The United States of America is both a country and an ideal. The Declaration of Independence put forth the principle that we would be a country where "…all men are created equal" and that citizens would have certain "unalienable Rights [such as] Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." It is a declaration claiming that all citizens are entitled to certain rights under the law because some of our founders thought they were intrinsic to the human condition.
Yet, for anyone with an even passing understanding of history, this ideal has never remotely lived up to reality. Indigenous inhabitants were pushed from their lands and continue to be treated quite poorly. Black Americans were denied their freedom outright, and even centuries later still have significantly worse outcomes than their whiter counterparts. The freedom of America has been a limited type of freedom denied to many.
When you think about it, America as an ideal is pretty unrealistic, arguably even utopian, but that reality is rarely acknowledged. There is this double standard where defenders of America's "founding" vision use the rhetoric of utopianism to attack alternatives while ignoring the same criticism for themselves. This allows supporters to sidestep calls for change while reinforcing the status quo.
A brief history of misunderstanding utopia
The word utopia (i.e., a seemingly perfect community) has been used pejoratively for a long time. From the often-mentioned famines of the USSR to the eugenics-like prescriptions in Plato's Republic, utopias are commonly thought of as dystopias in disguise. As conservative philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel roughly wrote: "There is a tyranny in the womb of every utopia."
Yet the history behind this concept is more complicated. While the idea has been around for a long, the word itself is commonly attributed to British academic and statesmen Thomas More in his 1551 book, Utopia. It comes from the Greek word outopos, meaning 'no place' or 'nowhere'. The word itself was a pun of the Greek word eutopos, or good place (although he initially preferred the Latin version Nusquama).
More's book is made up of two parts. The first book is an academic conversation between several fictional and real people about governance, particularly about how one should punish theft. The characters bring up accounts of different political structures, some real, others imaginary, including the Isle of Utopia. Through this dialogue, these characters, one of them being More himself, provide a blistering critique of then-contemporary Europe.
The second part goes into further detail about Utopia — its geography, culture, politics, etc. This island nation supposedly evolved from a "primitive" state of nature to one of near perfection. Instead of focusing on private property laws, they adopted a "communality of possession," which is a fancy way of describing a proto-form of communism. Everything is shared, and "though no one owns anything, everyone is rich." Utopians hated war and detested opulence (note: they also shunned vices and had slavery, so not everything was idyllic).
Our current negative association with the word utopia might have one thinking that More was against many of the principles described in the book, as he has a fictional account of himself rejecting many of Utopia's ideals. There were probably some ideas he did disagree with. However, in an era where criticizing the monarchy could mean literal death (and would eventually lead to his execution over an unrelated matter), this literary distance was, in many ways, a safety measure meant to stave off deadly criticism.
People have often ignored this context, trying to flatten the text to only be about a man railing against an overly idealistic perfectionism—an impression supported by many publishers of the time. As noted in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
“For much of its reception-history, Utopia has been treated as if it consisted exclusively of Book 2, and this impression was supported by some printed versions which omitted the first book. It was this that gave rise to the misleading adjective “Utopian” with its negative connotations of unreal and unattainable aspiration.”
And yet we must recognize that Thomas More was using the Isle of Utopia as a lens to criticize the monarchies of Western Europe — a political structure that many contemporaries would now label as archaic. Even with the most flowery language, utopian rhetoric is almost always about the present, a call to change and improve broken systems.
The weaponization of utopia
Yet, right now, to call something utopian is practically synonymous with labeling it as a disguised dystopia. "If something seems too good to be true," goes the common saying, "then it is." This especially applies to left-wing policy, which is routinely scolded for being a pie-in-the-sky fantasy, even if the word utopianism is not used to dismiss it.
Take, for example, single-payer healthcare, i.e., the payment of a population's healthcare under a single administrator rather than by many redundant ones. It's common for opponents, even within the Democratic party, to portray this policy as unrealistic or "too expensive." The status quo — one of the most expensive and inefficient medical systems in the modern world — is deemed more practical than one streamlined system because, well, systemic reform simply can't be done. As Joe Biden said on the campaign trail about the plans of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren:
“It is totally unrealistic and can’t be done. My plan can occur the day after I’m elected, we can get it done, you don’t have to wait 5–10 years to get it done. I’m not criticizing them personally, but look there’s a little truth in advertising here. Bernie and Elizabeth: How much is your plan going to cost?”
