will bring them to a speedy resolution are thus morally reprehensible. Take, to cite just one example, humanity’s ever-pervasive system of economic inequalities. The vast majority of human beings today right now have little in the way of true freedom because their economic circumstances grossly inhibit their ability to survive (such as by affording food, shelter, medical care, and other necessities), much less possess opportunities for socio-economic advancement and personal success based on their individual talents and abilities. The situation is terrible right now in the United States of America, and yet we are by and large better off than most of the rest of the world. Conservatives and naysayers like to argue that any program for economic reform has to be practical, but how do you demand slow pragmatism for the circumstances of a laid-off American worker who worries that his house will be taken away from him and his children unable to go to college? How do you demand patience from the millions of sub-Saharan Africans who must sleep each night feeling pangs of excruciating hunger, and awake the following morning with genuine fear that death may come to them if they do not find a way to acquire food? How dare any of us expect children who slave away at factories for pennies a day to understand that their plight is rendered inevitable due to abstract economic models concocted by some academician thousands of miles away? These are only a few examples (to list them all would make this blog entry a veritable encyclopedia), but the reality is that patience and “pragmatism” are luxuries reserved to those for whom worries about obtaining the necessities for survival and having a real opportunity to succeed in life based on individual merit have either never been concerns, or are at the very least a thing of their past. So long as there is one human being alive today who worries that he or she cannot have that which is necessary to survive, or that he or she will not be given the opportunity to succeed or fail based on his or her individual merits, calls for pragmatism in reforming mankind’s economic infrastructure are nothing short of unconscionable.
Like all great philosophies, every single idea behind liberalism can ultimately be reduced to a single precept. America is privileged in that it can make a rare historical claim, not merely that that precept was written by one of our own, but that our entirely nation was established as a direct result of it. That is because the entire liberal philosophy ultimately traces back to a single sentence, written by one of history’s greatest minds, Thomas Jefferson:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The right to life includes the right to all which is necessary for the maintenance of biological survival and functioning health; the right to liberty includes the ability to think, speak, act, and in every other way live in the manner of one’s choosing provided only that one’s actions do not harm others; and the right to the pursuit of happiness means that all should be guaranteed a fair opportunity to succeed in bringing their professional and other personal ambitions to fruition (and note that I said opportunity to succeed, not that all should be guaranteed actual success), with the sole factor determining success or failure being their individual merit, character, and actions.
Liberals believe that these rights should be guaranteed to all, and that “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” in order “to secure these rights”. As such, it is the obligation of all sincere liberals to demand that our government address every issue which threatens these rights for even a single human being to be entirely resolved as quickly as possible. That obligation should extend not only to economic policy (which I have already elaborated upon in great detail), but to international and social policy, for issues ranging from global warming and nuclear disarmament to maintaining a separation between church and state and legalizing gay marriage.
For those who say that we are unlikely to reach these ideals, I have two responses (it seems that I am incapable of limiting my reactions to the singular). One is that you can only hope to achieve as much as you are willing to aim for, and that lowering one’s sights only guarantees that you will hit a lower mark than that which was within your capabilities. The other is that, once again, considering the importance of the stakes and the severity of the moral crucible currently faced by humanity, idealism is the only solution that makes any sense.
I admit that this article is something of a rant, and as such not only fails to read well, but is unable to draw itself to a decent conclusion. I hope to refine these thoughts over the years, though, and someday make them into more than the sum of their parts. For now, a blog post will have to do.