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 OK, 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 OK too. Such lies serve as useful political fictions allowing politicians to test the waters.
What's not OK is Bloomberg's clichéd call for a New Politics. This shtick exploits democracy's Achilles' 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."