News

What's Wrong With Idealism?

In a private audience with current american rhodes scholars at Oxford University last May, President Clinton urged us to battle the cynicism that threatens the American political system (not to mention his presidency). A journalist asked one of my classmates how the audience reacted. "People approved," she said. "But after all, he was preaching to the converted. We've already shown that we believe in idealism. That's part of the reason we're here."

She was right. In America, where idealism is the yardstick used to judge a generation's collective virtue, Rhodes scholars are its masters. They are chosen as much for their public-spiritedness as for their academic prowess. Not all want to run for elective office, but the bulk think their talents can be most fully realized through public service. Like Clinton, my peers believe earnestly in government. Above all, they believe in themselves in government.

Coming from a generation that has been called materialistic and cynical, such idealism should be refreshing. Yet after a year at Oxford, it makes me uneasy. The commitment to government my colleagues express so passionately is rarely linked to a clear vision of what government should do. Earnestness substitutes for ideas. I'm afraid that the idealism for which Rhodes scholars receive praise is less an antidote to the problems of American politics than a symptom of them.

Idealism is not a political ideology. It refers not to a set of ideas that guide action, but rather to the passion, faith and commitment that such ideas inspire. When idealism springs organically from a compelling and coherent political agenda, as it did during the civil-rights movement and World War II, it amplifies and ennobles.

It is this heritage that Rhodes scholars take particular pains to resurrect. Yet the political convictions that produced the idealism of the 1940s and the 1960s have eroded. Lacking a vision of political service in pursuit of specific ends, the rhetoric of idealism allows Rhodes scholars to justify and celebrate political service per se. Idealism masks an ideological vacuum.

Take poverty, an issue that resonates strongly from the 1960s. The perceived failure of the war on poverty has undermined the belief in direct government intervention. Today's Rhodes scholars want to revive the spirit of the war on poverty, but have no adequate defense of its policies, nor a clear alternative. They are repelled by the Reaganite critique of the Great Society, yet they have absorbed it. Unable to refute it with conviction at the level of policy, they are more likely to respond at the level of feelings: society needs to care more than it did during the Reagan/Bush years. It should be more idealistic.

On foreign policy, a similar dynamic exists. Rhodes scholars invoke the passion of the "wise men" generation that saved freedom in Western Europe. Yet that generation's passion was centered on a set of ideas: that the United States could embody the hopes of other peoples and intervene, by force if necessary, to see them fulfilled. The Rhodies believe in democracy, but they have absorbed the Clinton generation's skepticism about America's ability to intervene on its behalf. They relish the false debate "Do we support democracy?" while avoiding the real one: "Can the United States bring democracy to other countries?" As with poverty, the core ideological conviction has been lost.

What remains is idealism without ideas. It offers no guide to political action and creates the illusion that important decisions can be taken without conflict. The result is a failure of leadership. In the Clinton administration, principles enshrined in high rhetoric, such as America's commitment to Bosnia's national survival, are frequently abandoned when their cost becomes apparent.

In such circumstances, idealism is not only inappropriate; it is wrong. By celebrating all government action, it effaces moral distinctions and allows people to escape responsibility for their decisions. Judgments about whether one is doing good in government give way as participants are congratulated for believing in government regardless of what it does. The crucial moral question for any public servant -- when to opt out -- is lost. During the Clinton administration's abdication in Bosnia, only Marshall Freeman Harris and a few lower-level State Department officials answered this question with courage. They resigned.

Would my peers and I do the same? I'm not sure. During Clinton's time at Oxford, he at least believed deeply that the Vietnam War was wrong. He wouldn't have served in a government that carried it out. I'm not sure that I can identify any such issue for the Rhodes scholars that I know. Their commitment to the political process is stronger than their commitment to any particular policy. Rhodes selection committees and other bestowers of prestige have rewarded them for this without recognizing the danger.

Battling cynicism, as President Clinton encouraged us to do, is a worthy endeavor. But you cannot restore faith in government without a clear idea of what government should do. This is surely the lesson of last November's elections, when many voters said that the best thing for government to do would be nothing at all.

The Clinton administration's challenge is not to rediscover idealism, but to recommit to ideas. Americans know that the administration believes in what its doing. What they don't know is why. If a convincing argument is made, idealism will come naturally. If not, it will remain synthetic.

Our generation's challenge is similiar. It is easy for Rhodes scholars to decry apathy and cynicism. Mindless enthusiasm, however, is the flip side of the coin. Nonvoters and career politicians reinforce each other. Neither serve democracy well.

Rather than condemning or celebrating government service, young people should serve an independent vision, whether in government or in opposition to it. For Rhodes scholars, this means accepting that a life in politics can as easily do harm as good. For those older, it means lauding young people for the substance they bring to politics rather than for the eagerness with which they seek to enter it.

Editor's Pick