The Left’s Destructive Self-Indulgence of Idealism

As Bernie Sanders’ campaign continues to gain momentum, a few sober-minded adults have seen fit to chide his supporters for their idealism. These members of the reality-based community claim that Sanders’ supporters are unwilling to accept that politics, as any undergraduate will tell you, is all about compromise. One simply cannot conjure up House and Senate majorities that will raise the federal minimum wage to $15/hour, make higher education free, and pass a single-payer healthcare system. Sanders, if he were to be elected president, would have to operate within the world as it exists rather than the world as he wishes it to be.

As Paul Krugman wrote a few days ago, “while idealism is fine and essential — you have to dream of a better world — it’s not a virtue unless it goes along with hardheaded realism about the means that might achieve your ends.” He warns Sanders supporters not to “let idealism veer into destructive self-indulgence.”

An article published today in The Week similarly concludes that the Sanders campaign “has proposed well-meaning but impractical plans from day one” and rebukes “left-wing commentator” Corey Robin for thinking that “indifference to political reality” is a virtue.

I have my own reservations about the Sanders campaign. In addition to some disagreements on policy issues, I think it was a fundamental error for him to run as a Democrat. I basically agree with Noam Chomsky’s assessment of the campaign itself:

[Sanders is] organizing a lot of people. That campaign ought to be directed to sustaining a popular movement that will use the election as a kind of an incentive and then go on, and unfortunately it’s not. When the election’s over, the movement is going to die. And that’s a serious error.

There are many who support Sanders and would balk at supporting Hillary Clinton if she is the eventual Democratic nominee. This is where the left’s energy should be concentrated if we have any hopes of continuing to mobilize people for radical politics after the Sanders campaign.

Whatever the limitations of the Sanders campaign and its supporters, “indifference to political reality” is certainly not one of them. Bernie Sanders has been calling for a “political revolution” intended to expand the parameters of what is possible in today’s sclerotic political system. A campaign that recognizes that political choices are hopelessly narrow and mobilizes a grassroots movement that can help expand them is not indifferent to political reality but rather fully cognizant of it.

Economist Robert Reich makes the same point in the Guardian:

I’ve been in and around Washington for almost 50 years, including a stint in the cabinet, and I’ve learned that real change happens only when a substantial share of the American public is mobilized, organized, energized and determined to make it happen. That’s more the case now than ever.

I suspect what people who accuse the Sanders campaign and its supporters of being indifferent to political reality really mean is that they are perfectly content with the political reality. Those of us who have spent our lives keenly awaiting the acclaimed benefits of today’s political reality should perhaps continue being “indifferent.”