By David Brooks
Oct. 16, 2014
Let’s say you came of political age during Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. Maybe you were swept up in the idealism. But now you’ve seen an election driven by hope give way to an election driven by fear. Partisans are afraid the other side might win. Candidates are pawns of the consultants because they’re afraid of themselves. Everybody’s afraid of the Ebola virus, ISIS and the fragile economy.
The politics of the last few years have made you disappointed, disillusioned and cynical. You look back at your earlier idealism as cotton candy.
Well, I’m here to make the case for political idealism.
I’m not making the case for the high idealism that surrounded that 2008 campaign. It was based on the idea that people are basically innocent and differences can be quickly transcended. It was based on the idea that society is easily malleable and it’s possible to have quick transformational change. It was based in the idea of a heroic saviour (remember those “Hope” posters).
I’m here to make the case for low idealism. The low idealist rejects the politics of innocence. The low idealist recoils from any movement that promises “new beginnings,” tries to offer transcendent “bliss to be alive” moments or tries to fill people’s spiritual voids.
Low idealism begins with a sturdy and accurate view of human nature. We’re all a bit self-centred, self-interested and inclined to think we are nobler than we are. Montaigne wrote, “If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself.”
Low idealism continues with a realistic view of politics. Politics is slow drilling through hard boards. It is a series of messy compromises. The core functions of government are negative — putting out fires, arresting criminals, settling disputes — and much of what government does is the unromantic work of preventing bad situations from getting worse.
Politicians operate in a recalcitrant medium with incomplete information, bad options and no sleep. Government in good times is merely dull; when it is enthralling, times are usually bad.
So low idealism starts with a tone of sympathy. Anybody who works in this realm deserves compassion and gentle regard. The low idealist knows that rallies with anthems and roaring are just make-believe, but has warm affection for any politician who exhibits neighbourliness, courtesy and the ability to listen. The low idealist understands that those who try to rise above the messy business of deal-making often turn into zealots and wind up sinking below it. On the other hand, this kind of idealist has a full heart for those who serve the practical work of legislating: James Baker and Ted Kennedy in the old days; Bob Corker and Ron Wyden today. Believing experience is the best mode of education, he favours the competent old hand to the naïve outsider.
The low idealist is more romantic about the past than about the future. Though governing is hard, there are some miracles of human creation that have been handed down to us. These include, first and foremost, the American Constitution, but also the institutions that function pretty well, like the Congressional Budget Office and the Federal Reserve. Her first job is to work with existing materials, magnify what’s best and incrementally reform what is worst.
The businessman might be enamoured of disruptive change, but the low idealist abhors it in politics. The low idealist liked Obama’s vow to hit foreign policy singles and doubles day by day, so long as there is a large vision to give long-term direction.
The low idealist admires a different kind of leader; not the martyr or the passionate crusader or the righteous populist. He likes the resilient one, who maybe has been tainted by scandals and has learned from his self-inflicted wounds that his own worst enemy is himself.
He likes the person who speaks only after paying minute attention to the way things really are, and whose proposals are grounded in the low stability of the truth.
The low idealist lives most of her life at a deeper dimension than the realm of the political. She believes, as Samuel Johnson put it, that “The happiness of society depends on virtue” — not primarily material conditions. But, and this is what makes her an idealist, she believes that better laws can nurture virtue. Statecraft is soul craft. Good tax policies can arouse energy and enterprise. Good social programs can encourage compassion and community service.
Low idealism starts with a warts-and-all mentality, but holds that people can be improved by their political relationships, so it ends up with something loftier and more inspiring than those faux idealists who think human beings are not a problem and politics is mostly a matter of moving money around.