The Realist

There’s a certain type of person who came of age around the time that I did—or just before or not long after—whose entire political identity is shaped around the idea of being realistic, of shedding childish enthusiasm and adolescent dreams. They were anarchists or activists or God knows what in high school or college. But now they know better. They can sling phrases like “How are you going to get it past Congress?” with all the bark of a short-order cook. They’re unafraid of clichés. They’re more mood than mind. And their world is about to come to an end.


  1. Vincent February 24, 2016 at 4:25 pm | #

    I appreciate your blog and work generally, so really hate my first comment being the following question: Why is there world about to come to an end?

    By the way, the group you describe come in all ages. see, who seems equal part mood and mind.

    • Corey Robin February 24, 2016 at 7:03 pm | #

      The political calculations that have underwritten that sense of realism for the last half-century — hew to the center, nothing left can appeal, etc. — are changing. Whether it happens in this election or one or two down the road, the younger generation skews left and will drive politics leftward.

      • Kallan Greybe February 24, 2016 at 7:41 pm | #

        I usually completely agree with you Corey, but “realism” here absolutely demands scare-quotes. When a pair of boring middle-of-the-road social democrats (Corbyn and Sanders) get portrayed as foaming at the mouth crypto-Stalinists, we can be assured that what we’re really dealing with is ideology at its most unhinged.

        When it then turns out that the ideology in question is being used to defend a particularly rigid form of social privilege, (for instance Oxbridge PPE degrees here in the UK) while adopting an apparently left-leaning stance, well, it may be that someone wrote a pretty good book once arguing that there’s a distinct intellectual core to the right and maybe elements of that analysis apply here as well. If Phyllis Schlafly can portray herself as a feminist and all that…

        • Justin March 9, 2016 at 12:38 am | #

          C Wright Mills called the perspective you describe “crackpot realism,” premised on the assumption that if it’s bad it must be true. (So you see its an older point of view.)

      • Ray Charbonneau March 9, 2016 at 12:26 am | #

        We have gone so far right that the REAL center, which is the electoral sweet spot, seems “left”.

  2. yastreblyansky February 24, 2016 at 7:28 pm | #

    I go back further than that, to when we used to say, “Soyons réalistes, demandons l’impossible,” which still seems like the best stance to me. And Sanders further yet, from the generation that said, “I don’t know what’s wrong with those fucking hippies, why don’t they behave with decorum on the rare occasions when they show up at meetings.” The answer was that the meetings were intolerably stupid, clichés slung with abandon and ricocheting off the walls. And they never did accomplish much of anything as far as I know, though some of those people had definitely gone South to help with voter registration in an earlier phase and that was pretty wonderful. Then again, they did that part in tandem and (nervous) collaboration with a corrupt old establishment that was actively legislating on the same issues.

    I’m bored to death when people pull that line of “you have to be realistic”. The issue to me shouldn’t be about what you can’t do but what you can, if for example you get over your natural repulsion and try to work with the bourgeoisie on matters of mutual interest, such as health insurance (ask GM!), or marriage rights, or getting beyond fossil fuels, or getting more spending money in the hands of relatively poor consumers, or whatever. It is through workers’ cooperation with relatively enlightened capitalists that socialism such as it is was achieved in France and Germany, under the rule of those ancient vampires De Gaulle and Adenauer!

  3. Rick Cass February 24, 2016 at 8:49 pm | #

    These people have been Nixonized, like sanforized. Pre shrunk. The burdens and challenges of earning a living, raising children and paying off school loans have left them bereft of any sense of purpose. Just get through the day, the week, the month to pay the bills. The media, the boss and the neighbors have all acted, out of fear or of cupidity, to emphasize those feelings of frustration and hopelessness. Thus, rooting for the football team, the brand of beer, the home team gives a sense of purpose, control, and engagement. Yet, all know, but will not speak of it, that these enthusiasms are thin gruel, light beer and puffed up cheetos, and are no substitute for r al life. Thus the anger, the Trumpism, the refuge in thoughtl ss religiosity. Belonging to a tribe is all that many see as possible.

  4. jonnybutter February 24, 2016 at 11:53 pm | #

    their world is about to come to an end. And not a moment too soon, if I may understate. Billmon (out on Twitter) saw our political system to be like two exhausted boxers leaning against each other – a good metaphor. I see it more a little more like a sick marriage, in which both parties end up with nowhere to go: the Dems with their passive aggression (or rope-a-dope, in Billmon’s picture) and the Repubs with their ever-more-extreme-ism. In the end, it’s possible to be only so passive and only so extreme RW, without some sort of big crackup happening. And btw, the Dems’ situation is weaker – passivity is not even really a political quality.

