Realists versus Idealists
February 28, 2012
This just occurred to me as I was responding to a former student who labeled himself a “youthful idealist” as he objects to our politics today as being unbalanced. What occurred to me was this question: Why do we call those who play fast and loose with power and the Constitution “realists?” I mean, after all, these “realists” came to grief in Vietnam, in Cuba, in Iran, in Iraq, and now in Afghanistan, as well as in at least several examples of domestic policies, such as the war on drugs, the war on crime, the war on terror, and the war on poverty. If these guys keep proposing policies that don’t work – and I haven’t even mentioned the economy above – why do we call them “realists?” This would be like calling those humans who think they can fly and therefore jump off buildings “realists.” This does not make a lot of sense.
I believe this goes back to what George Orwell saw as a characteristic delusion on modern politicians and political thinkers, viz., their embrace, even obsession with power. They make the mistake of assuming that whither things are tending, that the current alignment of forces, of power will continue into the future, has to continue into the future. So, if the United States decides to exert its power in Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan, it will prevail because that is the way “the wind is blowing.” Besides, we have all these “theories,” like counterinsurgency theory, that “prove” that certain forms of power will work – even though they haven’t and they don’t.
That they don’t work doesn’t deter these “thinkers” and “actors” because they can always come up with an explanation for why their exertions of power failed. They make studies, a lot of studies, to show that if only we had done “A” or if only we had not done “B”, our exertions of power would have worked. But they never raise the question: What are the limitations of power?
And despite all of this we persist in calling these people “realists.” It really is quite mad.