Cynicism about politics, rampant in the United States for years now, has peculiar features that distinguish it from its siblings in the disillusionment family, such as cynicism about romantic relationships or one’s efforts at work. First among these is that it ought to be considered an oxymoron. Properly speaking, cynicism is an antipolitical phenomenon. Every political thinker, from the most brilliant theorist to the most craven TV hack, will assert that politics is the art of the possible, of measuring the perfect against the good, or at least of protecting the decent against the worst. Cynicism, on the other hand, expects neither the perfect nor the good, and often not even the decent. The worst does not surprise it. For politics, everything is contingent; an unforeseen tip on the scales of infinite forces can produce surprising results. But cynicism knows all outcomes in advance; for cynicism nothing ever happens.

Until now, my generation of Americans, the millennial generation, has lacked both the opportunity and the desire to confront politics in any depth. A small coterie of professional attention-payers have argued and protested in high school hallways and college quads, with a passion that seemed incommensurate with their influence. But for most of our lives, spanning the period from Reagan to Bush II, we have never been able to evaluate political claims because we never believed that those making them, namely politicians, deserved to be taken seriously. It is not just that we disagreed with their policy formulations; we did not believe that they believed them themselves. We knew them to be hollow corporate shills at best, full-fledged criminals and tyrants at worst. Thus cynicism about politics could take the knowing form of a frustrated idealism: every promise foreknown to be a vicious lie, every program fatally compromised the moment it was proposed. Such idealism is the necessary presupposition of cynicism’s continuing disappointment. Neither the apathy of the best times nor the shock and disbelief of the worst really provided for an entrance into politics.

I was one of many who watched the 2008 political season with a strange curiosity, a certain nagging feeling. Words that had previously been clichés began to seem intriguing. “I’m asking you to believe,” Obama said. “Not in my ability to bring about change, but in yours.” It’s not that cynicism vanished in a puff of smoke, of course. It was obvious from the beginning that HOPE and CHANGE were poll-tested buzzwords, to be filled in later by “content.” A little bit from column A, a little bit from column B. Standard Democratic Party talking points. Little that Kerry or Gore hadn’t said before. A bit too much “hyper-timid incrementalist bullshit,” as one blogger described this type of Democratic “third way” thinking. But still, there was that nagging feeling: what if he means it?

On election night, twenty-somethings danced in front of the White House. Parties broke out in the streets of Chicago and New York. Finally, Americans were being greeted as liberators. But cynicism maintained its challenge: there will be a morning after, it said. You will wake up and wipe your eyes and wonder what all this was about. Prepare yourself for disappointment. Whatever you do, do not get your hopes up.

Thus came the second question: when will we know he didn’t mean it? There was a kind of Cynicism Gold Rush on the American left, a scramble to be the first to discover the proof. Whoever laid claim to the first ironclad description of Obama’s betrayal would surely become a prophet, a trusted herald of bad times to come. But for every example there was a counterexample. (Look at all the centrist foreign policy appointments! Yes, but look at the Secretary of Labor and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget!) The refrain from the media was that Obama’s cabinet appointments signified the beginning of an era of “competence, not ideology.” No one seemed to understand what this meant. The question of when we would know for sure that Obama had betrayed us seemed suspended in midair.

The first days of the new administration only continued the stream of contradictory signals. (Look how the Department of Justice is preserving the Bush administration’s extremist use of the “state secrets” doctrine to prevent entire cases from being heard! Yes, but look at the executive orders closing Guantánamo and banning torture! Look at the centrist economic team, subscribing to the same ideology that led to the recession and crisis! Yes, but look at the dramatic shift in budget priorities!) The question when will we know he didn’t mean it simply could not be answered. Instead, it had to transform. It went from a spiritual question, a question about how much emotional investment one should put into the world, to a real political question: How much can be done right now? The focus had to shift from a messianic faith in the President as a good and just man who would take care of everything to a question of how he could be pressured: How can we do it? And so finally we had to look around and take the measure of the political present: What is realistic?

In politics, everybody wants to be a realist. Starry-eyed dreaming is for poets; feckless naïveté is for amateurs. The practical virtues are what matter: the insight that helps one conceive ideas that can immediately be put into action, the sobriety that helps one appreciate the forces ranged against one’s party or one’s proposal, the savvy that helps one develop strategies to overcome those forces, the foresight that helps one guess whether a proposed cure would be worse than the disease. The problem is deciding who is qualified to judge the presence or absence of these abilities. Whom should we ask? The old hands, who have been in politics forever? But they’re the ones who have made such a mess of things! Should we ask the outsiders, the philosophers, the theorists, the clergy? But they only know how to make demands, not how to translate them into action.

A case study: Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote in The New York Times that the Obama administration blundered in its initial presentation of the economic recovery package to Congress. By lowballing the opening pitch, filling the bill with non-stimulative tax cuts in order to please Republicans (who weren’t going to vote for the package anyway), the administration began from a weak negotiating position. Negotiation from such a starting point further undermined the bill’s effectiveness; what ended up passing was a bill too small to meet our economic needs. Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, responded to Krugman in a New Yorker piece by Ryan Lizza: “How many bills has he passed?”

