The Case For Idealism

The Case For Idealism

The Case For Idealism
June 9, 2014

As much as I adore the grizzled, hardboiled operatives who read City & State, this being our 40 Under 40 Rising Stars issue I thought it apt to use this column to make a case for idealism in politics. 

By idealism I do not mean ideology. I am wary of ideology from the left and right alike for too often dogmatism is a slippery slope to fanaticism and intractable partisanship—two of the most poisonous afflictions currently plaguing our nation. 

Idealism to me is the belief that our government can transcend its many limitations, represent the better angels of our nature and achieve what should be its fundamental aim: ensuring liberty and justice for all. 

Yes, my friends, I realize this sentiment may sound like the naïve romanticism of someone who has spent their life locked away in an ivory tower, but idealism in New York politics is not as abstract or preposterous as it may sound. 

Take Zephyr Teachout. 

Just one day before the Working Families Party convention last month, Teachout, a Fordham Law professor and first-time candidate, announced that she would seek the WFP’s line to run for governor of New York State. Though Teachout was largely unknown in the realm of local politics, I had previously encountered her in 2010 while attending a conference she spoke at on how to end our government’s paralysis, hosted by Philip K. Howard’s organization Common Good at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. 

While usually such forums are academic snoozefests, Teachout’s remarks at the conference were riveting, largely because they overflowed with genuine idealism—not the rhetorical type so shamelessly feigned by politicians who wish to cloak themselves in a guise of nobility and optimism. As part of a panel of notable young thinkers, Teachout articulated a vision for making the country better that was at once intellectually rigorous, ambitious and (gasp!) sincere. 

Based on my recent interview with her for City & State TV and our subsequent off-the-record conversation, I am of the mind that four years later Teachout is the same idealist she was back then. She seems to truly believe that government can exemplify the genius of our Founding Fathers, and that the corruption that hobbles our state can be expunged through thoughtful, systemic reform. 

While I cannot help but have reservations as to whether this view is accurate, I strongly believe that those who share it should be encouraged to seek office, even though those in power and the pundits whose opinions promulgate the status quo will always dismiss their candidacies as frivolous and quixotic. 

I understand that many of you reading this column will point to the WFP’s pragmatic decision to abandon its stated principles and turn its back on Teachout as proof of idealism’s folly. While I could counter than the 41 percent of the vote she garnered against a mighty sitting governor by forcing a floor fight at the convention contradicts this appraisal, how close Teachout came to victory is of no consequence to my argument. 

My point is that if we keep conspiring to freeze out those who believe that government need not be just a warring of interests and a vehicle for self-aggrandizement, and continue to dismiss idealism in politics as childish, we will cement a future bereft of it. 

And what kind of world will that make? One as dreary and cynical as the one in which we live now. 

Morgan Pehme