From “Yes We Can!” to “Why Bother?”

Rescuing Idealism from Today’s Political Cynics

Barack Obama energized an entire generation of young people in 2008 with his declaration, “Yes we can!” “HOPE,” “PROGRESS” and “CHANGE” emblazoned the iconic red and blue posters portraying the confident young Obama gazing optimistically into the future.

But as those posters began to fade in 2010, young people began to lose their Obama-fueled hope. According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, the national youth voter turnout plummeted from 49% in 2008—a record-breaking figure—to a mere 21% in 2010. Traditionally, congressional midterm elections have lower turnout among all sectors of the electorate, but the 2010 youth turnout was even lower than that in 2006 (24%).

Many of the young people who voted Obama into office now appear complacent about the Republican victory and reluctantly accept the President’s move towards pragmatic compromise with his opponents. Obama’s pragmatism first sparked discussion after his decision to abandon the “public option” during the debate over health care regulation, and became especially noteworthy in December, when he chose to sign legislation extending the Bush-era tax cuts, abandoning his campaign promise to “spread the wealth around.”

Some in the college media have bemoaned Obama’s compromise, but complacency has been the norm. Michael Rietmulder, writing in the Minnesota Daily, claimed that “effective governance is going to come by means of compromise and sacrifice, requiring lawmakers to acknowledge that not every aspect of their agenda is attainable.” Even before the election, Leo Schwartz and Jesse Michels of the Columbia Spectator agreed: “Americans, and specifically young Americans, have unrealistic expectations. . . . Even if Obama had all the answers, he never would’ve been able to turn all these ideas into concrete laws.”

Why have the President and a generation of his supporters gone so quickly from “Yes we can!” to “Why bother?”

One explanation might be that nobody wants to fight a losing battle for long. Obama had his chance. He implemented significant elements of his agenda (notably, major new health care regulations) but met with stiff opposition. Certainly many Democrats were demoralized by the opposition and lost interest in fighting it.

But why were Democrats so easily demoralized? Obama was not elected primarily because of his concrete policy proposals, but because of the idealistic moral passion he projected during his campaign. Ordinarily, fervent commitment to moral ideals does not fade so quickly. Had Democrats been more motivated, they could have turned out in greater numbers and overcome Republican opposition.

Perhaps Democrats were so easily demoralized because their commitment to the President’s ideals was never very serious to begin with.

When Tea Parties began to challenge Obama’s vision of “progress” and label it as socialistic, his defenders reacted with sarcastic contempt. One piece in the New York Times characterized the charge as dropping the “S-bomb,” or “whacking the S-beast.” How unhip, they seemed to suggest, for anyone to think that a politician today would support such an “extreme” ideology—or any principled ideology at all. Asked to characterize his political philosophy in a word, Obama jumped aboard the anti-ideology bandwagon by responding, “No, I’m not going to engage in that.”

The same attitude was on display at the October “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” billed by organizers Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as appealing to Americans who reject “extremism” on either side of the political spectrum. In his closing speech, Stewart criticized anyone who would “polarize” political discussion in America, and celebrated those who accomplished “impossible things, every day” by virtue of “the little, reasonable compromises we all make.”

More recently, a thousand people in New York attended the founding meeting of “No Labels,” an organization dedicated to putting aside political affiliations in order to “work together and find practical solutions to our nation’s problems.” Echoing Stewart, No Labels proclaimed that “ideological extremism . . . [is] toxic and destructive to creating a space where the best ideas can be found and enacted.”

Many Americans, then, are jaded about the very idea of political ideology. They view ideology as “toxic” or, if they’re like Stewart or Colbert, downright laughable. They regard it as toxic because they believe it encourages dogmatism, “inflexibility,” and “divisiveness.”

