SYNDICATED COLUMN: Never Trust a Realist

“There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why,” Robert F. Kennedy famously said. “I dream of things that never were and ask, ‘why not?'”

RFK was an idealist — someone who views the world as a blank slate full of possibilities.

So am I.

Realists — people who strive to make improvements within the constraints of the current situation — are important. No society can live with its head in the clouds. But we also need people who look to the stars. Where are they now?

For as long as I can remember, American politics and media have been dominated by self-identified realists to the exclusion of idealists. In many cases, the “realists” are just bullies pushing agendas with no real grounding in reality (c.f., Bush’s neo-cons). Still, some of these Very Reasonable People, as Paul Krugman calls them, have achieved incremental victories that have made life somewhat better in some respects (c.f., Obamacare).

But no civilization can achieve greatness without idealists. If you’re looking for one big reason the United States seems to be on the wrong track, try the marginalization of idealism that coincided with the collapse of the peace movement and the American Left at the end of the Vietnam War in the early 1970s. The death of every strain of American Leftism from liberalism to revolutionary communism has left us with a nation that doesn’t know how to dream big.

If we’d been like we are now when Sputnik launched, it’s a fair bet we never would have gone to the moon. We couldn’t have justified the massive budget. Or it would have died in Congress. The money would have been spent, but on stuff no one needs — invading foreign countries, tax cuts for the rich and big corporations — with nothing to show for it.

America has become too small to fail.

In an excerpt from his upcoming book that appeared recently in The Atlantic, Michael Wolraich recently discussed the tendency of Robert La Follette, the Wisconsin senator and leading light of the Progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to hold out for radical progress over incremental, less satisfying gains. La Follette’s big-picture approach — so idealistic — was, in its way, more realistic than what passes for realism today:

“He might have passed more legislation by compromising [with his enemies], but he refused to dilute his proposals. There was that stubbornness again but also strategy. La Follette took a long view of political change. In contrast to Roosevelt’s pragmatic approach, he believed that temporary defeat was preferable to compromised legislation, which would sate public demand for reform without making genuine progress. ‘In legislation no bread is often better than half a loaf,’ he argued. ‘Half a loaf, as a rule, dulls the appetite, and destroys the keenness of interest in attaining the full loaf.’ Legislative defeat, on the other hand, served a useful political purpose. He would use the defeat of a popular bill to bludgeon his opponents in the next election, and he would keep assailing them with it until they yielded or lost their seats.”

Or, as the revolutionary “situationists” who took over Paris in May 1968 cried: “Be realistic: Demand the impossible!

When I read this, I thought: Yes! Here’s a perfect articulation of the politics we’re missing.

With USA Today recently joining the chorus of media describing Barack Obama, who championed realism in the form of diminished expectations, as a failed president and a “lame duck before his time,” and Hillary Clinton once again marketing herself a yet another drab uber-realist for 2016, a reminder of La Follette’s ambitious approach to politics is especially timely.

Consider, for example, Obamacare.

La Follette would see the Affordable Care Act as a classic case of the “half a loaf” that “dulls the appetite” for true reform — in this case, socialized medicine or at least European-style “single payer.” In 2007, before Obama and his ACA came along, 54% of Americans favored single-payer. Now, thanks to a system that’s better than nothing but not nearly good enough, it’s down to 37%. Hillary Clinton is endorsing Obamacare, and has officially come out against single-payer.

Democrats defended Obamacare to liberals and progressives as an imperfect, insurance company-protecting interim measure. Obamabots encouraged libs to support the conservative Democratic president because the ACA would move America closer to the single-payer ideal.

Now we see how wrong the “realists” were. As La Follette would have predicted, the appetite for the “full loaf” of single payer has diminished, partly sated by the “half loaf” of Obamacare. Regardless who wins in 2016, single-payer will be off the agenda for another four to eight years. Obamacare killed single-payer.

Imagine, on the other hand, where we’d be if Obama had gone the idealist La Follette route, proposing a single-payer healthcare reform bill that had suffered defeat at the hands of Congressional Republicans.

Six years after the beginning of the 2008 economic crisis, several more million of Americans would be uninsured. Hospital emergency rooms, bursting at the seams as it is, would be in a greater state of crisis — which would add to support for reform. You can easily imagine Obama and the Democrats beating up “Republicans who don’t care about sick and dying Americans” on the campaign trail. Sooner or later — I’d bet sooner — they’d have to cave in and vote for this big new social program, just as they did with the New Deal and Great Society, or face oblivion.

