There is nothing idealistic about insisting on ideals that have no chance of becoming reality right now and refusing to compromise. There is no good in ignoring death, disease, hunger, ignorance and pollution while holding out for something purer in some glorious, remote future. The theoretical ideal might never be achieved and even if it could be, the lives of those who could be saved are here now. They need saving today. To insist on your ideals or principles instead of a compromise that is better than the status quo is to wager on their lives. Their lives aren't ours to bet with.
If you want to put it in stark terms, how many days are you willing to go without food for your political ideals? Are you willing to die when the odds might indicate that your ideals stand little chance of being achieved? If you imagine that you are willing to die then how many of your children are you willing to sacrifice on the same long odds? For a person facing starvation it isn't just a matter of their own life. Children are even more vulnerable than adults in most cases. If the answer is that you aren't willing to see yours die but you are prepared to take a chance on other peoples' children then you have to believe that yours are more worthy of life than people who you are betting on now. For us it's a matter of imagination. They are looking at the skulls of their children showing through their skin.
How about if it’s a question of my ideals? Should your children have to sacrifice while we wait for my ideals to be fulfilled? Would you respect me for insisting on my ideals being more important than your children’s lives? I hope not because if I insisted on that I’d be scum and I’d want someone to tell me so. Why should your ideals be more worthy of the sacrifice than those of any one else? What makes yours so special? Why should anyone respect your idealistic intransigence?
The all or nothing fixation, the worst kind of this idealism, is a form of self-satisfied preening. It has been with us for as long as one leftist could attain personal status by being the most leftist in the room. It has helped lead us into the disaster we find ourselves in today. And it has produced nothing. Nothing. Rigid, uncompromising and insistent idealism is sterile and useless in the real world. It would be better to call it what it really is, vanity.
The period of most rapid progress in the sixties was full of compromises, some clean, a lot of it pretty grimy but progress was made. The progress seems to have moved some on the left into the kind of competitive arrogance that leads to folly. The folly in this case was pretending that our individual interest groups were in a stronger position than they were. Saying so didn't make it true. We started demanding the premature delivery of the presently unobtainable and our politicians couldn't deliver. We started attacking them for not being able to do the impossible. And doing that is just plain nuts. Working coalitions with the center and among competing parts of the left fell apart. In reality was we were only as strong as the coalition based on compromises of ideals.
We all know that the other path of folly was the Vietnam war. As Martin Luther King pointed out, with spending for the war Democrats stopped being able to deliver incremental progress both for the poor and for the middle class. It might not be an accident that was when the Party began to lose support in the general population. The result was Richard Nixon and the rise of the far right. He had to deal with the old coalition and since he was most interested in playing his demented version of the great game he let it have some of the last of the great reforms it has put into law. But he also began the Supreme Court appointments that would doom many of those.
Amidst it all the rigid idealists presented the Republicans with a very useful tool. Republicans and their media, fixing on the most extreme of the radical idealists, made the rest of us into a cartoon. And the show liberals were gratified and encouraged. Even Phil Donahue who was supposed to be a liberal turned the word into a synonym for "flake". Conservatives have used this cartoon to deflect attention while they were ending the middle class, stealing everything they could for their wealthy patrons. Tricked by the media, the general population has adopted the lie to their own disadvantage, as has been pointed out many times before.
I will confess that I was taken in by idealist fundamentalism for a lot of that time. We were standing for the soundest of principles. To compromise our ideals was to betray them. Eventually, somehow, even as we faced repeated defeat, it would make us stronger to remain intransigent. Some of those hucksters have a mighty good act.
I’m not reciting the tales of the 60s for any other purpose than in the hopes that the people who will be trying to further the agenda of the left now will look on the mistakes and foolishness of my generation and not repeat them. I think that if they see them for what they were, they can avoid the stupid things we did back then. I fully believe they can do better than we did.
In the end it's producing results that is really idealistic. The impatient left has been waiting for that glorious, instantaneous millennium to dawn for way too many lifetimes. The bodies of those who could have been helped by moderate assistance during that period is a pile too big to tell. Don't bother waiting any longer, it's never going to get here that way. We've never been farther from it in our lifetimes. The futile insistence on having it all now is a block to reaching those ideals. If some progress is made, incrementally edging closer to the final goal, the ideal stands a chance. If people who aren't on the left start seeing modest success instead of our present complete failure they might just think we're on to something, especially if some of that success improves their lives. We might start building a larger coalition instead of seeing it shrinking all the time. The perfect really is the enemy of the good and it's also its own worst enemy.