What is ideology? It is simply an organized set of ideas or beliefs, a basic point of view, a set of philosophical principles offering answers to life’s major questions. Consider one example: if you think that slavery is evil and freedom is good, you have the seeds of a political ideology. If you think that an individual’s secure possession of property is good and theft is evil, this is another seed. If you then understand that what unites these two positions is a commitment to an individual’s right to a life free from interference by others, you have a political ideology in full bloom.

If you openly advocate this ideology, you will necessarily be “polarized” from and in conflict with those who advocate its opposite. The American Civil War was nothing if not an ideological conflict. Ideology led some Americans to evaluate slavery as evil, and to pursue abolition (and even war) with idealistic passion. Were abolitionists being too “extreme”? Were they “inflexible” and “divisive” to treat their opponents as evil? If the answer to both questions is yes, we should wonder if these concepts can be used meaningfully to criticize.

Fortunately, the debate about slavery has long been settled. But serious struggles over political principles remain. Obama’s pragmatism may be growing, but there is no question that Democrats’ principles push them in the direction of increased government control over our economic lives. Many Americans, by contrast, believe that a principled commitment to individual freedom implies a commitment to economic freedom, a value that Obama’s policies threaten.

We cannot escape the questions of principle that underlie current debates. Does freedom include economic freedom, or not? Do individuals have inalienable rights, or not? Must individuals sacrifice for the “greater good,” or not? Answering these questions means thinking about ideology.

There is no reason to think that Americans today can “work together and find practical solutions to our nation’s problems” without ideology, i.e. without reference to basic principles. We cannot cure a disease without identifying its underlying causes. And if we face economic stagnation, we cannot eliminate it without identifying its underlying causes or the fundamental basis of long-term economic prosperity. A genuine commitment to principles doesn’t involve unthinking dogmatism. Rather, it requires observing the evidence and thinking clearly to identify the underlying causes.

Not only in politics, but in life in general, we all rely on principles even if we don’t realize it and even if we don’t form or apply them consistently. As the philosopher Ayn Rand observed,

“You have no choice about the necessity to integrate your observations, your experiences, your knowledge into abstract ideas, i.e., into principles. Your only choice is whether these principles are true or false, whether they represent your conscious, rational convictions—or a grab-bag of notions snatched at random, whose sources, validity, context and consequences you do not know, notions which, more often than not, you would drop like a hot potato if you knew.”

If we must choose our principles, which should we pick? Which are rational, true, and effective in life? We cannot begin to answer these questions even about political principles, let alone others in the space of this column. But when so many Americans drop their devotion to Obama’s ideals so quickly, there is reason to think that they have begun to realize the meaning and consequences of his ideology. Obama’s ambition to extend the role of government in every aspect of the economy had become increasingly clear. If Americans dropped this ideological hot potato so quickly, was it because it was “too idealistic”? Or was it a reaction to the nature of the ideals themselves?

Sadly, too many Americans would rather follow Jon Stewart’s example of political cynicism than do the difficult mental work of formulating and advocating clear principles. Today’s political trend reflects, perhaps, a broader cultural phenomenon. More and more, the symbol of our age has become the modern-day hipsters, who proclaim their ideal of opposing consumerism and materialism, but who can’t live without their American Apparel or iPhones. It’s alright to compromise like this, they think, provided that they embrace materialism ironically. And so we see the proliferation of kitschy eyewear, 1970s mustaches, Aston Kutcher trucker hats—and TV opinion programs masquerading as comedy.

Whatever ideology and ideals we decide to live by, we should take them seriously. Irony is good for comedy, and comedy is the spice of life—but it is only the spice. Life is too important an adventure to be viewed with ironic distance.

To live life seriously, we need ideas, and to understand our ideas we need ideology. Ideology integrates our ideas in a way that helps us see what it means to take them seriously—the essence of idealism. As Americans lament ideology, they undermine their capacity for idealism and allow a discouraged cynicism to take its place.

Can we take ideas seriously? Yes we can—and must.

Valery Publius is a teacher living in the American South.

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Valery Publius is the pen name of a teacher living in the American South.