Of course, Obama’s appetite for single payer was never ferocious. He promised a single-payer “option” during the 2008 campaign — yet never tried — but the point remains, the American people allowed themselves to be “realistic.” Which left them with far less than they might have gotten had they held out for full-fledged single-payer.

As we head into the 2016 campaign, remember what “realism” really is: the siren song of mediocrity, written by the elite to make you settle for less than you deserve.

(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and cartoonist, is the author of “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan,” out Sept. 2. Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)



  • When we’re young, we’re idealistic, we look at the great future ahead of us and dream big dreams. As we get older, we lose that vitality. We become accustomed to the way things are, and quit trying so hard to change them.

    America is no longer an idealistic teenager, it’s an old fart bordering on senility. Can death be far behind? While I will mourn her passing, it will clear the way for another youngster to come along and dream big dreams.

    • While much more energetic, dynamic and democratic states are much older than the US, their constitutions are newer.

      Don’t think of the US as a suck old man. Think of the US as an aborted fetus, or a healthy young boy attached to a 10,000-ton leach.

      • I would certainly like to think we could remove the leach without killing the patient, but I worry that it’s not … wait for it … realistic. 😉

  • I’m going to go all starry eyed idealist here and wish we had a government where when 54% of Americans favored single-payer, we got it.

    You know what I mean: democracy.

  • alex_the_tired
    August 1, 2014 2:08 PM


    With a number of issues, there’s no half-way compromise that actually qualifies as a compromise. For instance, let’s say you beat your kid with a two-inch-wide belt six times a week. It isn’t a “compromise” for you and the kid to sit down and say, well, he wants to not be beaten, so we’ll split the difference: I’ll only beat him with a one-inch belt three times a week!

    Healthcare is an example of an all-or-nothing. So is unemployment coverage. If I’m unemployed, looking for a job and still out of work in a year, it isn’t a “compromise” to cut off my unemployment. And the same if you’re hungry. “Well, how about 1,000 calories a day?”

    The funny thing though, the more you think about it, the more you realize MOST things cannot be “compromised.” When thought through carefully, you realize that if the requirement is X, settling for anything less than X simply is pointless.

    Imagine that you own a house, have a job, etc. Then you lose your job, go through all the unemployment. Now you have a pile of debt. You add it all up: you owe (mortgage and credit cards, etc.) $196,000. If you sell, every single thing you own, including the house, you can come up with $178,000. Does it make ANY sense to sell everything so that you can STILL be $18,000 in the hole? No. Why? Because you still have the initial problem: you owe people money.

    So if the carbon monoxide level has to drop to 350 ppm, what possible “good” is a “compromise” to “lower” it to 400 ppm? And the same with a credit card APR “cap” at 29% instead of 39%, or a healthcare plan that covers “some” things.

    Most of the time, when you sit there and reason it out, you aren’t getting a compromise, you’re getting shafted.

    • I can’t speak for the politicians, but I can speak as a former member of the Little Rock Classroom Teachers Association Negotiations Team.
      Never did we go into negotiations with our “bottom line” — and we expected the Administrators also to present us with proposals that they knew were unrealistic. Thus, we “negotiated”!!
      “We’ll give up this, if you’ll give up that.”
      Do you reckon it might be the same in Washington, D.C.? 🙂

    • If I didn’t know better, @Alex, I’d think you’d read The Anti-American Manifesto. Exactly so: many, many things can’t be compromised, or shouldn’t be.

  • From the referenced article: “The people who are pouring millions of dollars into Hillary Clinton’s undeclared campaign for the Presidency know what they’re buying, and it’s not good government — not even honesty.”

  • FlemingBalzac
    August 4, 2014 10:03 AM

    “yet never tried”

    Pretty much sums up the Grand Obamjandrum right there, doesn’t it? FWIW, While many people favor these socialist ideals in theory, they support it less when they find out what it costs them in both economic and personal liberty terms. It’s nothing to do with the Big O or any particular politician.

    • Contrary to the GOP’s standard talking points, socialized medicine is far, far *cheaper.*

      In our current for-profit health care system, we make billionaires out of the CEOs in big pharma & insurance companies. Those billions of dollars come right out of your pocket. The entire insurance industry produces nothing, yet sucks up billions of dollars for the salaries of rank and file workers; again, that money comes out of your pocket. You pay the salary of the guy whose job it is to deny you coverage when you need it. You pay the salaries of the extra accountants the hospital needs to hire to deal with the paperwork, you pay the salary of the extra nurse that’s necessary in the operating room to count each suture and scalpel.

      All of those people, and all those billions of dollars contribute absolutely nothing to the care of the sick and injured.