Almost four years later, the biggest healthcare item the Biden administration has managed to implement is Affordable Care Act subsidies set to expire in 2025—a bandaid and one easily removable if Republicans ever retake office. Given the reality of how ineffective the incrementalism of Biden has been, this attempt to frame more radical reform as lackluster is disingenuous.
Also, the current medical system, by the standard of money, is again already very inefficient. Healthcare spending per person and as a share of our GDP is already much higher than in most "developed countries, and we have far worse healthcare outcomes than them. Life expectancy has actually been going down for most demographics in the US.
Let’s turn the question around: how is Biden going to solve any of this?
In fact, most advocating for Medicare-for-all aren't pushing for a utopia in the pejorative sense, where everything is perfect, but one that tries to remove the inefficiencies of the current system for something that covers more people. We would pay for it by redirecting the profits from, say, insurance and pharmaceutical companies, and focusing those resources that would normally go to shareholders and salary bumps into providing people with actual healthcare. Surprisingly, rather than claiming to be perfectly grounded in a win-win scenario, it's a position that is advocating for political losers (i.e., those who have hoarded wealth via current inefficiencies), and one very much concerned with the practicalities of the current medical system.
By framing systemic reform as utopian you are telling people it's impossible — that anything that is not picking at the margins is insanity. We see this everywhere. Whether framing debates on how we reallocate police budgets (i.e., defunding the police) as "beyond the pale" or calling alternative economic systems "good in theory but not so great in practice", the goal of many on the Right has been to use the language of utopianism to depict all attempts of changing the status quo as either "going too far" or being "unrealistic."
And yet, and we must stress this, this same logic applies to America and all right-wing ideologies trying to depict themselves as realistic and commonsense. It's utopian "nonsense" all the way down.
America is "unrealistically" utopian
The thing about most of the ideologies on the Right is that they are no less utopian. Many religious fundamentalists want to restructure society under the premise of an otherworldly being’s grand design. Ethno-nationalists find that structure in the social constructs of race and ethnicity. Market fundamentalists find salvation through capitalism. Even most centrists believe that the ideal way to structure society is by finding the point in the center of the discourse. It’s all about supporting an ideological framework that one believes will build them as close to perfection as one can get.
The American ideal is no different. The argument often heard is that the principles that structured America (e.g., life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) will lead the country in the right direction. The ideals of the framers that we have come to romanticize in retrospect (not to be confused with the far messier political debates of reality) were that they advocated for a system of "checks and balances," "minority protections," and political compromise that were supposed to make us a more rational society.
And yet, this vision is hard to square with the major drawbacks those utopian principles created in reality (see slavery, genocide, imperialism, etc.). To this day, even some of America's strongest adherents are some of the first to admit its flaw. In the words of a proclamation from the Biden administration:
“This country was established upon the profound but simple idea that all people are created equal and should be treated equally throughout their lives. It is an idea America has never fully lived up to, but it is an idea we have never fully walked away from either.”
Here, we get to the central tension because it's rare that American utopianism is accused of being unrealistic in mainstream discourse. When Biden monologues about reaching toward the American ideal, it's treated aspirationally — a goal to reach toward. And yet, under the same logic, shouldn't we treat it with identical disdain? Isn't America something that likewise sounds good in theory but doesn't match up well in reality? Why is American Utopianism treated positively when this exact type of argument would get laughed out of the room for any other competing philosophy?
These are, of course, rhetorical questions. The answer is that American nationalism is the dominant ideal in this country. Otherwise, America the country would not continue to exist. And yet this paradox deserves to be brought up because it forces us to ask whether these utopian ideals are worth striving for in the future. All frameworks have tradeoffs where they are advocating for losers, even if those losers are just the narrow beneficiaries of the previous system.
And so, we must ask ourselves if we are comfortable with the “losers” generated by the current system.
When we look at the problems we have pointed out, many of them were caused by our founding ideals. The people instrumental in this country's origins were, for example, deeply skeptical of majority rule, or “the tyranny of the majority.” In perhaps one of the most famous Federalist papers, James Madison wrote how the new government would protect against this problem, claiming:
“[I]n the federal republic of the United States… all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.”
