As many people seem to be born either liberal or conservative, so many also seem naturally inclined toward either idealism or pragmatism. Overly simplified, the pragmatist says "tell me how the system works and I'll do my best within it," and the idealist says, "let's change the system."
Though this dichotomy doesn't seem to work very well in Republican party politics (where those claiming idealism invade foreign countries), it plays a striking role in the Democratic party. In modern times Democrats find themselves choosing between an idealistic candidate, usually younger, and a pragmatic candidate, usually more seasoned in Washington politics.
This year this pattern is compounded by the idealist being African-American and the pragmatist being a woman. This startling dual breakthrough has blurred the idealist-pragmatist choice to a large degree. But it is a powerful choice none the less.
Pragmatists rarely campaign as pragmatists because who can get excited about someone who says, "I know what the deal is and I am prepared to work within the deal"? Rather, a pragmatist candidate campaigns on themes of experience, toughness, and scars of battle. Idealistic candidates have a different, some would say dreamy or unrealistic, view. The idealist says, "we've tried the old ways and they are not working." The idealist campaigns on themes of new voices, new ideas, and new leadership, that is to say a break with the past, with tradition, with conventional wisdom, and with an old and often corrupted system.
There is a strong strain of idealism even in a 220 year-old nation. It is based on hope and longing for something better. But it is also based on practical (possibly pragmatic) reasons. Power corrupts. Those accustomed to working within a system soon find it increasingly easy to game the system, to favor friends, to place personal interest above the national interest. Hence, Jefferson's radical notion of generational revolution: saddling a person with the practices and policies of the past, he argued, is like asking a man to wear the coat he wore as a boy.
Though most people who start out as young idealists become more pragmatic with the weight of years, some of us do not. Some of us cling to the hope that America can do better, that public service can be noble, that equality and justice are achievable. We don't want to settle for past policy frameworks or for half measures. We would prefer to set a higher standard and to challenge the political and social systems to struggle upward. These feelings are not voluntary. They are part of one's very character.
I hope to live to see the first woman president. But I also hope she will be an idealist, not only a gender pioneer but a bold, brave, and innovative leader who is not part of a flawed Washington system. I want America to send a powerful signal to a watching world that we have now taken a giant step into the global culture by electing an African-American. But my hope and dream also is, and has been since the days of John and Robert Kennedy, that this president will call us to a nobler mission and a higher goal, that he will remind us always of our Constitutional principles and ideals, that he will place us back on our historic path to the establishment of a more perfect union and a principled republic.
Ever an idealist, I therefore place my hope in Barack Obama. It is time for the idealists, even the aging ones, to raise the flag again.