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.