Election Day Morning: Taking the Long View

It’s Election Day morning.  If Nate Silver’s predictions are right, tonight the Democrats will lose their majority in the House and just barely hold onto the Senate.  In January John Boehner (Bwa-ha-ha!) will probably become the new Speaker of the House. (My proofreader just told me that last sentence made her sick!)

Two years ago this country took an extraordinary leap into the future, electing its first African-American president, a man who believes in the theory of evolution, global warming, Keynesian economics, strengthening the commons, and improving economic fairness.  His election accomplished a great deal.  It prevented an economic depression, saved the American auto industry, passed health care, educational loan, and financial reform, and raised automobile emissions standards.  It didn’t accomplish everything, but what does?

Today’s election will be a retrograde step generated by corporate greed, fear of change, and misrepresentation of facts. It will impede progress in creating new jobs, prevent  much needed climate change and energy legislation, and slow progress on many other fronts.  These are my opinions as an informed citizen, not as a Buddhist.  You may or may not agree with them.

What follows are my thoughts about facing the anticipated electoral debacle.  Coping with political disaster is not all that different from coping with sickness, old age, and death.  It’s all part of Buddhist practice. We don’t want to do it, but what the hell.  What’s the alternative? The Buddhist practice of non-attachment to outcome can be very helpful here.  As can the Buddhist cultivation of equanimity.

My advice to everyone is to take the longer view.

Heinz Werner (1890-1964), the Austrian developmental psychologist, theorized that children’s motor, perceptual, and cognitive development progressed along lines of both increased differentiation and integration. For example, when very young children are asked to draw a person they usually draw some kind of undifferentiated circle.  Later they add in details: eyes, ears, nose, limbs.  Later still they integrate the details into the whole: the arms come out of the shoulders, rather than the neck.   Children’s understanding of the idea of quantity develops in much the same way.  At first children can describe objects in an undifferentiated way: they are either “big” or “little”.  Later they develop the capacity to give more detailed quantitative descriptions: longer, shorter, wider, narrower, etc.  Later still they can integrate and coordinate these qualities to understand that when a ball of clay is rolled into a snake it becomes longer, but that the snake doesn’t contain more clay than the ball because it is narrower at the same time.

Science develops in the same way.  At first its view of the world is undifferentiated.  In early Greek science, for example, there are only four elements: earth, wind, water, and fire.  Now we have a more differentiated  understanding of the elements, and atomic theory allows us to organize and integrate the 103 known elements into a Periodic Table.

Do social orders also develop through integration and differentiation?  The history of the past several thousand years is about human beings being organized into larger and larger collective wholes from family, to tribe, to duchy, to nation state, to empire, to membership in an international community.

While the State has grown through a process of progressive integration there has been a simultaneous corresponding movement toward greater differentiation.  Originally there were only several roles community members could aspire to: warrior, head man, shaman; or serf, clergy, noble.  Compare that to the diversity of professional and social roles that currently exist: poet, social media consultant, software engineer, x-ray technician, forensic scientist, crime boss, retiree, entrepreneur, etc.  In addition, there is growing international recognition that individuals possess personal rights, and individuals increasingly organize into a multitude of small voluntary associations that exist side by side with the State: professional, occupational, avocational, civic, political, religious, charitable, and cultural.

The growth of the Internet shows a similar process of increased integration and differentiation.  Originally there were small e-mail networks that couldn’t communicate with one another.  Now the entire world is networked, and individuals are finding ways to express their unique voices through personal web pages and blogs. Technorati currently tracks 1,244,423 blogs, but the true number is probably over one hundred times as great!

If there are underlying regularities that govern the development of societies, then perhaps one can put some trust in the idea that in the long run trends towards greater international cooperation and greater respect for and recognition of individuality will prevail.  Over the past two hundred years we’ve seen an end to the slave trade and the recognition of women’s suffrage.  Racist and sexist ideas which were once universally tolerated are now widely abhorred.  In the past fifty years we’ve seen a movement in the West towards greater tolerance and acceptance of the rights of gays and lesbians.  There’s also been a world-wide trend towards recognizing the need for collective activity to guarantee individual security which is reflected in programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the new health care reform law.  All these changes have occurred and endured despite the ebb and flow of the fates of individual politicians and parties, and perhaps one can have faith that in the long run progressive ideas will endure despite transient setbacks.

