Are Americans idealists?

“We Americans are, by definition, idealists. Our nation was borne of it. You cannot start a rebellion against the world’s most powerful king, or commit to the untried experiment that would become our constitution, without a foundation of idealism. Against those ideals, as recorded in the Declaration of Independence, the founders pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.”

E.C. “Pete” Aldridge, Jr. Under-Secretary of Defense, 2002.

Young, free-spirited, ambitious, radical - idealists want to change the world. Put one in the White House and you make many foreigners nervous. And who do idealists most despise? Not other idealists, no matter how contrary the ideology, but pragmatists - those worldly-wise, cynical balancers and fudgers. Life, say the pragmatists, is complex. We give a little here to get a little there and maybe when the sun goes down we’re a little better off. If idealism is native to optimistic America, then pragmatism hails from gloomy Europe. Its slogan is German: realpolitik.

The Evidence

    Source: World Values Survey

  • A majority of Americans believes that human nature is basically good – a great foundation for idealism. Russians, by contrast, tend to view humanity as corrupt, in which case it makes more sense to act pragmatically.
  • When you ask people whether they prefer leaders who “stand firm for what they believe” (idealists) or who “are prepared to co-operate with others even if this means compromising some important beliefs” (pragmatists), people worldwide prefer compromisers by three to one. Idealism is particularly rare in war-weary Europe – Germany’s 12% is typical. The United States, with no recent home-field wars to dull its fervor, is the country most passionate about the pursuit of perfection.

It All Depends
Grand, hypothetical questions in surveys can be misleading. When it comes to practical choices Americans, like most people, compromise. This may be why the rest of the world gets irritated when America’s loud and lofty rhetoric is not matched by equally fine deeds. It’s a problem of over-promising and under-delivering. Absolutely, say unapologetic American idealists. Promising nirvana is what we’re all about.


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