    It’s remarkable, and telling, that both complements of the US political establishment-symbiosis seem to be genuinely baffled by what’s going on this year. That is to say, both estab. Dems like HRC, and the people Reince Priebus represents were not only unready, but are still in some kind of denial even as their cheeks are actually being spanked. That they are so ridiculously out of touch vis a vis their own profession is, in a true sense, disqualifying for them.

    I very much hope/yearn that it doesn’t take another couple cycles for a definite left shift. The cultural changes are going to take longer anyway, so the political ones really need to start right now (I think they are necessarily prior, too). I don’t see how we can afford any more drift and studied mediocrity.

  5. kermit February 25, 2016 at 12:05 am | #

    For true Realists, what defines belief is experience. Just as it is for anyone. But, for realists, the defining belief is that of defeat.

    So, we search ourselves looking for what brought about the loss.

    To understand the particular type of realist that actually staff and run the national Democratic machine that is mostly backing Hillary, you have to look at the defeat in 2004. From that, the investment in technology, the investment in research, the investment in field, the investment in experiment informed programs, all came.

    All of our research shows that the kind of campaign Bernie is running, to call for a surge of non-engaged people to flood the polls and change our politics, doesn’t just happen. Its extremely hard to do, and it has to engage with people in a deeply personal way. A way Bernie has not shown. Hillary hasn’t shown it either, but she isn’t running a campaign on that premise. And for us, that is a very personal type of false promise. As it is a false promise that really could come true, but the person who is making that promise can’t do the job, and is dangerously hubristic about his ability to actually do that.

    And every time someone makes that promise, it becomes a little bit harder to actually come true. More and more people become a little more numb. That’s what the research shows.

    A revolution is possible.

    Sanders doesn’t have what it takes to lead it, and is just as likely as not to make a major mistake that makes real change even more unlikely before he inevitably loses in the primary.

    • Nqabutho February 25, 2016 at 8:34 pm | #

      kermit @ February 25, 2016

      I’m sorry, this comment is devoid of intellectual value, seems expressed out of an insincere purpose and looks almost like a case of trolling. The attitude expressed is an example of just the sort of “realist mood” Corey is arguing against: Corey argues against this, and you come right back with an example of it. “Let’s be hard-headed realists. It’s not gonna happen. The process is too hard, Sanders doesn’t have what it takes, neither does Hillary, people become numb after a while, and anyway, Sanders is gonna lose. Forget about it.” Not to mention the fact that your attempt to define ‘realism’ doesn’t make any sense.

      Anyway, at least you’ve made me think about why that injunction to “be realistic” always seems wrong-headed. The term ‘realism’ has always bothered me because it seems to be a “misnomer”. The term (also, ‘hard-headed realism’) as usually used in political discourse (e.g., the foreign policy of Henry Kissinger’s limited way of thinking, enshrined now as a “school” of thought) tends to refer to a conventionally held belief that change can only come about as an effect of the application of superior force, superior military or monetary power, superior strength, superior wealth, etc., in other words, the “power principle”, which overrides any ethical considerations that seem to be in play in any given case (characterized as the soft, feminine ideas of starry-eyed hippies, and so forth), and thus that the nature of the resulting political organization is determined completely by those that have this sort of physical “power”. Thus the term ‘realism’ tends to be equated with the idea of the inevitability of the status quo of power- play politics and to be identified with the values (i.e., the ideas of what is desirable, what are the “right” solutions to problems, etc.) and with the ways of thinking of the unreflective and physically mighty power holders. “Ethical principles? They have no chance, unless they can be imposed by force from above, and we know that’s not gonna happen.”

      For any government (holders of the political institutions) we can ask, upon what does the “legitimacy” of this government depend, on what conditions was their existence made possible?

      The “legitimacy” of Republican governments, for example, and the possibility of holding office for individual politicians, is determined mainly by the donor class; Republican politicians know that the support of their “base” was achieved by deception and irrelevant emotional appeal, not by a rational plan to deliver tangible benefits, and so any such interests can be ignored after the election; thus we have the Trump phenomenon.

      The Bernie Sanders “revolution”, on the other hand offers a sudden glimpse, an “ahnung” of the possibility of an organization of the political- economic system on different principles, this time ethical principles in opposition to the “power principle”: in particular cases where the interests of the people, the citizens, are in conflict with the interests of the plutocratic power brokers, the judgment is now determined by ethical principles and not the power principle. And this is possible because the assent and support of the people to a Sanders government would be gained not through the rich donors and dishonest appeals, but through local, bottom-up organizing in an effort to find rational and effective solutions to real problems, and the “legitimacy” and continued existence of such a government rests on this direct rationally given bottom-up support, which is what “democracy” is all about: government responsive to the complaints of the people, who constitute the necessary condition for its existence.

