On Political “Realism”

Portrait caricatureI have a lot of liberal friends who like the ideas of universal healthcare, a living minimum wage, and free higher education, but who support Clinton, rather than Sanders because they think she is more “realistic.” I’m talking about educated people, people who have spent time in countries that have these things and so have first-hand knowledge of their feasibility. Someday, these people tell me, someday we will have these things, but the country is not ready for them yet. They argue that they are being “realistic.” I would argue, however, that they’re not being realistic; they’re being idiotic. That is, their position isn’t even coherent.

Now the cynic, the cynic has a coherent position. It’s not one I like, but it’s coherent anyway. The cynic thinks everyone is stupid. The cynic says Americans will never be ready for such things because they’re mean spirited as well as stupid. They don’t want other people to have decent lives, they want people to suffer, they want it so much that they will allow that desire to override their own individual self-interest, if they only realized that the programs they opposed were in their interest.

Most people don’t realize the social programs they oppose are in their own interest and not simply the interest of masses of spectral “freeloaders,” but even if they did, the cynic explains, they wouldn’t support them because they get so much pleasure from seeing other people suffer that in their own perverse utilitarian calculations, that pleasure outweighs the pain caused to themselves by the absence of such programs.

I told you it was an unattractive position. It is at least coherent, though, in contrast to the position of many Clinton supporters. As a philosopher, I feel compelled to point out that if a person wants to achieve some goal, then he or she must take action to bring about that goal. Assuming one will achieve it without having to work for it, amounts to the view that it will happen all by itself, and that violates the principle of sufficient reason, which is the assertion that nothing happens for no reason. When the goals in question are things such as universal healthcare, a living minimum wage, and free higher education, then the action required of the person who desires to bring these things about, is that he or she vote for politicians who promise to work for them.

Believing that one day we will get a single-payer healthcare system, a living minimum wage, and free higher education even though people who like the idea of such programs are unwilling to vote for candidates who support them is not simply unrealistic – its fantastical! It’s a kind of supernaturalism, like the belief in Santa Claus. Clinton won’t support such things, no mainstream Democratic political candidate will support them, but we’ll get them one day anyway? How? Via the agency of the Good Healthcare Fairy? Santa Living Minimum Wage? The Free Higher Education Bunny?

Is Sanders’ problem that he doesn’t have a flowing white beard and flaming hair? Would Clinton supporters who profess to be liberals then recognize in Sanders the messiah for whom they appear to be waiting, the politician who will not have to fight an intractable Congress, but will be able to command it to do his bidding, like Charleton Heston commanding the waters of the Red Sea to part?

Wow, talk about “unrealistic”; that’s outright delusional. Why isn’t Richard Dawkins going after these people? They’re every bit as irrational as religious fundamentalists, if not more so. There’s a kind of bizarre logic to fundamentalism, but I don’t see any logic at all to the position of most Clinton supporters, except, that is, for the ones who are Republicans and who view Clinton as the best of a sorry field of political conservatives.

It’s hard to tell exactly what has gone wrong with the higher cognitive functions of Clinton supporters (the ones who purport to be liberal, I mean). Does the irrationality stem from an inherent inability to see the incoherencies in their own position? Or does it stem from a fear that if they actually support Sanders and he doesn’t win (either the nomination or the presidency, it doesn’t matter), that people will laugh at them? There is hardly anything more shameful in the U.S., after all, than losing. Even cheating is smiled at indulgently if the cheater can manage to win.

Winning is everything. It doesn’t matter that an enormously persuasive case has already been made that Sanders would have a much greater chance than Clinton of actually winning the presidential election, there is still a chance he might not. On the other hand, you can’t really lose if you support Clinton (except in the eyes of people who actually know how to think), because even if she loses you can always claim it was because of sexism!

That’s what happens when politics becomes so partisan that it’s indistinguishable from a sporting event. But then I’m not being fair to sports. I know die-hard fans of particular sports teams who are capable of acknowledging when their teams are performing badly, as well as of analyzing why and what they need to do to improve.

So there we are, either Clinton supporters are cowards, people whose self esteem is so low that they will allow their fear of being laughed at to override their higher cognitive functions, or they’re irredeemably stupid and are incapable of seeing the incoherence in voting for someone who opposes things they profess to want, while persisting in believing that we will one day get these things anyway, without having to vote for a candidate who promises them.

It’s rare that the realism of purported “idealism” stands out so clearly as it does in this election. If people want things such as a single-payer healthcare system, a living minimum wage, and free higher education, then they’re going to have to vote for candidates who support them, rather than for candidates who oppose them. It’s as simple as that.

(An earlier version of this piece appeared in Counterpunch, on 22 February 2016.)



10 responses

  1. You say that, somehow, there exists an artifact attesting that Bernie sanders would win against the Republican candidate. Really? Bernie is a flavor-of the-month, a beneficiary of a beyond-stupid election cycle.
    How many bills has Bernie ever sponsored that have won in the hideous, faith-based corrupt freakshow known to C-Span viewers as the Us Senate? None. He’s never accomplished a single initiative in his days in that preposterous assemblage of mountebanks.
    So now he’s going to smite the trillion-dollar Mafia arm entrenched as the US “health” insurance industry? He, from the land of a few bed-and-breakfasts and a few more cows, is going to take the corporate monster out of the corrupt US higher education racket? He has never done anything even remotely in the same zip code as approaching these monumental tasks but give the same lectern speech against the “billionaires,” , and yet somehow it is “rational” to think he’s a few votes away from the White House?

    • First, I did not say Sanders was “a few votes away from the White House.” If only that were true. I said that if people want things such as universal healthcare, a living minimum wage, and free higher education, then they are going to have to vote for candidates who support these things rather than for ones who don’t. Voting for a candidate who champions things one believes in is what philosophers would call as “necessary” but perhaps not “sufficient” condition for attaining those things.

      Second, whether Sanders could effect such changes is irrelevant to the issue of whether he is “a few votes away from the White House.” You are the one who conflated those two unrelated issues, not I. That said, I am flattered that you took the time to read the piece as well as to write to me about it. Thank you for that.

  2. So glad that other philosophers are working on this. To doctor a William James quote, “My first act of political free will is to believe in political free will.” And yet we encounter of these ‘realists.” What do you think, now, of people like Nate Silver? The methodology seems solid, but the extent to which people take him as a prophet is disturbing. I think his early dismissal of Sanders, once promulgated, could have an enormous influence on fulfilling the prophecy. How could it not have?

    On a related topic (and I discovered you talking about this at least 4 years ago), I am thoroughly sick of the ‘throwing away your vote argument.” I find that pointing out the simple issue — that theoretical votes do not belong to anyone, and that “A vote for Stein splits the Clinton vote” is equivalent to “A vote for Clinton splits the Stein vote” — is still not enough to overcome the dumb ‘realism.’

    • I’ll confess to you that I don’t know much about Nate Silver. According to my husband, however, despite the fact that Silver claims to be able to predict election results, his record is pretty bad. “I can’t believe he’s still around!” My husband exclaimed just now.

      Yes, the “wasting your vote” argument is a pretty bad one. I’m hoping that people are starting to realize that.

      Thanks your your comment!

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