What can go wrong with idealism?
One way idealists go wrong is by choosing the unachievable ideals. Socialism, communism, and fascism are the political manifestations of unachievable ideals, carried to genocidal extremes.
Incorrect ideals need not be writ large, however. Incorrect ideals are sometimes adopted only for brief periods of time, at certain times of the year. Let’s call this “holiday idealism”. A good example of this is described in the audio version of David Sedaris’ essay “SantaLand Diaries”. The narrator describes a parent who must threaten her child in order to get a good photo with a department store Santa Claus:
“On paper, it means that everything is exactly as it is supposed to be, that everything is snowy and wonderful. It’s not about the child, or Santa, or Christmas, or anything but the parent’s idea of a world they cannot make work for them.”
A far deeper way idealists can go wrong is to abandon their principles completely. This doesn't happen all at once. People sell their soul in such small quantities - a seemingly trivial compromise here, a rationalization of a minor evil there - that they don't realize what they're doing until it is too late.
The immediate result of abandoned idealism is an embittered and drained man, whether he realizes it or not, whether he likes it or not. He is capable of acting in his own interest, but only to the extent that those interests coincide with those of the lowest animals.
It gets worse, once the embittered man realizes not all people have chosen his route.
The embittered man understands that something has gone wrong, but instead of identifying the problem and repairing the damage, he pretends that perception trumps reality, so he puts on a happy face. He becomes an uncheerful cheerleader for what used to be his opposition: “there but for the grace of Obamacare go I”, “there but for laws prohibiting cocaine go I”, etc.
For a brief while, the embittered man believes his own propaganda and becomes mildly happy. He finds similarly mildly happy men, and they might even come to think of themselves as a pack. In reality they are a herd, and are perfect for being in a herd, for they are incapable of believing they are being herded.
Here’s looking at you, 1960s counterculture hippies.
As time goes on, the embittered men see the gulf between what is and what could be - but they push such thoughts away. They view their abdication of principle as a sign of maturity, and they pride themselves for their pragmatism. They advocate for things that would horrify their younger selves. When they encounter those who haven't sold their souls, they call them immature, or say that they aren't living in the real world.
Here’s looking at you, old-school Republicans.
People say - popular culture advocates - government demands that we sell our souls, for nothing but the cheapest of baubles and bling, if even that. If you do sell, the result is a gray, cheerless, and dreary existence.
If you stay true to your principles, you have confidence, conviction, purpose, values - in other words, you have a future.
Why would anyone be happy with less?