Sancho's Sorrow: Why Political Realists Are Overshadowed in the Age of Idealism
Americans love our Don Quixotes.
As a nation founded on the principle of rugged individualism, our country has always had a soft spot for those who dream big, much like the protagonist in Miguel de Cervantes' famous Spanish novel. From early settlers to pioneers to 20th-century immigrants, the United States has always advertised itself as a home for those with grandiose ideas. The names Rockefeller, Ford, Walton, Gates, Jobs, and Zuckerberg have become synonymous with success. We gauge power by financial success and we see those who have achieved this success as living proof of the American Dream. At a time when there are new startups debuting every week, our country continues to applaud those willing to risk everything in pursuit of their dream.
But while we as Americans salute those with an idealistic vision of what is possible, we often overlook those with more concrete, stable ideas. Behind every Steve Jobs is a Steve Wozniak, grounded in both what is possible AND what is realistic. These are the kind of people who are considered "buzzkills" and are often criticized for daring to speak the truth at a time when it is much more fun to imagine the impossible. The Steve Wozniaks of the world are never considered "idea guys" because their ideas are often small and practical rather than large and theoretical. While their idealistic peers often have their head in the clouds, these pragmatic realists are working behind the scenes, making sure that the details of the everyday operation aren't being neglected in the pursuit of perfection. Without their commitment and dedication, the entire journey would be over before it began. They are modern-day Sancho Panzas, riding along with their idealistic partners and refusing to get caught with their head in the clouds.
And yet in America today, we still overly value the idealist rather than the realist. Nowhere has this become more apparent than in our current political arena. In the span of eighteen months, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton faced two men with extravagant ideas. While one advocated for breaking up the banks and free health care, the other one advocated for a massive southern border wall and an end to ISIS. None of these ideas were anywhere close to realistic and yet, these ideas appealed to tens of millions of everyday Americans. In these ideas, Americans came to believe in the impossible rather than the realistic. It didn't matter that Bernie Sanders couldn't explain his plan to break up the banks or that his single-payer health care plan would require a tax increase of hundreds of billions of dollars. It didn't matter that Donald Trump would never convince Mexico to pay for his wall or have a better strategy than the generals in defeating ISIS. No, what mattered was that these Americans heard these ideas and began to believe they were somehow possible.
They weren't and Hillary Clinton knew this.
But like any true realist, Hillary Clinton was not only overshadowed for her lack of fantastical ideas but was also belittled for the abundance of practical policy positions that she did have. She was criticized for wanting to build upon the success of the ACA. She was criticized for wanting to gradually raise the minimum wage rather than advocating a universal $15-per-hour policy to be enacted right away. She was criticized for not pandering to West Virginia coal works by telling them their jobs were never coming back. She was criticized for wanting debt-free college rather than free public college for all. She was even criticized for "over-preparing" for the first presidential debate. Like Don Quixote's faithful sidekick, Hillary Clinton's stout, realistic vision of the world was bypassed by the flimsy, unrealistic vision of foolish old men.
Unfortunately, this is America's MO. Even today, as Donald Trump upends America's leadership position in the world, there are still millions of American voters chasing political windmills. At a time when the Affordable Care Act is caught in the Republican crosshairs, none other than Bernie Sanders has now introduced a single-payer bill that will supposedly cure all the ills of the American health care system. Never mind the fact that the plan would cost $1.4 trillion dollars a year or that it has been called a "delusional promise", there still exists large swarths of American voters who honestly believe a bill like this has a possibility to magically pass, even with a Republican-controlled House, Senate, and White House. While the Hillary Clintons among us see another DOA piece of legislation written by Bernie Sanders, millions of Americans have renewed hope that single-payer health care is right around the corner.
And yet, when the legislation inevitably does die, there will be the desire to find somebody to blame. Because we can't blame Bernie for this impending fiasco. Like the legendary Don Quixote, Bernie is the visionary and we must accept his vision of the world, regardless of how realistic it may be. The Democratic Party has tried for a half-century to reform American health care but it is not until Bernie's version ultimately fails that we must place blame. While the realists among us know exactly how this will end, the idealists have their heads too far up in the clouds to see the ground directly in front of them. It is a ground that is not politically fertile to advance the cause of single-payer health care in one sweeping piece of legislation.
Hillary Clinton knew all this and more. Realists like her know what they know because they study historical patterns and trends. They know what has worked and what hasn't. They know which way the political winds are blowing. They know where the current political will is and where it needs to be. They know which fights are worth fighting and prioritize those fights based on the current political party in power. All of this might not seem invigorating. It might not seem "sexy." But political realism is grounded in reality. It is how the world actually is rather than how one envisions it to be. It is a vision that doesn't revolutionize the world, but instead efficiently and effectively gets things done.
And it is a vision of the world that should take priority over the inept idealism of an aging White man who has been chasing windmills for his entire political career.
Like what you read? Chip in, keep us going.