I don’t mean to be unrealistically optimistic. The twentieth century was witness to terrible political pathologies that took many tens of millions of lives through warfare, collectivization, the Gulag, and the crematorium.  Much of the world is still mired in ethnic strife, the denial of women’s rights, and the whims of sociopathic kleptocracies.  We may still blow ourselves up, fry ourselves, poison ourselves, or unleash novel pathogens that create hell on earth before society can further evolve.  The Tea Party movement with its fundamentalist Christian, antiscientific, American Exceptionalist, and Ayn Rand style laissez-faire capitalist economics frightens me to no end.  They can create an awful lot of suffering.  But if we survive the worst, there’s reason to hope for progress in the future.

That’s why, while I’m disconcerted by the predicted outcome of this election, I’m not despairing.  There will be another election next year and the year after.  President Obama still has the power to veto any egregious laws that pass the legislature.  The Senate will probably still be in Democratic hands.

This is no time to withdraw from the political arena and focus only on our individual liberation.  Our Bodhisattva vows commit us to involvement in the world, however we construe that involvement.

We need to take the long view.  And work harder.  And keep hope alive.

12 Replies to “Election Day Morning: Taking the Long View”

  1. Seth, you make very good points, and I want to keep hope alive, but I’m not optimistic about the future of our country. There was been a game-changer: the Supreme Court decision in the case of Citizens United conflating the speech rights of juridical persons (corporations) with those of natural persons, despite decades of contrary precedents, to strike down the so-called electioneering communications ban in its entirety. http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-205.pdf. This decision has been widely publicized, but its long-term implications, I think, are not widely understood. As Democratic Senator Charles Schumer, put it, ”The Supreme Court has just predetermined the winners of next November’s election. It won’t be the Republicans or the Democrats and it won’t be the American people; it will be Corporate America.” Those of us who were already appalled at the influence of big money in our electoral system are now apoplexic. It is not necessarily that the opinion was constitutionally ungrounded; legal scholars and commentators are divided on the issue. But even if rightly decided, the opinion deals a possible mortal blow to the enactment of better campaign finance laws. As it is, our system of government can hardly be called a representative democracy when ”Senators had a median reportable net worth of $1.79 million in 2008, the last year such data were available . . . while House members’ median net worth was $645,503 in 2008, according to a McClatchy report. And ”while about 1 percent of Americans are considered millionaires, 44 percent of members of Congress were in that category [and] [f]ifty members had wealth topping $10 million.” http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2010/05/03/93358/congress-where-44-percent-are.html#ixzz14C8RHh4S. It is also well known that electoral campaigns at every level, from municipal councils to the presidency of the U.S., are increasingly more costly. In the 2008 presidential campaign, the top two candidates alone spent over $1 billion dollars, http://www.opensecrets.org/pres08/index.php. Meanwhile, ”The cost of congressional campaigns has skyrocketed, from an average of about $87,000 spent for successful House elections in 1976 (about $308,000 in 2006 dollars) to an average of $1.3 million spent on winning campaigns in 2006. Successful Senate candidates in 1976 spent an average of $609,000 (about $2.2 million in 2006 dollars), and in 2006, the average Senate winner spent an astonishing $9.6 million.” http://www.floridapirg.org/newsroom/money-politics/money–politics-news4/momentum-builds-for-public-funding-of-congressional-elections. Obviously, big money is the key to our political system. Such a system is not a democracy; it is a plutocracy. Is it any wonder that the rich are getting richer, and the poor, poorer? Or that the top 1% of Americans, as of 2007, controlled 43% of the financial wealth, while the bottom 80% controlled only 7% percent? http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html. Now, with the Citizens United decision, the small minority of wealthy citizens and the corporations they own and control will be able to spend unlimited amounts of money directly to elect their preferred candidates. We have already started to see the results in the current election cycle, and they are not pretty. Negative campaigning based on lies, distortions, and the manipulation of our fears, anger and ignorance are the norm. It will now be easier to buy our ”representatives” in congress and elsewhere in government. The implications are tremendous. By the next election cycle, the country as we have known it may have a very different, and permanent political landscape. I fear we will become more of a Third World country due to the greed of anonymous multinational corporations which owe no allegiance to anyone but their shareholders—if that. (Sometimes they seem to owe their allegiance to their boards of directors and executives.) The possibility even of foreign nationals affecting our election results is also real, as demonstrated by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s receipt of secret foreign contributions on the one hand and its expenditure of huge sums of money on behalf of conservatives on the other hand. The instability, suffering and retrogression resulting from this new landscape could be devastating. I hope I’m wrong.