      A conventional hard-headed realist will dismiss all of this as mere pipe dreams; but if we understand ‘realism’ as the detachment of the intellectual aim of gaining an accurate understanding of the real world (e.g., by valuing empirical evidence), from possible distortion to this process due to the subjective hopes and fears of the observer, we have to recognize that the real world includes ideas that inspire political movements, and that an understanding of the ethical and the rational on the part of a large number of people can provide effective pressure for political change that is opposed to the power principle; that’s “people power”. It’s not about the “charismatic leader”; it’s all about the ideas. Reality at any given point, the “now”, presents us with an open-ended set of unrealized possibilities; a realist in my preferred sense can recognize these possible paths to an imagined goal and try the first steps.

    • Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant February 26, 2016 at 10:55 am | #

      “All of our research shows that the kind of campaign Bernie is running, to call for a surge of non-engaged people to flood the polls and change our politics, doesn’t just happen.”

      a) Two words: Donald Trump. I’d say HE’S brought the “non-engaged people” out in droves. Sanders’ supporters are, I suspect, likely to sustain some history of left/progressive activism and thus are probably not “non-engaged people”. But his surprising staying power cannot be the sole result of the “engaged”. There is likely a little more to his support than that.

      b) Could you provide a citation for and a link to this “research” of yours? Readers of this blog would be quite interested in the social science that allegedly supports your supposed claims.

  6. Bob Salsa February 25, 2016 at 10:22 am | #

    Get real – its going to get down to who will raise your taxes and who will cut them.


  7. Norwonk February 25, 2016 at 10:23 am | #

    This is where I feel forced to remark that people rarely dismiss realism when they’re winning. That usually only happens when the odds are heavily against them, and hopes of an unexpected upset are all they have left.

  8. Roquentin February 25, 2016 at 12:28 pm | #

    I have to get Hegelian here and argue that, dialectically, that the concept of what constitutes “reality” ends up being one of the most ideal concepts and absolutely a product of the beliefs and ideology one already possesses. In addition to the end of the supposed realist, one can only hope that the nonsense about a “post-ideological” era goes down with it. If there’s one thing that has defined the recent political epoch, it’s that. This belief in the supposedly “impartial” rule by a technocratic bourgeoisie of experts, whose only concern is “getting the job done” whatever that is supposed to mean. If one needed evidence of how thoroughly neoliberalism has grown to dominate the thoughts of Americans and the political scene in general, look no further than that. Neoliberal ideology somehow managed to pass itself off as not an ideology at all, but something objective, neutral, and scientific.

  9. Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant February 25, 2016 at 1:37 pm | #

    See Ted Rall’s most recent cartoon strip on “Realism”, dated 2/22/2016.

    It sums things up nicely.

    And by the way. How did “realism” come to mean what policies reactionaries and neoliberals allow, as opposed the lived experience of this nation’s (and the world’s) working and impoverished classes?

    Reality in its present iteration can be CHANGED, you know.

  10. jonnybutter February 25, 2016 at 1:59 pm | #

    That whole series of Rall cartoons is good

  11. Roquentin February 25, 2016 at 2:24 pm | #

    Also, I forgot, along with the BS about being “post-ideological” lets hope that the neoliberal ideas about what kind of knowledge does and doesn’t matter goes with it. This is apparent in really obvious ways like the proliferation of the MBA degree since the 80s, but in more subtle ways like cutting the humanities down to a starvation budget and considering degrees in the arts as “worthless.” They dictate not only what constitutes reality but the very system of knowledge itself, who is going to study what and where. It is absolutely beneficial for this system if people are never taught anything except for marketing, IT, finance, business, and STEM because all of these generate profits for them and do not cause one to ask questions which would destabilize the stranglehold they have on power.

  12. Evan Neely February 26, 2016 at 5:48 pm | #

    The endlessly repeated trope of propertarian theorists and economists (Hayek, Friedman, Becker, Nozick, David Brooks (now that I’m into the dregs the list will stop…)) that “I used to be a socialist but then this really rational person came along and showed me otherwise” sounds a lot like this one. Any connection?

  13. Paul Coppock March 1, 2016 at 9:52 am | #

    the link to your full post doesn’t work

  14. jane March 9, 2016 at 12:38 am | #

    In what sense is it not a generically identical realism to affirm compulsory participation in electoral politics? Is not the entire argument that one must vote if one wants to see systematic change premised precisely on the idea that imagining emancipatory politics as incompatible with electoral politics is unrealistic, that the only realistic route to change is by participating ,etc etc?

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