Realists Vs. Idealists
"Politics is the art of the possible" -- Otto von Bismarck
There's an interesting article in today's Idaho Statesman about a man in here in Meridian who's locked in a battle with the local irrigation district over less than $5 in late fees on his irrigation assessment -- fees that have resulted in a lien being put on his house. Most people will applaud the man's actions, standing up for his principles in the face of a heartless bureaucracy. While my heart is with his quest, my mind knows that quixotic endeavors like this normally don't turn out too well. That's because I'm a realist when it comes to politics and government.
A recent post by Sara at F-words made me realize that my political realism makes me stand out in the Idaho political blogosphere. What is "realism"? To me, it's an understanding that the system can be changed -- if at all -- only incrementally, and only by interacting reasonably with those currently in power. In the grand scheme of things, there's really not that much different between the leaders of our two major political parties. Both generally believe in American exceptionalism, the superiority of enlightened capitalism, and the need for America to protect itself from those who would harm us. (While Democrats like to make noise about opposing all three basic tenets, when push came to shove the Congressional leadership made sure that all the really important stuff got taken care of this year.)
Idealism, on the other hand, comes in many forms. The most common characteristic they share is a complete belief that their cause is Good, and all those who oppose them are Bad. They tend to deal in absolutes, and as such are more susceptible to believe conspiracy theories. While a realist will recognize, for instance, that Congress agreed to the Protect America Act this year because sober statesmen on each side of the aisle recognized that a new world required new methods of fighting terrorists, idealists believe that President Bush must be blackmailing Democrats who supported the bill with information gained through illegal wiretaps.
Here's the thing -- when the powers-that-be decide that something needs to be done, they get together and figure out how to make it happen, while still trying to spin their actions to appeal to their political base. Consider the reauthorization of the Patriot Act in the last Congress. The program is opposed by those on both the right and the left -- how did it pass so easily? In cases like this, the Whips of both parties poll their members, and figure out who absolutely won't vote for a bill and who would like to vote "nay" politically but are willing to do the right thing if needed. They count the votes, and then let the people who want to (often the ones with the toughest re-election fights) vote against the needed legislation. In cases where the parties don't work together (like the recent "game of chicken" on the resolution to impeach Vice President Cheney) you end up with humorous absurdities. Idealists on the left wonder why their leaders won't invest time and reputation in removing the Administration from office; realists in the Democratic Party know they have absolutely no chance of gaining a conviction in the Senate, and that such a move would backfire on them in the next election.
So who's right -- the Idealists or Realists? Our country needs idealists; their passion is what pushes eventual needed change (the abolitionists are a good example of this). On the other hand, realists are still needed to actually do the heavy lifting of running the country -- there really are people out there who want to hurt us, and we need to have adults in charge. It's fine to have the 5% of the people out there loudly supporting Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinich and wondering why everyone else doesn't see just how "right" their candidates are, but it's up to the realists to actually select the next President. And that's just the way it is.