We get the word “Utopia” from Thomas More. It was the name of a fictional island where everything ran flawlessly, everyone was happy and perfect justice reigned for all. He chose the word “Utopia” as a Greek pun, because it translates to “no place.” Today we mostly use the word “utopian” to describe people who think impossible things, like the Pentagon could hold a bake sale to fund itself or that Communism could work if only someone would give it a fair shot.
Oddly, utopianism — the idea that we can create a perfect society — still has a vaguely positive connotation, despite the fact that utopian ideologies were responsible for nearly all of the great mass murders of the 20th century. But Mao, Stalin, and Hitler don’t come to mind when we hear the word “utopian.” We’re more likely to imagine hippies who want to buy the world a coke and sing in perfect harmony.
That’s O.K., because utopianism is usually just a fancy word for idealism. We may never get to the perfect society, but if we don’t have a conception of one, we may lose sight of the path toward the good society (“Eutopia,” or the good place, for those interested).
But what drives me a little bonkers is when people dress up utopianism as common sense. This week, billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg dipped his toe in the 2008 presidential contest by changing his party affiliation to “unaffiliated” from Republican. Yes, yes, he says this has nothing to do with presidential politics. But simply put, Bloomberg is lying and everyone knows it, including his aides, who say he’s keenly interested.
That’s O.K. too. Such lies serve as useful political fictions allowing politicians to test the waters.
What’s not O.K. is Bloomberg’s clichéd call for a New Politics. This shtick exploits democracy’s Achilles’s heel — the same that Mussolini and Hitler exploited to dramatic effect. Bloomberg has cast himself as a man of action who will fix our broken political system by transcending partisan differences.
“We do not have to accept the tired debate between the left and right, between Democrats and Republicans, between Congress and the White House,” Bloomberg promises. “Neither party has God on its side, a monopoly on good ideas, or a lock on any single fiscal, social or moral philosophy.”
First, let us deal with Bloomberg’s gimpy straw man. No serious Republican or Democrat says anything of the sort. Rather, what partisans usually say is that their party can be trusted more than the other party to move the country in the right direction. Bill Clinton borrowed generously from Republican policy initiatives — remember welfare reform? — and President Bush has cribbed from Democrats on such issues as education reform and Medicare. Democrats and Republicans may not brag about coopting the opposition’s positions, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t compromising.
Bloomberg’s dream of a New Politics transcending partisan bickering is deeply seductive. Who wouldn’t want to live in a society where government just did good things without interference from special interests and other forces of selfishness? A big part of John F. Kennedy’s appeal was his claim to represent a New Politics based on what Bloomberg now calls “managerial competence.” As JFK said: “Most of the problems … that we now face, are technical problems, are administrative problems,” best left to the best and brightest, starting with JFK himself.
That was nonsense then, and it’s nonsense now. Calling it “managerial competence” won’t make political decision-making any less political.
Moreover, political parties aren’t the source of our disagreements, but the vehicles by which we express them. For much of American history, political parties weren’t so ideologically distinct. Some of the most passionate liberals — a.k.a. Progressives — were Republicans, and some of the most ardent conservatives were Democrats. But we still had political disagreements.
Indeed, the Founders didn’t really anticipate parties at all. But they did expect what Alexander Hamilton called “factions,” recognizing that our democratic republic couldn’t work without them. Oh, and every third-grader is supposed to understand that Congress and the White House were designed to compete with each other. Just Google “separation of powers” if you don’t believe me.
Democracy isn’t about agreement, but disagreement. People have different interests and ideals. Getting rid of parties — or “transcending” them — won’t get rid of disagreements. To believe otherwise is the height of utopianism.
Obviously, Bloomberg is no Mussolini or Hitler. He’s not even a dime-store JFK. But if this “man of action” thinks he has the “managerial competence” to take the politics out of politics, he’s as utopian as they come and deserves to be president of no place.
© 2007 Tribune Media Services, Inc.