There is a lot of dysfunction in our national politics, granted. But there must be common ground between two groups of people who at some level seek what is best for these United States. There must be something our politicians have in common beyond their sloppy, glassy-eyed adoration for burgers and baseball.
There is. Both Republicans and Democrats are acting like out-of-touch idealists when we need realists. Thankfully, they’re each delusional in a different way. If it weren’t for the glimpses of rationality coming from the other party, each would have condemned us to absolute irrelevance ages ago. But those realists are getting drowned out. We need to give them back the microphone.
Why? Because realists live compromise. Balancing competing interests necessarily makes things more complicated and less efficient. It can make things worse. Government is by its very nature an inelegant beast stumbling about collecting taxes, managing geopolitics, and seeking to create a hospitable environment for its citizens. These are complicated tasks for even the most singularly-focused, well-oiled machine. So with an election every two years, constantly changing economic and geopolitical conditions, and an extremely fickle (and under-educated) electorate, it’s incredible we’ve done as much as we have. We owe our progress to the realists.
The cycle is legend. Idealists come to Washington, where they are disappointed to learn they will have to compromise to make progress. Having spent some years learning that, the lucky ones sometimes manage to make incremental improvements to a few things they cared most about. Then, we usually replace them with more idealists, and it’s back to square one.
Republicans tend to develop realists when it comes to foreign policy and the military. Democrats tend to be realists on domestic issues, though they rarely have the guts to say so. They’re both fools, but thank goodness they’ve got each other.
What do I mean by realism versus idealism? The distinction is most commonly drawn in foreign policy and defense spending. The realist view here is that sometimes a nation needs to exercise violence to pursue its national interest. It’s messy and crude, but necessary. Of course, institutions like the UN are wonderful. They can be varyingly effective at tackling international problems. But no matter what a liberal tells you, there is sometimes sex in the champagne room. Resources need to be secured or sequestered, rivals need to be intimidated, and some people need to be killed.
Meanwhile the idealists will tell you that it’s not our right to tell the rest of the world what to do (it isn’t, but we can), that killing people is bad (of course it is), international cooperation is good (agreed), and if we could all just sit and talk about it, we could find a solution to ending war and global poverty. (Yeah right.)
The realists win out, but we need idealists to remind us what we’re fighting for. Moral ambiguities are rife, but war is necessary, as is the industry that surrounds it. They are necessary evils to be managed. Defense spending can be a good investment. Even multi-billion-dollar submarines and fighter jets. Ask any reasonable, realist Republican, and they’ll tell you.
Ask the reasonable Republican about immigration, the deficit, or abortion though, and any semblance of realism goes flying out the window. In come arguments about what is "fair," and "right," lovingly expressed with heartfelt anecdotes about boot straps and apple pie. Give me a break.
And the realist view? For example, on immigration, the reality is that people want to come into this country – they always have. Immigration drives our economy, introduces new ideas and experiences into our culture and work force, drives innovation, and dramatically benefits a free-market system. We need to find a cost-effective, reasonable way of managing it, but that may well mean that some people who got here or stayed here illegally are going to get away with it, get jobs, naturalize, and vote. Too bad.
Welfare, voter fraud, sex-ed in schools, health care, and drug policy are the same story. The Republican Party’s platform has flown off the rails when it comes to domestic policy. They’re fighting against socialism, sin, and science like they think they can win. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but as with war, sometimes we simply must confront and manage necessary evil.
Of course, nowhere is honest realism more needed than in conversations about our government’s budget and taxes, yet nowhere does it seem more absent. Depriving an economy of its single largest consumer will not spark a revival. But spending ourselves into oblivion won’t work either. Eliminating welfare is bone-headed, but so is gutting the military, abandoning NASA, or mothballing our carriers. Taxing Americans for all they’re worth is only going to foster resentment. But without taxes you don’t have government, and without government, we can’t have nice things.
We absolutely must do away with a civil discourse in which lying is easier than being frank. All of our politicians trade in delusional idealism for at least one aspect of important national policy. That’s OK. But we need to call them on it. This is just the reality of big institutions. They aren’t great, but we need them. And without realists willing to work together, they break.