This country is in a bad way now. We have two dominant political forces: call them Democrats and Republicans, or Liberals/Progressives and Conservatives, or Left and Right, or Blue and Red states. Each side, supposedly, is one thing, one creed, one code, one truth. And the other side is … dogshit.
We no longer can see with eyes of questioning, of forgiveness, or charity. Instead, we see with the interpretations put into the public mind by the left-dominated mainstream media or by the equally powerful and deeply saturated right-dominated alternative media and “talk radio.”
In the eyes of the mainstream media, anyone who is not a true-blue Democrat is a xenophobic, Bible-thumping, Sieg-heiling, Neanderthal subhuman. In the eyes of the alternative media, anyone who is not a red-state Republican or, more recently, a Donald Trump supporter is a marshmallow, America-hating, Marxist- and/or Soviet- (or Chinese-Communist–) loving, pajama-boy elitist. We carry the caricatures in our minds and see them instead of the people and positions we meet in real life, on the street, and sometimes in our own families.
And what is the reality? Most people vote according to their family traditions, perhaps according to the political environment they picked up in college or in their earliest job environments. People tend to stay with the party they adopted in their youth and seldom, if ever, examine their assumptions and associations in order to change their allegiance. But, for most people, their politics is not an all-consuming pastime. Neither is their religion. They are too busy making a living, raising children, worrying about the mortgage or doctor bills or credit cards, furthering their education, or rooting for their favorite sports team.
And what’s wrong with that? These are the things that people can choose to do and have an effect on in their daily lives. Supporting a party or a political cause is a distant second. Unless a person is monomaniacally focused on the political issues of the day—attending rallies and marches, writing to state and federal representatives, contributing hard-earned cash, and yes, voting once every two years—the issues addressed by political programs and parties are abstruse, nebulous, distant in time and place, and not all that personally interesting. For most people, political movements are figments of their imagination, taking place far away and in the distant future, the stuff of “well, if this goes on” and “one day, eventually.” Political concerns are not real, not personal.
And when someone does care about politics, what is actually going on in their mind? For most people—not the addicts, but most of the people you meet—their personal views are shaped by those same childhood, adolescent, and young-adult attitudes.
For most people on the Left, the attitude is one of concern and compassion. They want a better life for the people around them, both near and far, who may not be faring as well as they believe they themselves are doing. They see for people of other races, classes, and ethnic backgrounds a distinct lack of the opportunities and benefits that they themselves have had, and they feel badly about this. Their concern is that everyone—in America and all around the world—get a good life and an opportunity for peace and prosperity. This attitude may be based on non-economic, magical thinking1 and presumes that this good life is infinitely divisible and universally obtainable. And if it’s not, then it should be. And then society or the government or the party in power should be forced to provide it.
For most people on the Right, the attitude is one of responsibility and self-reliance. They want that good life for themselves and for others, regardless of race, class, or ethnic background, but they believe it can only be obtained through personal effort. That a person can realize benefits and seize the opportunities that come along only by preparing oneself and one’s children through a mindful approach to life. Such an approach involves dedication to a certain sober style of living, respecting others and the rules set by family and society, getting a good education to the limits of one’s abilities, working hard at a meaningful job, and saving for whatever the future may bring. If other people fall short in this regard, then it is through their own fault. This is hard economic thinking, and if the person can’t help him- or herself, then society or the government can’t do much more.
If there is a dominant streak in either view, the Left is aspirational while the Right is foundational. The Left’s programs appeal to emotional attachments and sensitivity, while the Right’s programs appeal to detachment and stoicism. These root feelings go back a long way in human psychology.
I am reminded of the two great variants in Buddhist thinking. In the original dharma, or ideal truth as taught by the Buddha himself, a person achieves mastery, breaks the karmic cycle, and enters Nirvana upon death only by having a correct understanding and practicing the right beliefs and actions. This is the Hinayana, or “Lesser Vehicle,” approach, the path of the individual seeker. But going that route is hard: you have to put off family attachments, daily business, and the distractions of living. This is the conservative view. You really have to shave your head, put on a saffron robe, pick up a begging bowl, and live like a monk, focusing only what will get you into heaven. Most people don’t have the strength or such focused purpose—and it would be terrible for society and the rest of us if everyone practiced this form of Buddhism. For one thing, humanity would die out for lack of procreation!