    1. Good to hear from you, Amaury, as always! Thanks for your detailed analysis. I agree that the Citizens United decision is a great mistake on the part of the Court, and that it amplifies the already considerable power of great wealth on elections, legislation, and regulation. I also agree that corporations’ narrow focus on only short-term profitability and on shareholders rather than stakeholders often puts their interests in conflict with what might be termed the general good, and therefore corporate contributions may not contribute to the general well being of the country.

      Can Citizens United be overturned by a new court decision or by legislative action? Who knows? The Congress doesn’t have a lot of motivation to cut off the flow of money, the Court could always be changed by Obama getting a chance to add a new justice, but there don’t appear to be any openings in the near future, and there can always be a public groundswell against the flow of corporate money, but if there will be, it isn’t apparent yet. Look what’s become of McCain-Feingold: McCain has backed away from it and Feingold is history.

      I suspect Citizens United is something we will have to live with, at least for now. Money can’t buy every election: Blumenthal won in Connecticut, Jerry Brown in California. The Tea Party movement will eventually fizzle since it has really nothing to offer. And if every concerned citizen actually contributed money during an election , it could outweigh corporate contributions. The internet has made that kind of small donation fund raising feasable, but only when there is a person or issue that ignites the popular imagination.

  2. That sentence made me sick, too.

    You are absolutely right, of course, about the need to take the long view. Things are generally improving. But in the short view, now we have to put up with Boehner and those people being insufferable, as if they weren’t insufferable enough already . . .

    My frustration is that this is like deja vu all over again. For every step forward, we take two steps back. I think I’m like most folks. We understand that things will even out over the long run, but we need more hope in short run.

  3. Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow just tweeted: “Well America, the last two years were your designated occasional dose of moderate liberalism. Time to retrench for the next twenty years.” It can feel like that, can’t it? Putting up with the unsufferable is part of Buddhist practice though. And seeing all our opponents, including John Boehner, as fully enlightened Buddhas. Good times for Buddhist practice! Time for whining is over. Get to work!

  4. You would have to throw that Buddhist stuff in and ruin everything. It’s hard to not imagine Boehner as the sort of guy who pulls the wings off flies, after all he does look kinda mean . . .

  5. The elections could not have made me happier — I want to see the end of Keynesian economics and anything aligned with it. But it looks like that is an unwelcomed opinion on this blog. Just goes to show, politics does not necessarily have to follow religion.

    1. Not an unwelcome opinion, Sabio. Just different. Buddhist practice encourages engagement in social action that is compassionate and not driven by greed or hatred. It is up to each of us as individuals to decide based on our own best judgment which policies will lead to compassionate ends and will relieve suffering. There is plenty of room for disagreement about which policies would be most effective in achieving those ends. I happen to be Krugmanesque in my opinions on econonics, but that has nothing to do with Buddhism.

      1. On my blog I am careful not to discuss politics or economics — it divides us greatly. But only because that blog serves a different purpose. Many Atheists, Christians and Buddhists mix their metaphysical beliefs with their politics — to me this confuses the dialogue even further. But we are all human and our desires spill out.

        I am more of the Austrian School, if we are to share our opinions. I commented for I think it is good to let a crowd know that not all are cheering the same cheer. For dialogue purposes, I made some charts to help folks declare view points. I hoped they would enhance exchange. Mine are listed in my “about tab“. I have yet to make one for Buddhists. It might be fun.

  6. Sabio,
    Three cheers for everyone not marching to the same drummer! I thought about whether or not to publish this purely political post on this blog. I knew not every Buddhist would agree with me. That’s why I put in the caveat that these were my opinions as an informed citizen and not as a Buddhist. (And maybe everyone won’t agree about the “informed” part.) But not every Buddhist will agree with what I have to say about Buddhism either. And it’s wonderful when a post elicits a diversity of views and intelligent conversation. Buddhist practice is all about mutual respect and honest attention to what others have to say. (I know I got a bit snarky about John Boehner. Sorry, couldn’t resist. Guess I need to pratice some more!)

  7. Listen, there are Buddhist blogs out there far more snarkier than you’ll ever be. A blog is about bloggers expressing their thoughts. If every so often that includes politics, so be it.

    To me, Buddhists should not feel the need to put up some false faÁ§ade of perpetual even-handedness and pleasant thoughts. We have occasional anger. We have opinions. There are people and points of view that we will never care for. We’re human. The point is not that we have these feelings and opinions but what we do about them, whether we cling to them or not, whether, as you noted, we respect the opinions of others, especially when they do not align with our opinion .

    I must confess that it was not until this morning that I got the ”orange” remark. I may be dumb but I’m not stupid. I get em eventually.

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