That is enough, from the perspective of wizened realpolitik, to close the case. Emanuel, a former congressman from Chicago and college ballet dancer whom the President once described as “the first to adopt Machiavelli’s The Prince for dance” (“it was an intriguing piece … there were a lot of kicks below the waist”), went on not so much to develop his argument further as to explain what he meant: “Now, my view is that Krugman as an economist is not wrong. But in the art of the possible, of the deal, he is wrong. He couldn’t get his legislation.”

There is a simple logical problem with what Emanuel said: if Krugman as an economist is not wrong, then the bill that was passed must be insufficient to stop our economic death spiral. There will have to be a second stimulus. Surely, as the President himself has warned, we should not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Yet one is hard pressed to understand the use of putting great effort into doing something that is possible just becauseit is possible—even if it would help a little—when it is not in fact the thing that we most need to do. This is what can happen when political operatives pat themselves on the back too much for their ability to Get Things Done.

Earlier I described the passage from cynicism to politics, but it turns out that deep within politics there is a quicksand trap, which leads down into cynicism again. Realpolitik, the approach to politics which worships in the First Church of Getting Things Done, is just like cynicism in this crucial way: it always imagines the limits of the possible in advance. In fact, realpolitik may go apolitical cynicism one better: the idealism that is so touchingly present just below the surface of the apolitical cynic, lying dormant, waiting to be motivated to action, is dismissed as irrelevant by the practitioner of realpolitik. The very imagination that gives rise to the sense of dissatisfaction with the world as it is, that leads to concern for the suffering, that propels one to organize and demonstrate on behalf of justice—justice, which the high school debate team defines as “giving to each their due” but which philosopher Cornel West more accurately describes as “what love looks like in public”—this imagination is what the realpolitiker mocks as childish and naïve.

On the other hand, maybe Paul Krugman couldn’t get his legislation.

Barack Obama is a reader of Reinhold Niebuhr. He used this fact to wow an easily impressed David Brooks during the primary season. For Brooks, who considers himself a moderate conservative intellectual, Niebuhr is the very embodiment of sobriety, judgment and realism. Brooks challenged Obama to present Niebuhr in a nutshell, and the candidate replied:

I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away … the sense [that] we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.

That seems to be it, right? It has the ring of truth, and it’s a pretty good reading of Niebuhr, too! What a refreshing change after eight years of rule by an administration that was fervently idealistic in all the wrong ways, the worst combination of aggression and cowardice. The Bush-Cheney regime took foreign policy advice from people who wrote books with titles like An End to Evil, but didn’t think American civil liberties or the rule of law were ideas powerful enough to withstand a terrorist assault. Surely Obama, guided by Niebuhr, will have the perspicacity to avoid such mistakes. And yet, and yet…

Niebuhr is a deservedly commanding figure in American history, a pastor and theologian who lived through the Depression and both world wars. He was a socialist who nonetheless rebelled against the domination of American Protestantism by what he saw as a naïve and dangerous pacifism. He believed the Sermon on the Mount was not to be read as a manual for government, and defended the arms buildup and proxy warfare of the Cold War as necessary to deter the military adventurism of the Soviet Union. It is easy to see why he is dear to conservatives, even though he never really stopped supporting progressive economic policies. But his politics, which he called Christian Realism, are difficult to situate according to our usual categories.

In general, conservatives worry about the possibilities of collective human projects, and greatly fear unintended consequences. This fear forms the conservative disposition at the bedrock, and leads conservatives to seek to preserve what is good about the status quo against potentially threatening and destabilizing changes. The left, from centrists to the anarchist and socialist extremes, has more faith in the capacity of human beings to achieve things by working together. Greater optimism concerning the efficacy of collective action is paired with more radical vision on the possible end goals of that action. The world could be much different, and better, than it is now.

If we view the left/right divide along this axis, as two possible frameworks for answering the political question what is realistic?, the place of a Niebuhrian realism becomes more complicated. It could conceivably be endorsed by either side. Phrased in the way Obama phrases it, as a recognition of evil in the world, a commitment to fight it while keeping our limitations in mind (that is, without hoping to destroy it completely) the important questions of day-to-day politics are all left open. We have learned what sorts of attitudes we should have, but nothing about what policies we should support. Except that we should not support policies that promote themselves as “an end to evil.”

It may be that this is a situation we cannot escape—it is not possible to develop, once and for all, an account of “realistic” political possibilities. This point is made well by another mid-century religious pragmatist thinker, a contemporary of Niebuhr’s who is generally treated as a left radical rather than a sober moderate. Like Niebuhr, Martin Buber is difficult to fit into prevailing political frameworks. He was an anarchist who believed in the provisional legitimacy of some of the state’s welfare functions and a Zionist who believed that the Land of Israel belonged equally to its Arab inhabitants. There is little in Buber to suggest that he would disagree with the positions Obama takes away from Niebuhr. He would add an additional note of caution, however. We should not assume that we are being more realistic, rather than less, each time we preclude a particular political option as unattainable. Especially when crisis is deep, Buber warns, solutions may have to be radical—and anything less is not realistic but myopic.

