The Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree and meditated on the meaning of life for 49 days, and after awakening, he reunited with his companions who would become his disciples and gave his first teaching on the Four Noble Truths. The First Noble Truth is the existence of suffering or discomfort (dukkha). Everyone gets sick; everyone grows old; and eventually everyone dies — and we often experience discomfort whether our lives are deprived or priveleged. The Buddha also taught that much of our suffering comes from our attempts to turn our attention away from these facts by chasing false comfort in an uncomfortable world – through pursuit of wealth, fame, sex, fantasy, alcohol, drugs and other empty distractions.
The First Noble Truth of Politics is Frustration. Anyone who makes the choice to care about politics knows the frustrations that take the form of an opposition that never sees the light of wisdom, and also allies that have their own separate goals and agendas as well as leaders that continually disappoint. We may turn away from this frustration by embracing the Fantasy of Political Vanquishment – but this only leads to more frustration.
We all suffer because we imagine how wonderful the world will be when we vanquish the opposition and are finally able to achieve our political goals and enjoy the benefits of a society that lives by our values. The truth is: this is a fantasy that never happens and understanding and accepting this fact, like the acceptance of our limitations and mortality, is the first step toward finding peace in politics.
Even though we have never seen it happen, political participants hold onto the view that some day, perhaps as soon as the next election, our side will win a total victory so great that the opposition will realize how correct our positions have been all along, or perhaps they will be so powerless that it will not matter what they think. We win, they lose. We can enact the policies we know are best for all and political compromises will no longer be necessary.
What partisans forget, especially partisans committed to a purer version of their side’s guiding principles, is they are a minority of the voting public. Progressives can be correct that America is a center-left nation, and that true progressives are the majority of the Democratic caucus — and still not realize that progressive Democrats are a minority of all voters. All of this math is equally true on the other side. America is also a center-right nation and conservatives are in the majority of the Republican caucus — and yet conservative Republicans are a minority of all voters. Yet progressive Democrats, conservative Republicans, and even committed moderates, another voting minority, all hold onto the faith that their side will some day be able to call all of the shots.
Democrats had a fleeting taste of this fantasy on November 4, 2008 when Barack Obama won the White House as Democrats increased their margins in the Senate and House of Representatives. We all know how that turned out. Republicans vowed to block every Obama initiative and make him a failure and a one term president, and Democrats divided into a moderate faction with greater influence in the Senate, and a progressive faction with greater influence in the House.
Despite controlling the White House, Senate and House, the opposition was not vanquished and the frustration continued. Many in the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” bemoaned all of the compromises needed to pass President Obama’s signature accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, and vowed to defeat more moderate Democrats in the next election. In the 2010 election nearly all the moderate “Blue Dog” Democrats in the House were swept out but it was by Republicans who gained control of the lower chamber, essentially ending most Democratic hopes for further legislative progress until they can regain control, perhaps in 2014 or 2016.
Republicans have been dwelling in their own vanquishment fantasy recently with their obsession on the impossible dream of repealing Obamacare. As if winning control of the Senate and House would be enough power to enact a new law. It would take a two thirds majority in both the House and the Senate to override a presidential veto that is certain until at least January 2017, when the law will have been in effect for years and millions will be enjoying coverage. As if Republicans would have any more success in unifying their party around an alternative set of health policies than the Democrats had when they controlled each body, or as if the Democrats would just stop fighting for health insurance for all.
The problem with the vanquishment fantasy – beyond that it never actually happens – is that it stands as a major impediment to any real progress. The partisans ask, “Why should I compromise with you now when the next election is going to sweep you off the political map?” This was the belief of many Democrats before the disastrous 2010 election and it is the view of many Republicans now. Both sides have strong factions that would rather wait for a complete victory, than reach a compromise with the other side today. This is just one of many reasons why so little of substance is getting done in Washington these days, and so many problems continue to fester.
The Buddha did not live in the time of contemporary Washington politics, so we have to interpret the teaching for our current circumstances, but the wisdom of concentrating on the present moment, rather than living in fears or fantasies of the future, would seem to be right on point. Often in politics the goal is to delay progress, but if your goal is to achieve progress, it is probably better to get something done with the allies and opposition you have now rather than waiting for the political environment you imagine you will have after the next election.