Ideals vs. Ideas

Corruption aside, one of the most fundamental problems with governing is a tendency for legislators to base their policies on the theoretical rather than the practical. It is an age-old struggle between noble ideals and achievable ideas. Of course, the greatest ideas should be based on the noblest of ideals, but governing on ideals alone has brought America’s two-party system to an ineffective standstill. The Jeffersonian theory of the government that governs least has played out to pitiful results over the last few years.

Caricature of Obama vs. Romney 2012 By DonkeyHotey
Credit: DonkeyHotey

Currently, examples of theory versus practicality dominate the contentious American political landscape. For example, many liberals support the expansion of Medicaid because, in theory, the program would provide vital support only to those not capable of attaining health insurance by other means. The practicality of the program, however, is challenged by conservatives who accurately cite rampant abuses of the system and high costs as reasons for rejecting government intervention.

Another example is found in the current Republican Party platform, which takes a strong ideological stand against abortion, making no exceptions for the protection of an unborn child’s life. This view holds that all lives are equal—but reality is not so black and white. In rare cases, a mother’s life can be jeopardized by the carrying or delivery of her unborn child. In these cases doctors and mothers are forced to make practical judgments regarding the value of one life over another. Tragically, the theory of all lives being equal does not always hold true. Hence, instituting policies based on a strictly theoretical line of reasoning not only proves to be difficult, it proves to be impossible.

Unfortunately, it seems that millions of Americans have yet to accept the virtue of practicality over theory—at least in terms of governing. If they did accept this truth, the electorate would not be so evenly divided between the two candidates for President. For when it comes to the core beliefs of the two candidates, one is clearly more practical than the other, and therefore deserving of the Oval Office for the next four years.

To illustrate the stark contrast between the governing philosophies of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, consider each man’s take on “The American Dream”— the idea that all Americans can transcend their station in life and achieve limitless success in the land of opportunity. While empowering for some, this may be the ultimate in theoretical political thinking. Still, one candidate bases his entire philosophy on this less than tangible theory.

We might expect the candidate who believes in the idyllic American dream to be the one who actually achieved it—the candidate who overcame genetic and socioeconomic hurdles on the path to achieving great success, but ironically this is not the case. No, the man who frames his vision for America within a theoretical dream is a man who was seemingly born on third base yet believes he hit a triple—a man who was given advantages in life that most Americans will never know—a man who thinks hard times means selling off some investments. According to this candidate, anyone can surmount the most arduous of life’s challenges and achieve greatness—not because he is living proof, but because to him, poverty is simply the conscious choice of the apathetic. According to this candidate, hard work always pays off because the American dream says so.

That is bunk.

Plenty of hard working people never realize the promise of the American dream. Some are crippled by illness and then further crippled by mountains of medical bills from unforgiving insurance companies. Some are born with below average intelligence, and regardless of how hard they try, they just cannot pass their high school graduation test. Some are born into fatherless homes with working mothers, never receiving the time and attention that cultivate the requisite confidence necessary for success in any endeavor. These people defy the convention of the American dream.

Regardless, one candidate believes that government assistance for struggling people creates a dependency which robs them of their freedom to succeed in spite of their circumstances. In short, he does not believe in the practicality of government to address the real problems which obstruct people from achieving his American dream. Instead he places his political faith in the dream itself, a dream which George Carlin noted is only called the American dream because “you have to be asleep to believe it.”

Why nearly half of Americans would be willing to grant the most powerful position in American government to someone who does not believe in that government’s ability to help the country is a mystery. Thankfully, there is a better option: someone who believes in the practicality of helping the less fortunate, even when some take advantage of the system; someone who favors politically risky action over the proven ineffectiveness of pretentious theory; someone who achieved the American dream, but understands that he is one of the exceptions, not the rule.

A version of this article was published on Image Credit: Caricature of Obama vs. Romney 2012 By DonkeyHotey from his flickr photostream and used under creative commons license.
Jason Palmer

Jason Palmer

Jason Palmer is a full-time instructor of composition and American literature at a small college in North Georgia. He is also the editor of and regular contributor to The McLean Parlor.