Consider again the relationships between cynicism, realpolitik, and real political engagement. Both cynicism and realpolitik imagine that something, usually experience, has taught them the location of the limits of possibility. Niebuhr, arguably, incorporates just this sliver of realpolitik into his Christian Realism, explaining that Christianity’s theology of the Fall gives us the imperfectability of man, and the imperfectability of man places a bar on the possibility of, say, ending war. Buber, on the other hand, denies that any prior analysis or experience should limit our efforts. He states as much in a letter to Niebuhr:

I cannot see the God-willed reality of justice anywhere other than in being just, and this means of course: being just insofar as it is possible here and now. … Sometimes, striving to be just, I go into the dark, till my head meets the wall and aches, and then I know: Here is [now] the wall, and I cannot go farther. But I could not know it beforehand.

Buber uses the metaphor of a physical wall in order to help us think about how we conceive the limits of political possibility. Everything in Buber’s description serves a purpose. One’s striving for justice leads one “into the dark,” where one cannot see; this is not the confident Enlightenment proclamation of limitless human possibility. One’s head hits the wall with force, unexpectedly causing pain and leaving some injustice unaddressed. What Buber mentions elsewhere is that the wall moves. Political forces align and realign; organization and sustained effort pay off at unexpected times. The situation is constantly changing, and thus the position of the wall, which Buber calls “the line of demarcation,” the limits of the possibility of justice in a given situation, is changing too. As a result, one never knows when a previous effort that failed might work if tried again. It might even be worthwhile to try again the moment after recovering from the headache.

In one sense, such a position eliminates the dichotomy of idealism and compromise. For example: one believes universal health care is a demand of justice, but lacks the votes, so one passes a bill to expand children’s health insurance. This does not mean that one has stopped wanting, speaking about, organizing in support of, universal health care. One has not stopped campaigning against obstructionist politicians, persuading their constituencies, and pursuing the project in other ways.

But one has really avoided compromise only if one really does pour in this much effort, if one manages not to be discouraged by the purveyors of cynical realism, if one closes one’s ears to their wise remonstrations about not being overly ambitious, and if one remains open, after having achieved one’s goal, to the possibility of discovering that it was not enough. This is the only way to enter politics without betraying the politics of ultimate commitment for the politics of proximate goals.

So we have learned what attitude to have, but not what policies to support. In a democracy, the fact that one’s policies are always going to be immediately opposed by others is one of the obstacles to accomplishing any political goal. This is not to be bemoaned. In an ideal situation, the obstacle is overcome by rational discussion. In a real democracy, it is overcome by sustained campaigns of persuasion and organization that convince just enough people to make the goal politically possible.

Here is a short, incomplete list of things which were once declared impossible:

  1. Democracy
  2. The abolition of slavery and Jim Crow
  3. The extension of the franchise to women

Here is a short, incomplete list of “impossible” things that should be done soon, in no particular order:

  1. Universal health care
  2. Ending the drug war
  3. Investigating and prosecuting U.S.-sponsored torture

What Buber would say to Americans today, I think, is this: Ask the little voice inside you that tells you these things are impossible what you personally have done lately to increase the likelihood of their happening. Pick one of them. Then read up on it and dispel any romantic illusions about how easy it might be to accomplish. Learn about all the reasons that are typically put forward for why it cannot be done. Come near to the point of despair for its accomplishment. But find the crack, the opening, the place where the door stands slightly ajar, and put your hands on it. Then push hard. And when we get these things done, we can make a new list.

Cynicism is the bastard child of idealism and reality. Unexpected and unwanted, it resembles both its parents in some respects. It retains the high expectations of idealism, but repeated frustration has led it away from the disposition to act in the name of those expectations. Instead it snarks from the sidelines, deriding the failures and hypocrisy of others. It risks nothing and can therefore never fail. It keeps just enough in its reservoir of hope to be repeatedly disappointed, but never gets angry.

What cynicism forgets, pragmatic idealism remembers. Cynicism is a spiritual illness, and politics is a material medicine. Overly savvy realism runs the risk of getting caught in the old trap, convinced that cherished ideals were foreordained failures, that whatever exists now is what must exist. Pure idealism is always susceptible to this tactic because it is the flip side of cynicism; it demands all or nothing and is shocked and deflated when its demand is not met. When it filters its relentless drive for justice through the particulars of a real situation, then it becomes a force—it becomes political.

If we can begin to think this way, we may finally be justified in returning to the use of a word that has fallen out of favor due to its abuse by pure idealism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a word that may lack ultimate philosophical foundation, but which is irreplaceable in the political context. That word names the other child of idealism and reality: progress.