Jonah Goldberg: Intelligent Idealism

This appears in the February 6, 2012, National Review, in the little box inset in “This Week.” Thought it would be worth your while.

Conservatism is a distant cousin of cynicism.

The traditional conservative believes that man is fallen, sinful, flawed. Hence we understand that man cannot leap out of history, cannot begin at Year One, cannot create a heaven on earth. This does not mean conservatives cannot be idealists; it simply means we cannot be utopians.

Our political system is decidedly anti-utopian, which is one reason conservatives love it so. It assumes that even the most decent man will act out of self-interest. The Constitution doesn’t deny men’s flaws, but relies upon them. It sets ambition against ambition, faction against faction, in the hope that the negatives will cancel out and leave room for wisdom. So while no informed person would call our Constitution cynical, most would agree that its idealism is tempered by the sometimes lamentable constraints of reality.

The Left’s problem is that it has no limiting principle to its idealism. It may deny that it is utopian, and some liberals even recognize the folly of utopianism in the abstract. But those same liberals will not tell their idealistic cohorts to abandon utopianism. It is too useful motivating those who do not so much think their way through politics as feel.

For instance, Barack Obama ran for president insisting that his chief opponent “is not other candidates. It’s cynicism.” He affirmed, “I am confident that we can create a Kingdom right here on earth.” Upon securing the nomination he declared that his triumph proved that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” and that we would look back on this moment as the time “when we came together to remake this great nation.”

How’s that working out?

President Obama and his defenders claim that he has failed in his efforts to begin an era of new politics solely because his opponents refused to grant him everything he wanted. The hubris of this argument is breathtaking The president‘s expectation that in a properly functioning constitutional democracy he would win every battle bespeaks an ignorance and an arrogance the likes of which we haven’t seen in the Oval Office for a century.

And now our president has become a champion of cynicism. His triangulating proposals are designed entirely to conceal his desires and priorities. He’s streamlining government, promising savings that amount to 0.0081 percent of the 2012 budget. He once campaigned on unity and idealism, and is now in every breath spitting the bile of demonization and disunity.

Conservatives know better. Because we never dreamed of making a perfect society, we’ve come to appreciate a good society. The utopian protestors occupying thither and yon look at this good society and curse it. President Obama plays them for fools, telling them that all that stands between them and their objective is his political “enemies.” The bacchanalia of idealism has given way to the hangover of cynicism, and the president instructs us to alleviate our suffering by making the perfect the enemy of the good.