Idealism vs. Realism
My mother used to have a saying posted on the bulletin board in her kitchen. It went something like the following, “If you are not an idealist at age 20 you are not normal. If you are not a realist by age 30 you are not normal.” It reflects a pattern of thought where youth is out to conquer and remake the world as a better place, followed by the realism that sets in when we encounter the necessity of hard work and living with others that do not share our ideals.
Idealists want justice, fairness, prosperity, peace, and happiness for everyone. Idealists want to change the way the world works so that everyone has an ideal life.
Then, under normal circumstances, idealists become realists. They find out that money doesn’t grow on trees, that not all people feel their ideals can be accomplished in the same way, and that many people will exploit others if they can. This may mean an industry trying to exploit workers for the sake of owners and directors, or it may mean interest groups trying to manipulate the government to take someone else’s property for a group that wants more than it has. This includes the former idealist, that decides, based on realism, that he needs to manipulate the government to obtain his ideal by redistributing the taxes of others for himself or his group.
Idealists often oppose realists, perhaps out of naivete. Realists often oppose idealists, perhaps out of selfishness or the desire to survive.
However, a society cannot function on idealism or realism alone, it needs both working together harmoniously, like yin and yang in the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism. In fact, when Imperial China in the Middle Ages was stable and flourished from 7th century to the 14th century c.e. (the Tang-Song Dynasties), there was a conscious reflection on this principle, where the Yin represented the social and moral order and ideals of Confucianism that individual people were expected to follow, and the Yang represented swift and certain justice dealt to people who transgressed the laws.
Of course, for the system to work, the laws had to reflect and support the moral and social ideals of Confucianism and could not allow corruption, impropriety, or injustice—for example when tax burdens became to heavy for people to bear. In addition, for the system to work the technological infrastructure, which included the maintenance of waterways and the irrigation system for the production of an ample food supply, had to be maintained by government leaders competent in their administration. Hence, a civil service system based on merit and ability, rather than kinship, bribery, or popularity, was an essential ingredient in the longevity of Imperial China in the Middle Ages.
The breakdown of the Chinese system eventually occurred from a failure to adapt its ideals of Confucianism to advances in technology and the rise of foreign powers, particularly Britain, that sought to trade with or colonize China. Reliance on a rigid orthodoxy developed by a much older society proved wholly inadequate to modern challenges of globalization and after a centuries long decline, the empire collapsed in 1911.
The Idealism and Realism of the American Experiment
The American Experiment, born in the modern world, was grounded in a philosophy that recognized an essential relationship between moral ideals and realism. The ideals were declared in the Declaration of Independence under the banner of the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The founders’ realism was enshrined in the Constitution that was designed to protect people from concentrations of power and the abuse of government power.
While the American founders all believed in the importance of the moral ideals enshrined in the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, many were enlightened naturalists that viewed religion functionally rater than doctrinally. They held that the role of religion in cultivating values was essential for the cohesion of society, but that which religion one joined was not essential. For example, Benjamin Franklin contributed to the Episcopalian Church, the building of a Synagogue, and to George Whitfield’s revivals. He told his daughter she could chose whichever religion she preferred, but she should go to church every Sunday. In theory, this “more perfect government” would not produce an ossified orthodoxy because its concept of separation of church and state would allow competition among religions to produce and inculcate the values necessary for social cohesion.
Hence, religion would provide the idealism of American society, and a constitutional government that enforced laws that reflected the transcendent values towards which all religions strive would provide the realism society needed to prosper. In his book The Lively Experiment, historian Sidney E. Mead called this the “heart” and the “head” of the American Revolution.
Centralization of Power and Culture Wars
Despite flawed beginnings, like the acceptance of slavery in the South (laws that did not reflect the ideals), the United States experienced unprecedented growth and prosperity when and where the values prevailed and limited constitutional government existed. The land frontier that afforded an agrarian society ample land for self-sufficient families was a blessing that cannot be underestimated, for it provided the economic equivalent of China’s technologically developed waterways that sustained a food supply that nourished all its citizens.
However, from the very beginning of the experiment people sought to maximize their positions by using the powers of government for selfish purposes. They sought to undo constitutional safeguards in pursuit of their own interests. Those watching the government were often elected by popularity, not skill. And as the nation grew, those in government as well as those electing and appointing them, placed self-interest and political gain ahead of actual qualifications.
Congress passed laws that went against the intent of the Constitution. The Supreme Court, itself swayed by social fads and industrial power, did not object. By itself, the Constitution could not guarantee the future, for it required a people capable of maintaining the principles and ideals it enshrined. If you want a good history of exactly how this decline occurred, please read my book, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, Version 4.0.
Religion in the private cultural sphere failed to adequately perform its function. Rather than competing to inculcate the more universal ideals and skills required by citizens of a democracy, some religions preyed upon ignorance, fostering churches of narrow religious exclusivism. Some people who espoused a more tolerant attitude, seeing all religions as performing the necessary role of raising good citizens,were often treated as heretics by religious zealots who would urge they publicly stand up and recant. There was a notorious persecution of the Freemasons (50 of the 55 signers of the Constituent were Freemasons) during the first two decades of the 19th century. Two governors were elected on the “Anti-Mason Party” ticket. Then came a new wave of revivals, quite different from the unifying first wave led by Johnathan Edwards and George Whitfield. This wave created a new form of American Christianity that became called “Christocentric Liberalism.” It had the hallmark of emphasizing a personal relationship to Jesus, and in many cases abandoned talk about God or the Creation. Catholics and non-Christians were often ridiculed in public schools. This wave of Christianity served to divide Americans and break down the common identity they had achieved during the revolution.
The irrationality of many fundamentalist Christian doctrines caused a secular backlash that led to amoral values, or moral relativism incapable providing the ideals society needed to sustain itself. By the 1960s, the triumph of such views as mainstream led to the eventual acceptance of the use of political power to enforce values rather than religious power to inculcate character traits in individuals that would nourish a society of freedom. The result was a gradual loss of freedom and increase of totalitarian society. For a greater understanding about how the demise of the American ideals occurred, please read my book, Philosophy of the United States: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Return to a balance of Idealism and Realism
If the United States is to end its decline in liberty, prosperity, power, and prestige, it must recapture the basic ideals and constitutional realism that made it great in the first place. Otherwise, we can expect further erosion of the economy and squabbles over political power until it experiences bankruptcy or citizen’s rebellions. It is not too late to return to these conditions without a revolution, but it requires a reeducated citizenry and skills to reprogram the government, one law at a time, to arrive at a state that I have termed “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, Version 4.0”