The dysfunction of our electoral system, as well as the lopsided hold the current Republican party has over electoral politics, is, in part, because of the institutions created to "safeguard" against this founding fear. The Senate overinflates the power of less populous states by ensuring that all of them have the same amount of votes (see the Virginia Compromise). The Electoral College, in its current incarnation, has the same bias, so much so that five presidents have lost the popular vote but won the election. Furthermore, the ridiculously high benchmark to amend the Constitution ensures these policies are very difficult to change — recalcitrance that historically just so happened to empower a small, aristocratic minority.
In fact, the Electoral College was originally conceived as a tool to find a philosopher-like-king of America, who would be just as well-received as George Washington. There was no democratic impulse behind it. As Eric Black argues in Minn Post:
“…it’s worth noting that the Framers had no thought that the president would have a “mandate” from “the people.” They were looking for excellence, not popularity…. [it was] not until the fourth presidential election — the one in 1800 in which Thomas Jefferson defeated the incumbent president John Adams but inadvertently tied with his own running mate — did the idea develop that a president derived some of his authority from a popular mandate.”
This utopian plan to select the president never happened because the framers had a blindspot when it came to factions. They didn't provide restrictions in the Constitution itself concerning parties because they naively thought their system would be able to ignore them altogether — a very pie-in-the-sky, utopian impulse.
The parties that inevitably formed often decided political nominations in a very cagey, and indirect way. Elections for Senators were decided by state legislators until the early 1900s (note the House was a popularly elected body, albeit from a richer, whiter, more male constituency). Primaries weren’t really a thing until the late 1800s, and they had little significance on the national level until the Democratic Primary of 1960 (imagine that). For much of the 1900s, it was the infamous "backroom deals" of party bosses that came to dominate who would be put on the ballot.
There have been many good reforms in this area, and yet, to this day, political parties in the US continue to be largely private entities that hold a lot of sway over the internal rules of who gets to run under their banner (see the debate schedule). And because other policies limit voting to just two options (see winner-take-all), this effectively allows party leaders to squash dissent on their ideological flanks and slows down more just reforms.
Most of the "gains" we have enjoyed from a social justice standpoint have been the result of slowly dismantling the hold of these founding principles. Many consider it good that the three-fifths compromise (i.e., the part of the Constitution that counted enslaved people as three-fifths of a person to inflate the representation of slave-holding states) was abolished. Many not only think that increasing enfranchisement to social minorities was a positive, but that democratizing our elections was preferable to the more closed-door politicking of the past. Yet the architects of this country would be horrified by the ideals we have abandoned, finding themselves more at home in the Republican Party than anywhere on the left.
Rather than being supported by our founding principles, defenders of social justice frequently find themselves crashing against the wall of American Utopianism. And for those raised to believe in the idealistic principles of America, that is a bitter pill to swallow.
A pie-in-the-sky conclusion
We have seen how the rhetoric of utopia has been used to historically dismiss alternatives. When someone labels something as utopian they are criticizing it as unrealistic and ill-fated — a dystopia in disguise. It is a line of attack often meant to preserve the status quo and, in the context of US politics, is particularly weaponized against left-wing alternatives.
Yet most ideological systems have a utopian base (a vision of how things should be) because they are striving for an ideal. This especially applies to America, which was founded on principles that often directly contradicted the reality of what America would become. The Framers wanted to do away with political factions, insulate minorities from majority interests, and create a perfect system of checks and balances. Instead, political factions formed almost immediately, we now very much exist under a tyranny of an oligarchic minority, and the mythical checks and balances created a system so intractable that we cannot even begin to solve our most basic problems.
This is not to dunk on the impulse to build something better. Even if I ultimately disagree with most of the principles the framers held dear, I admire the drive to create a better world. We need utopias to guide us because it's impossible to do away with ideologies, viewpoints, and perspectives. Those who read this article and come away with the moral that all "isms" are flawed have missed the point (and undoubtedly fail to realize that their viewpoints are governed by "isms" as well).
It's the looking back that matters. When one builds a system with the eyes of ideology, which is to say when one builds a system at all, they must have the humility to realize they can be wrong — that the world they wanted to make was not achieved. And to assess the flaws in their vision before the damage stigmatizes so badly that seeing it becomes impossible.
The vision of America, in retrospect, was deeply flawed, and it will not be the last time that a dream goes sour, but hopefully, when we commit to seeing things with different eyes, the damage the next time will not be so profound.
About the Creator
I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.