How to Understand Political Realism and Political Idealism
Political realism is dealing with politics as they are in reality, political idealism is dealing with politics as an ideal. In other words, the dichotomy is: politics based on how things are vs. politics based how things should be.
This can be broadly equated to the debate over whether people are inherently good (idealism), or inherently flawed (realism).
This can also be equated with Plato’s theory of the forms style metaphysics (idealism) vs. Hume’s skeptical empiricism (realism)… or we can discuss Plato (idealism) vs. Aristotle (realism), or Thomas More (idealism) vs. Machiavelli (realism) vs., or Hegel (idealism) vs. Marx (realism), etc.
There are many different ways to illustrate the idealist vs. realist debate, but generally we can say:
When we start from that which we can know with the senses (with our five senses external AKA what we can see, touch, taste, smell, and hear directly), we are being realists (we are dealing with things they way they are), and when we start with moral virtues, ideas, and sentiments (including rationalized impressions from our “internal senses” AKA our thoughts and feelings), we are being idealists (we are dealing with things the way they could be, ought to be, or should be).
Or, in definition form:
- Idealism: Dealing with things as they should be. Rooted in the internal world of rationalism and ideas.
- Realism: Dealing with things as they are. Rooted in the external material world of empiricism.
- Political Science: The science of politics, based on empirical evidence. See “can politics be a science?“
- Political Philosophy: The philosophy of politics from a metaphysic and reason-based perspective.
In other words, political idealism is rooted in the world of ideas and feelings, and political realism is rooted in observations of the material world.
Political idealism looks at “what ought to be,” and political realism looks at “what is” (even if it isn’t pretty).
However, the above said, the comparison I am making is somewhat unfair, as it suggests there is an Either/Or choice.
Life is not either/or, and the scientific method essentially proves it (we don’t need either F=ma, or a blueprint, or workers to build the bridge, we need all of that).
One must generally start with a view of the world as it is, and then consider ethics and morals (what ought to be) and imagination (what could be), applying reason and logically “liberally” to both positions.
Of course it is important to root our understanding in the empirical, but that doesn’t mean we can consider the physical as it is only and ignore ideals, metaphysics, and “what ought to be.”
Discussing the two concepts in tandem serves as an important reminder that what is ideal on paper, is often not best in practice; and that just because something works in practice, it does not mean it’s ideal or even justifiable.
Understanding how to compromise between idealism and realism is important in all areas of life, but becomes vital in the realm of politics where we must uphold ideals in the face of reality.
Plato and Aristotle (Introduction to Greek Philosophy). What better place to start than with the Greeks? The work of Plato and Aristotle can be read as a metaphors for political idealism (Plato) vs. political realism (Aristotle).
The average college kid idealistically wishes everybody could have ice cream and cake for every meal. But as he gets older and gives more thought to his and his fellow man’s responsibilities, he finds that it can’t work out that way—that some people just won’t carry their load. – John Wayne
TIP: If a person lacks morals, empathy, and ethics, they aren’t a realist; they are a sociopath. If someone knows how to compromise well, they can implement what one might call “criminal virtue” or the selective compromising of virtue in order to win the day and to obtain the most virtuous ends possible.
THOUGHT: An idealist walks into the bar and orders a “half full” glass, the realist orders a “half empty” glass. It is all semantics until the glass arrives 1/4 liquid and 3/4 empty. Now one must take either an idealistic or realistic approach in addressing the situation and taking up the matter with the bartender.
Theory in Action: Realism.
TIP: An idealistic relationship is like that of Romeo and Juliet, a romantic idealist venture with the risk of bitter ending. A realistic relationship involves a prenuptial agreement. It’s less of a storybook venture, but arguably a more practical one. There are 7.2 billion people on the planet; not every child is going to get a pony for Christmas. Reality is largely a matter of dealmaking and damage control.
Realism vs. Idealism.
“The idea that we have to choose between realism and idealism is a “false dichotomy,” one must begin with an assessment of the situation as it is; if one cannot do that, one cannot make any predictions of the future… but one cannot rest on the situation as it is.” – The “realist” Henry Kissinger on the Science of Politics.
Comparing the Pros and Cons of the Machiavellian and Marxist Perspectives
Aristotle, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Saul Alinsky are political realists; they lay out tactics for leaders based on the way things are. They call for sacrificing a bit of virtue in the here and now to maintain power; they call for a gray era of means to justify ends. Not because they love vice, but because they want to ensure the success of good leaders.
Plato, Marx, and Mises are, on the other hand, closer to being political idealists.
It’s not that any completely dismissed the need to deal with things as they are, or that say Marx and Mises shied away from diagnosing the ills of capitalism and socialism from a realist perspective respectively, it is that they tend to err on the side of utopian ideals as solutions despite their realistic diagnosis of life’s problems. They all express a hope that virtue can override vice, perhaps if their economic and moral systems were structured in just the right way.
When Plato’s Socrates chose death, rather than the unscrupulous escape plan suggested by his friends, he was acting as an idealist (choosing the martyrdom like Jesus did later; a purely idealistic choice).
There are many different ways to compare idealism and realism and show their pros and cons and we won’t go into each of them. Just realizing that we always have these two choices in front of us can help. We need to temper both and use both to make good choices for ourselves and those we represent. We need to be able to understand them to extend empathy to others. When we understand realism and idealism, we understand why even the most virtuous of career politicians tend to have a spotted history and why even sometimes the best ideas are lackluster in practice. (I’m thinking of you, Communist utopia.)
Machiavelli and Alinsky will tell you that the rules of politics require a type of “criminal virtue” and underhandedness, that the ends can justify the means, and that compromise isn’t a dirty word. While this isn’t necessarily always true, history tells us that idealists like Mises and Marx tend to come with absolutist values that lack the compromises that work well in the real world.
One can argue that it is the systems of idealists that have caused many of humankind’s more recent problems, not because they are less virtuous, but because the black and white perspective of absolutism doesn’t seem to play well with the gray areas of human nature.
International politics – Realism.
TIP: The moral realist embraces realism, not because they believe all people are bad, but because they want to do good. Being effective can often produce a better outcome than being devoted to ideals at all costs.
TIP: For more information on theories rooted in realism, see a great video on Dependency Theory (shown below) and its corresponding playlist on International Relations Theories (modern theories for dealing with the reality vs. the ideal of international sociopolitical relationships).