This post isn’t exactly about politics, per se, but let’s be honest, my posts were getting dry and middle of the road anyway. I need to start spicing them up. I noticed a digression from my observations and theories into safe comments about current events. My intention was to be realistic, honest and original. One thing that I’m constantly fighting is a growing cynicism. It’s not only cynicism but also the constant battle between idealism and practicality. This is a topic I find particularly fascinating. Not only as someone who loves Aaron Sorkin’s writing but also as someone in a profession that requires strict attention to the line between “doing what’s right” and “making it work” in the real world.
Anyone interested in politics, law and government service the way I am, faces this same decision many times throughout their career. I’m struggling with how to choose a career path that I enjoy, can believe in and that utilizes my strengths too. The last thing anyone wants to do is take an under-paid, over-worked public service job only to be rewarded with cynicism and frustration. Yet, that seems to be a realistic possibility as I’m often reminded by my private sector friends. What I’m looking for is a job somewhere between the two- I can work for something I believe and also make a concrete difference in people’s lives. (There’s that safe, middle-of-the-road trait coming up again).
The truth is that the whole thing is really about perspective anyway. The world is so complex that any role seems quite small against the inertia of society. So what expectations are appropriate for myself and my government? I don’t want to over exaggerate this topic but it almost feels like our country is currently trying to determine the future of government’s role in our lives. Is that how others see it too? I know Brooks has recognized a similar shift lately.
Let’s look at President Obama for a moment.
Arguably, he has the most complicated application of idealism vs. practicality. He was an idealistic candidate and is (for the most part) a practical president. He also is on the cutting edge of what the new role of government is or may become. In fact, he is probably the flashpoint that took the discussion to another level in this country.
As with most things in life, the answer is moderation.
While there is a place for unadulterated idealism in the movies and on The West Wing, it is not applicable or workable in our world. At the same time, simply surviving day-to-day on practicality and pragmaticism doesn’t answer the deeper “why are we doing this?” question. But the resulting logical conclusion of employing moderation, especially in politics, is that we work hundreds of hours a week in order to make small and even inconsequential changes for the right reasons.
So, there are two solutions. Accept this version of reality, set the expectations low and just do your best to contribute in some way while hoping for the best. Or, decide that it is more important to believe in something and work endlessly pushing for the best, most ideal solution regardless of the outcome. Is that it?
A few years ago, my longtime roommate and friend, Ryan, gave me some great advice on this topic. He said if you enjoy working everyday for one purpose, working toward the same goal, then who cares what the end result is? Essentially, I was concerned about working my entire career in the name of a cause or a dream only to have it accomplish nothing or make no difference. His response was, if you enjoyed the journey along the way, then you had a fulfilling career. Done and done.
I don’t know exactly what my point is and maybe it’s as simple as this being one of the big decisions that many people especially in politics must make. I think within politics and government our expectations can get out of whack and thus, so does our measure of success. Our society is so complex and diverse that we’re unlikely to see the type of society-changing movement or revolutionary policy that many idealistic political science students study throughout American history. Therefore, planning to be the next game-changer is unrealistic because it something entirely outside a politician’s control.
I wish I had some witty and philosophical prose to end this post but the truth is that would undermine the practicality part of what I’ve been working through. I want to do the most with what I’ve got. And the goal of this country and its politicians and citizens should be no different. We all have an idealist foundation upon which we build our practical, day-to-day lives and that’s enough. We take what we’ve got and try to do the most as best we can. As individuals, as students, as professionals, as a government and as a country. After many years of thinking about this and debating it with friends and colleagues, that’s the most I could hope for and, honestly, that sounds like plenty.