On Tuesday night, with the resounding selection of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, the latest test case in the trial of idealism successfully earned a place back on the American docket.
It was a moment of emotional catharsis for idealism’s often denigrated liberal clerks, whose flowing tears and unrelenting exclamations of joy were on full display for all civilization to witness. For the first time since the collapse of the credit markets, international capital poured back into the United States, albeit of a different kind than expected. The smiles we grinned were grinned right back – from Baghdad to New Delhi, from Tokyo to Nairobi, from Moscow to Tehran. One of the darkest testimonies given in American history, ideologically defined by ruthless self-interest and brought to bear by the barbaric realpolitik of the Bush Administration, had finally lost its appeal. That the victory was carried by the eloquence of a former-constitutional law professor over the deteriorating grandeur of an old soldier presents a symbolism that should be lost on nobody. It certainly has not been lost to the international community.
After two years of partisan electoral chicanery, idealism prevailed. It survived the discursive barbs hurled by the Old Guard on both the Left (Hilary Clinton’s matter-of-fact statement to Democratic superdelegates, “He can’t win.”) and the Right (John McCain’s sad rhetorical decline into invocations of “Who is the real Barack Obama?”). Its opening arguments, spoken so mellifluously by Obama, were sometimes hard to pin down, resisting clear appropriation in favor of unrestrained creative potential and post-partisan unity. Idealism’s lack of ideological clarity has made Obama’s critics genuinely fearful of what could come to fruition if it reclaimed the reigns of American power.
Idealism, the hopeful pursuit of what-should-be instead of the cynical acceptance of what-is, spat upon by princes and presidents, has been granted another chance to triumph over the realism that has dominated the sad and lonely exceptionalism we have grown accustomed to. Idealism is hungry for renewable energy independence. Idealism is hungry for affordable health care. Idealism is hungry for international law and multilateralism. Idealism is hungry for proper regulation and equality. Above all else, idealism is hungry for change.
We have seen idealism, channeled by Obama’s discourse, confront the same indictments it always has. You just don’t understand how the world really works. You just don’t understand, threats are everywhere. You just don’t understand. That idealism has been wholly rejected by the Kenneth Waltz’s and George Wallace’s of our time is neither a surprise nor a deterrent. We knew that they would not come around so quickly. We have to prove it to them.
The irony is that idealism’s detractors don’t realize the power of their own discourse. The world is exactly what you say it is and what you do about it. And idealism is ready to say and do something left unspoken and undone for what seems an eternity. For the last two years, Obama’s painstakingly confident and steady-as-he-goes approach won over the votes of nearly 70 million Americans. Enough to win a presidential election, but not enough to permanently enact our liberal ideals.
Indeed, it has been a long time since anyone let idealism near the nukes. In its lengthy absence from power, however, we have not forgotten the brilliant stewards that have steered idealism to reality – Kennedy, FDR, Wilson, Lincoln, Jefferson. Obama is poised to add his name to that list and push forwards past their successes and failures. They all faced tremendous challenges. They succeeded and failed. They all tried. So, too, will Obama. So, too, will we.
As a longtime student of idealism, Obama has brought the knowledge of history with him. It speaks volumes. History tells us that we must use what is at our disposal to make our ideals a reality, not just what we wish we had. Our current shortcomings – a recession, two wars and declining American social capital – reinforce the necessity of the partnership between idealism and pragmatism. Obama’s hero, another Illinois law professor turned President of the United States, understood that fact better than any that have followed him. His challenge was the battle between reality and ideal. Between a fractured and a more perfect union. His name was Abraham Lincoln.
Idealism has acquired another test case. This time its lawyer’s name is Barack Obama. We must be his devoted clerks, for the trial has only just begun. It is time to win the case and make our idealism the law. I am hopeful for the first time in my life that we might be able to do it.