- A Parable: Three Politicians
- A Fundamental Split: Idealism and Realism
- A Balancing Act: Realism and Idealism shape a nation
- Where we stand today: Everyone is Yelling and no one is listening
- A Conclusion: Where do we go from here?
A Parable: Three PoliticiansThe President walks into a bar with two senators – one an ideologue, one a realist. They grab a seat and the President orders three beers. “Alright you two, I need one of you to vote for my education bill,” the President starts, “and I know neither of you agree with the philosophy but I want to talk about how we could make this work.”
The ideologue immediately stands up and says “Mr. President I could never support this bill. It will ruin our schools and lead to thousands of uneducated vagabonds on the streets. I don’t care what you have to offer me. I am going to excuse myself from this conversation.”
The President and the realist discuss for a while. Concessions are made, but two weeks later the bill is passed, along with millions in pork-barrel spending for the realist Senator’s home state. Two years later, both the realist and the ideologue are re-elected in landslides.
A Fundamental Split: Idealism and RealismIn American politics, the primary bifurcation that is traditionally discussed is the left-right split: liberals vs. conservatives, Republicans vs. Democrats, et cetera*. Over time, a more accurate two-dimensional scale has been developed, though our political system has been slow to catch on**. But even with two dimensions, explanatory power is lacking. There exists an even more fundamental split: idealism vs. realism.
Realism is a term defined as “The view that the subject matter of politics is political power, not matters of principle,” while Idealism is the opposite: politics driven by principle. Importantly, this is not a binary scale – as may have been suggested by the parable above. Indeed, one can think of the location on this spectrum as the price of a changed opinion.
On the right side of the scale (again note: this is a completely different scale than the traditional “left-right” in politics) we have the most pure display of idealism: martyrdom. The point at which one will give up his or her life for a principle means that there is, in fact, no practical good or outcome that would allow them to sacrifice their principle. On the left side is true realism. A realist has no defined principles that he or she can’t conveniently adjust to meet immediate goals or to obtain desirable outcomes.
Put another way, one’s place on this scale defines the virulence with which one truly defends their belief system. For politicians, this is especially relevant. Our current system constantly pits ideals vs. reality, and politicians must face that decision a lot more often (or at least a lot more publicly) than the rest of us. However, we all face these choices, and we all fall somewhere along this scale particularly in terms of who or what we vote for, and in balancing what is in our own best interest versus what we deem is in society’s best interest.
Importantly, this is not a function of the traditional left-right split. The prevailing thought is that those on the far left or the far right are also the most idealistic. However, that is a grossly over-simplistic assumption. It’s one that the media and politicians play along with because it is so simple and provides a clear narrative that is much easier to sell than the truth.
In reality, the left-right scale or the more accurate economic/social 2-D plot serve purely to explain one’s idealistic values. What it does not say is how strongly one supports those values. And while more extreme beliefs tend to lead to more virulent support, this is far from a valid assumption. Another dimension is needed to differentiate someone who believes abortion is wrong but won’t vote on the issue from someone who will go and bomb an abortion clinic to “prove” it. While the focus of the series will be on the ideology of American politics, today we’ll back up and examine the idealism-realism split. These two traits are ever evolving within a population, shape how our political culture functions, and thus dictates how we, as a nation, progress.
- My mind is still boggled that most discussion centers around one-dimension when that is clearly not valid. I suppose it highlights a human desire for simplicity, but it is really inaccurate to just say someone is a “Republican” or “Democrat.” It does everyone a disservice.
- * A very large portion of the young people I talk to classify themselves as Libertarians, or socially liberal and fiscally conservative (and varying degrees of idealism). It is a sad statement about the power of big organizations (e.g. the two modern political parties) that such a movement can’t get off the ground.
- **A few things should be noted here. One, the y-axis is an again arbitrary measure of idealism vs. realism (it should probably range from -3 to 3 to align with the prior graph). Two, in reality, there is likely some correlation between extreme views and idealism. However, no such study has been done to my knowledge.
A Balancing Act – Realism and Idealism Shape a NationThroughout history, we have seen humans that fall across all ends of this spectrum make history for better, and for worse. Ghandi (as just one example) would not be a hero had he sacrificed his principles as difficulties presented themselves (or for a price as our realist Senator did). Yet the world could have been saved a great deal of agony if Hitler had operated within the bounds of realism.
When looking at who has made history, it is clear that it has taken all parts of the spectrum to bring us to where we are today. There have been cases when an inspirational ideologue is necessary to get a culture or a nation on the right track. There were also cases where an eminently practical person is the best way to drive an agenda devoid of ideology and achieve the best possible outcome.
A nifty side-effect of idealism is that it personifies risk. As alluded to above, being led by an ideologue’s agenda can bring enlightened change, or it can ruin a nation. Given a choice, a realist will always take a “percentage play” – a safe route with the least harm possible. An ideologue on the other hand will forego practical input to follow his or her ideals. This leads us away from “percentage plays” and into the realm of unexpected changes and “black swans.” As you progress further up the spectrum of idealism, the larger variance you can expect as a result of leadership because of this phenomena.
