Effective leadership requires large, visionary goals -- Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms or Ronald Reagan's post-Soviet world. But it connects vision to strategy. It stretches the boundaries of reality without denying the existence of those boundaries. It both opens vistas and draws maps. The political world is moved by optimistic pragmatists, not by despairing utopians. The best leaders give romance to realism.
Historically, conservatives have diagnosed serious dangers in utopianism. A disregard for realism and prudence raises expectations that are predictably dashed, encouraging political disillusionment or worse. People may lose faith in public engagement or even in the legitimacy of political institutions themselves. If Obamacare is really the worst thing since chattel slavery, then it would be justified to view our nation and its institutions in a different light. And maybe to flee from them.
The reductio ad absurdum of utopianism gets truly absurd. One funder of the Club for Growth has invested in a project to explore the creation of floating libertarian cities, called "seasteads," to explore "new ideas for government." What type of ideology would cause men and women to forsake their green and pleasant land, and leave their friendly and frustrating neighbors, to start anew on an oil derrick?
It is certainly not conservatism. Both apocalyptic language and utopian hopes are foreign to it. Conservatives have traditionally affirmed that social systems should fit the contours of reality, not patterns cut by abstract ideology. The task of politics is reform, which requires prudent calculation and respect for consequences. Instead of alternating between despair and bluster, conservatism offers a deeper confidence: that human nature is best suited to ordered liberty. And for this reason, persistent, responsible political action can make a large difference, on health care and much else.
"I've always believed," said William F. Buckley in 1970, "that conservatism is ... the politics of reality and that reality ultimately asserts itself, in a reasonably free society, in behalf of the conservative position."
This is the true source of conservative hope: the politics of reality.