Do you feel so disgusted with the presidential candidates that you don’t feel like voting for either of them? That you might just stay home? If so, consider these four points:
- First, your silence would be a vote for the candidate you like least;
- Second, there is a lot more on the ticket than the presidential election; there are votes on local referendums, and local elections, many of which can affect you profoundly at the local level far more than the federal elections. And you also have the opportunity to vote for individuals at the local level, mayor, attorney-general etc., many of whom often get elected by very small margins – a few hundred votes or less;
- Third, you can leverage your impact by encouraging others to vote – a friend, a family member, a colleague – and even by volunteering to drive voters to the poll station;
- And fourth, politicians fear your vote. Successful career politicians look at the results and pay attention. They want to be reelected, and if there are votes against them, you’d better believe they count.
A Buddhist Viewpoint
I was honored to have been invited to speak as a Buddhist at an NAACP press conference yesterday about the importance of getting out to vote, and when I thought beforehand about what to say, I found some lessons in Buddhism that are directly relevant to the political situation in the US:
- Buddha was, in a sense, building Rev Dr. Martin Luther King’s beloved community 2,500 years ago. The historical figure, Siddhartha Gautama, was building a society founded on love, compassion, and the elimination of the cast system. He had a policy of radical inclusion;
- Buddha would, I believe have supported the democratic system: an expression of our equality of human dignity, opportunity, and respect framed in a system of equal rights to hear our voices heard in a community-based government;
- But he would have felt that a democracy only works to support equality if everyone participates;
- And he would certainly have felt that we must hold our politicians accountable after an election, by monitoring them, writing to them, writing to the newspapers, etc., and where appropriate conducting peaceful protests;
- He would have also, I believe, looked at the uneven barriers we have established, whether they be greater difficulty for some than others obtaining employer permission on poll day or access to transportation divided along racial or socio-economic grounds, and he would have come down on the side of early voting, and of encouraging participation in early voting.
In short the Buddha would have been a fan of the American experiment, but would be disappointed that the population not only does not participate fully, but participates so unevenly.
Politics as a Full Contact Sport
In this column we’ve previously drawn sports analogies for our elections, but they don’t show our system in a good light. We’ve talked about our politics being team-based, where the electorate, for the most part, sees its role as putting the team on the pitch, and that we seem not to care about the attributes of the players on our team, just that our team wins, and that even after the election we pound the opposition.
That is a dangerous approach on so many counts, the main one being that the real enemy is not the other party. It is nations who pose a threat to US national interests; regimes who abuse and exploit their own people; and our domestic problems of poverty, education, homelessness, hopelessness, and more. A nation divided by in-fighting will not only not be paying attention to these larger issues, it will be diminishing and weakening itself so that it will be far less effective when we are unable to avoid these issues any longer. It is only if we all engage in the political process, and if we are willing to turn to our common goal, that we can succeed. Some ways to do this:
- First, as said above, get out and vote. And do so early so that you avoid issues on the day, and can be more effective encouraging others to participate;
- Stay engaged. Pay attention to the news; write to your politicians, regardless of party, both to encourage them to act and to tell them what you thought after they acted;
- Get involved in local politics. This could be in a political party, but it could also be getting involved in the school district, or in voter registration activities, or volunteering for or donating to an organization that lobbies on a matter that interests you.
Seek to Understand
In his “Politics”, Aristotle writes, “human beings are by nature political animals, because nature, which does nothing in vain, has equipped them with speech, which enables them to communicate moral concepts such as justice which are formative of the household and city-state”. By this Aristotle is not talking of the democratic political process of his native Athens, but rather of day-to-day human interactions. He observes that every day we are engaged in the small activities of politics: who washes the dishes today? What are we going to do this weekend? What kind of car do we want to buy? In these little conversations, we listen to each other, we learn about each other, and we compromise. And then we get on with life together, and we do it again. And again and again. If voices feel unheard, eventually marriages end, children leave home and leave their parents behind, communities and collaborations fall apart.
For politics of the national, democratic election type to work, it must have the same attributes of dialog, compromise, and staying in relationship with each other. Sure, we bring opinions to the table and we want to be heard, often even simply want our desires put into action. But unless we seek first to understand others, we will never be understood ourselves, for two simple reasons:
- If we are unwilling to listen to another purely to understand them, why should they ever bother to listen to us?
- If we don’t understand others, we can’t tell our story in a way that allows others to understand us.
But something far more important than positioning yourself to be understood, and your position to be adopted, happens when you listen to another person purely to understand: you connect with them as a human being. By being willing to listen, you allow them to tell their story, and this can change you. I can tell you from personal experience that listening to others can transform your life in wonderful ways! It will put your thoughts and perspectives in a larger context and you might see issues as well as people differently. You will grow as a human being, and be wiser and more effective as a result.
So in conclusion, get out to vote, do so early, and encourage others to vote. This is important not just to you, but to our nation, to those who follow your leadership, and to your children and your children’s children. And your vote should be based on researching the issues on the referendum, and on the qualifications and platforms of the candidates.
But don’t think you’re done there.
Once the election is over, stay engaged. Consider active civic participation in your local government, be that the schools, the courts, or the party system. Stay connected with your politicians and let them know what you think and what you want. And above all, recognize that for a democracy to work, we must listen to those who think differently than us and be willing to connect, to learn, to compromise.