We see this play out in our own history. In many cases (certainly not all), the leaders that have had the largest impact on our path as a nation were ideologically driven. Take two – Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt – as examples. Lincoln’s stance on slavery was idealistic. Certainly the percentage play that many Presidents before him had followed was to avert the issue – realists generally don’t start civil wars. However, his views and, more importantly, his conviction in those views had a profound (and positive) long-term impact on our nation. Roosevelt had a different scenario regarding war, but faced a different type of crisis in the Great Depression. His methods for alleviation were also ideologically driven, and many vestiges of his initiatives remain today (for better or for worse – depending on your ideological stance).*
A host of others have held our nation’s highest office. Many have been great leaders. But if you look at the lasting impact (regardless of how you feel individually about the policies), the larger changes have generally come from those who had an ideological agenda and pushed it beyond what a truly practical leader might work to achieve. Whatever the view is on what is best, more ideology brings larger (in both quantity and magnitude) changes, and greater variance in the outcome.
- For the history buffs out there, who do you define as “ideological” leaders? Certainly everyone has an ideology, but who were those most driven by it? Feel free to comment, or to submit a guest article on the topic!
Where We Stand Today: Everyone is Yelling and no one is ListeningPolitical discourse within today’s main channels (congressional debate, news networks, newspapers, and political blogs) rarely recognizes or accounts for this added dimension. Instead, discussion happens in a strange and angry place where ideology is the driving force around every decision, and each action is assumed to be an indication of an ideological leaning. Based on this assumption, facts are deprioritized as facts don’t play much of a role in ideological decision making – they are deemed irrelevant.
Even more troubling is the proliferation of the ideological thought in print and blogging. Written media used to be the place where calmer heads prevailed and meaningful content was discussed. The problem is not necessarily a bias (though it certainly exists), the problem is the virulence with which views are held. As a result, you see less and less credo being given to the other side of the argument and, in many cases, outright anger or disgust being directed at them.*
This happens for a few reasons: a media bias toward simplicity and exceptionalism, overly ideological politicians and talking heads, and an undereducated and uninformed populace. Each of those causes should be recognized, but addressing them is a different issue – all three are tied to cultural issues. These factors will be discussed more in later portions of the series, but for now we note that such factors exist, and have been exacerbated in recent years.
Having that lens on politics is one of the biggest issues we face today. Instead of stories being reported with facts, facts are construed to fit pre-existing ideological biases. Former President Bill Clinton describes the issue well: “This is a practical country. We have ideals. We have philosophies. But the problem with any ideology is that it gives the answer before you look at the evidence. So you have to mold the evidence to get the answer that you’ve already decided you’ve got to have.”
That discourse is so poisonous today is a result of two idealistic groups both twisting “facts”** to fit their ideology. As a result, anyone listening to the debate can hear “facts” supporting their point-of-view, and feel very justified in their beliefs. The more justified one feels about his or her beliefs, the more virulent their belief is, and the more they rise from a practical human (somewhere in the middle of our scale) to an idealized zealot (somewhere on the right of our scale). Those who listen to only one side of the debate get brain-washed. Those who listen to both sides get confused, fed-up, angered, et cetera. Ultimately they disengage. Those left clamoring are the ideologues. When we look at a distribution of who is actually engaged in politics, we see a very different picture from our normal distribution earlier. This is where our politics are today, and it is a very dangerous place.
- Who do you think is driving the shift? Is it the media, politicians, or our culture/all of us? Feel free to comment, or to submit a guest article on the topic!
- * A “Fact” represents a technically true statement that is designed to favor one viewpoints position, which purposely and/or grossly omits other information that is relevant and likely presents the issue as more complicated than the user of the “fact” would have you believe.
A Conclusion: Where do we go from here?This article and the upcoming series will be focused on the ideological realm of the discussion, and be filled with as few facts (and no “facts”) as possible. We’re doing so for two reasons. One, a fact-based approach to governance would be boring – we’d all agree. Two (alluded to in the first), our world contains too many variables to truly know what the correct decision for a government is (though businessman and political commentator Jim Manzi has a plan for this).
We will rely on at least two fundamental statements. First, that political ideals and philosophies are inherent in any population. Second, that political philosophies are non-ordinal – we cannot prove one philosophy to be “better” than another or establish a hierarchy of philosophies.
The series will walk through a fundamental overview of our system as it stands today and take an in-depth look at the types of issues that truly divide ideologies, how philosophies differ on those key questions, and ultimately take a look at what we can do to defuse the growing zealotry within our political system.
In all of this, the true goal is loftier than determining “who’s right” – instead, it is to mitigate and reverse the shift toward the ideological extreme. This can be done by addressing those three factors mentioned earlier. If we collectively begin a detailed discussion at the right point (hopefully, that is where we are now) with educated individuals willing to invoke thought somewhere above the “good guy, bad guy” plane we see today, maybe we can change a few people’s minds. With a few people able to have meaningful political discussions, a more amicable method of discourse can spread.
I have an outline for the rest of this series and thoughts about how to bridge the ideological gulf. I certainly don’t pull my thoughts from a vacuum, but having additional voices are always good. If you want to join the discussion, comment below. If you want to add a post as a guest author, send me an e-mail.