      It’s easy to understand why the GOP politicos spout the nonsense they do – they represent the billionaires and megacorporations. What isn’t so easy to understand is why the electorate believes them. Anyone who passed sixth grade algebra ought to be able to understand that X is always less than X plus billions of dollars.

      (I’m deliberately ignoring your comment about ‘personal liberty’ – that’s just too silly to bother with. )

      • I’ll run with the “personal liberty” bit:

        “because getting health care is just like slavery, except without the beatings and forced labor”

        “because free people should only have to pay taxes for a military budget as large as the rest of the world’s combined”

      • FlemingBalzac
        August 4, 2014 7:04 PM

        Russell, is being a slave better if you get to be the House Nigger? Liberty may be a little wild and dangerous but it’s preferable to captivity however genteel.

      • Fleming, unless you are proposing pure anarchy, there are going to be some constraints on your liberty. And if you have a government, it will tax you in some way or another if it is to do anything. Having to carry health insurance is essentially a tax. It hardly makes you a slave. Most states, if you drive a car you have to carry liability insurance. Does that make you a slave?

      • @ Russell –
        Good point.
        Consider also that owning property subjects one to property tax. Most people just accept this as the norm, without considering themselves “slaves” to the government. There are hundred, if not thousands, of analogous comparisons.

    • FlemingBalzac –

      Still waiting on just what slavery it is you’re referring to…

      • FlemingBalzac
        August 5, 2014 1:13 AM

        I think having to act under compulsion under threat of force (a mainstay of socialist philosophy) is a fair violation of liberty. Unless you can explain why consumption conscription – especially when in hurts more people than it helps – is freedom.

        Just answer this: Why is it that so many socialist paradises need armed guards and barbed wire to keep people from leaving? Can you explain that? Can you tell me why thousands risked life and limb to escape the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War and why thousands emigrate from Europe to the US if communism and socialism were so wonderful?

      • @FlemingBalzac: Just because a nation calls itself “socialist” doesn’t make it so, any more than calling a country a bastion of free speech and democracy does. Anyway, the societies to which you are referring, such as the USSR, never even claimed to have achieved socialism, just to be working toward it.
        Finally, even if those societies worked for most people, some people would leave or want to leave. Notice, no one ever remarks upon the Americans who leave the United States, and sometimes even renounce their U.S. citizenship, every year. Why do they do that if America is so great?

      • uhhh, Balzac – if you want to discuss politics, first you must learn the language.

        Come back when you can tell the class the primary defining difference between capitalism, socialism, and communism.

      • @ Ted Rall –
        Amen to that!
        ¡Viva México!

      • FlemingBalzac
        August 5, 2014 11:29 AM

        Ted, the difference is that in leaving the US (or any western country) no one has to brave walls, bullets and razor wire. If you want to go and the place you want to go to lets you come, you go. And it likely took more resources than most people had. If you lived in Novosibrisk there was no way you could move to another town (remember: Internal Passports) let alone leave the country except by the most extraordinary means.

        As far as labels go, well I may not have a firm grasp on which is which. The conflict is between collectivism and individualism. Whether it helps or hurts doesn’t matter. Whether the individual is property of the collective to be sacrificed at it’s whim (you know, like killing a guy falsely accused of selling loosies and then excusing it by saying “The law is the law” like that evil Rethuglikkan teabagger NYC mayor said) or whether the individual has inalienable rights that none can infringe upon. Whether it’s Stalin, Hitler (read “Those Damned Nazis” by Joseph Goebbles) or FDR, the labels don’t matter.

    • I don’t know that I would say many people ever do “find out” what socialism costs them, or even who the principal beneficiaries are.

      Trillions in fossil fuel subsidies

      Billions in technological research subsidies

      Billions in professional, scientific and engineering talent training subsidies

      Billions in agricultural industry welfare

      Trillions in global empire maintenance costs

      etc etc etc etc

      Even if people had a grasp on some of these figures, the would still lack the ability to understand that some of these are more efficient means of propping up what we like to call a market economy than others.

  • And I think this is one of your most Realistic political advice commentaries, Ted. Thanks. It’s worth noting that, though we certainly knew better, us who radicals who like your comics – Obama was sold as a man of big changes. Not a big compromise, but HOPE for real change.

    I think you have really tapped into why the left is unable to be effective with a populism. Also it goes to explain the right with no compromise until we vote for crazy strategy…. They certainly stir things up and get noticed with that, and tap into a small subset version of populism (the racist crowd populism)

    … But then I’m not very realistic. I thought it was going to be impossible for Bush Jr to get elected twice. And I’m still waiting for someone like Eugene Debs to vote for.

    • Stealing two elections is not the same as getting elected twice. (Just sayin’….) 🙂

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