And so, over time—and certainly after the Buddha’s own lifetime—the Mahayana, or “Greater Vehicle,” tradition arose for the rest of us. This form supposes that those who are about to become Buddhas themselves, the bodhisattvas, store up so much positive, karma-calming energy that they can share it with those who pray to them. The bodhisattvas become like angels or gods—whom the Buddha himself either denied or found irrelevant to the process of personal salvation—and dispense compassion and personal salvation to those who believe and generally try to do the right things. This is the broader, more social view of the situation. They don’t deny the reality of the narrower view, but they try to allow for—and provide some path and benefit to—those who show human frailty.
Another set of roots to today’s parties can be found in ancient Greece. In Athens after the Peloponnesian War (431-403 BC, which the democratic, philosophical, free-thinking Athens lost to the dour, tight-lipped, militaristic Spartans), a dominant school of thought arose with Plato and his mentor Socrates. They were philosophers but also radical thinkers, which was the reason Socrates was tried and sentenced to self-inflicted death. Plato’s best remembered work—or at least the one that most people read in college—is The Republic, and you can consider it as recoiling from, or trying to reconcile with, the views and attributes that Sparta imposed on the Athenians. The Republic that Plato describes is not a democracy, and it’s not a nice place to live: popular opinions are repressed, the population is socially regimented, with music and the arts strictly prescribed—martial music is the only kind allowed—and all the important decisions are made by “philosopher kings.” Hooray for the philosophers, but not so good for anyone who disagrees with them. That would be the little people, the hoi polloi, the no-accounts. It’s a streamlined state where you shut up and pull your oar.
This kind of thinking, that better minds than yours know what’s good for you, has come down through the ages. It certainly drove the aspirations of both military conquerors like Alexander and Caesar and religious inquisitors like Torquemada and Sir Thomas More.2 It erupted in the French Revolution when the philosophes, or public intellectuals, tried to remake society all at once along perfectly rational lines and failed miserably, bringing on the Reign of Terror and rise of Napoleon. We see it today in the Progressives of the early twentieth century, encouraged by Woodrow Wilson and empowered by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who wanted to radically remake society along scientific and liberal lines. Their beliefs are definitely utopian—aspirational—and waste no time on the traditional social mores and attitudes—foundational—with which everyone is familiar, even though the results are sometimes unpalatable.
With these last comments, I consciously reveal my own biases. My politics are somewhere in the middle of all this, not absolute, and nothing pure. I am a little-D democrat and come from a Christian- and Western-based conservative tradition. I believe in the freedom and agency of individuals to shape their own lives. I am socially liberal—in the old sense of the word, based on freedom, rather than the modern, “woke” sense, based on identity and conformity. And I am fiscally conservative, concerned about preserving my family’s wealth, paying my taxes, and the limiting the national debt. At heart, I want me, my family, and my friends to be left alone—with a safety net, of course, and the protections of enough government regulation to guard against systematic looting by the rich and powerful. And I think most people want this in some form for themselves. Where we draw the line, I think, is on whether we trust other people to be able to live according to their own thoughts and desires, or whether they should be helped, or forced, by wiser heads to live a better life.
But no matter which side of the line you occupy, only a select few among us are actually red-faced, bellowing demons intent on burning and destruction. Most of us are kindly folk who want good things for other people. But that may be too much like crazy thinking these days.
1. Most of human life is based on non-economic and magical thinking. That is why lotteries and Ponzi schemes are so popular. It’s the triumph of emotion—hope—over hard-headed reality, of dreams over certainty, of “what might be” over “what is.” If we woke up every day conscious of how perilous living is, how close behind is the tiger tracking our footsteps, and how quick collapse, famine, and death can come to any one of us, then we wouldn’t get out of bed.
2. Utopia—which is based on two Greek words for “nowhere”—was the title of More’s vision for a perfectly orderly society. It wasn’t such a fun place to live, either, because farmland, people, and all of their associations were mechanically redistributed for the benefit of more rational production, among other things. More was another reformer—except when it came to religion, where he adhered to church teaching to the point of burning heretics alive.