What Bill Clinton and the Buddha Got Right
In his work The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt observes that our moral beliefs are not products of logic, but stem from gut-level emotions which we justify with our rational mind. He concludes that “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” These intuitions are grounded in one’s temperament more than anything. This is to say that, on a basic emotional level, some people are constitutionally drawn to conservatism while others lean to the left. This is not hard to see. If you spend any time around young children you will notice that some are much more inclined to either challenge or respect authority, to share or not to share, to play with others or daydream alone, leap into an unfamiliar situation or hang back etc. These inclinations carry over into adult life, resulting in the manichean battles portrayed by the infotainment industry.
I am tired of hearing, ad nauseum, about the unprecedented division in American politics. To me, the situation begs for someone to integrate the intuitions of right and left. After all, strife can only continue for so long before either integration or disintegration occurs. Much better to integrate. Let’s take a look at what I consider these key temperamental reactions.
The left’s basic intuition is that of fate. If you ask a progressive why an individual suffers, they will point to someone or something else. Conceiving of the world primarily in materialistic terms, the left considers individual outcomes to be predetermined by the environment. This environment includes the economic system, societal norms, race, sex, systemic oppression, etc. Human nature, in the liberal view, is a tabula rasa on which society imprints itself. In response to the question, ‘Why did this person become a criminal?’ the liberal will say something like, ‘Because they were oppressed and never granted opportunities. Because of their race they were confined to a poor neighborhood without adequate education and thus never learned the skills needed to succeed. They were deprived by an unfair system, and so they had to turn to crime in order to feed themselves. If they had received opportunities, they would never have become a criminal.’ Or, consider the way Bernie Sanders fulminates against the billionaire class, casting them as nefarious bloodsuckers: “Let us wage a moral and political war against the billionaires and corporate leaders, on Wall Street and elsewhere, whose policies and greed are destroying the middle class of America.” For progressives, the external world determines one’s fate. They believe that we are victims of our fate.
The right’s intuition is that of character. If you pose the question, ‘Why is this person a criminal?’ to a conservative, you will get a very different answer: ‘Because they are lazy and would rather take shortcuts than labor honestly; because they have degenerate morality; because they are foolish; because they are irreligious…’ To the right, the problem is always located within the individual; a question of values and choice. Conservatives believe that the individual is responsible (response-able) for their reactions, regardless of the circumstances.
Take the issue of unplanned pregnancy. The left will say that the obvious solution is to offer abortion on demand (an external fix), while conservatives argue that good moral character and the practice of abstinence prevents unwanted pregnancies from occurring in the first place. Suffering and evil, for the right, emanate from sickly morals and the neglect of those societal institutions which cultivate integrity, such as the church and the nuclear family. For example, Jeremiah Denton, a conservative US senator who survived eight years as a P.O.W. in Vietnam, said of his relationship with his captors: “My principal battle with the North Vietnamese was a moral one, and prayer was my prime source of strength.” Denton, reflecting on American society in his cell, also says that “The family is the engine that drives civilization. Throughout history, those cultures that have failed to found their rules and attitudes of society on the central importance of the family unit have decayed and disintegrated.” If we properly tend to our character and the institutions which serve character, we will ensure a good fate. To the right, it is more compassionate to cultivate interior morals than to simply offer relief from acute suffering. We must not merely give our fellow men fish, but teach them to fish.
So, this is the basic spectrum of emotional reactions to the world’s problems. It is impossible to know why these temperamental splits occur, but we certainly observe that they do occur and cause tremendous conflict. Why? Because both sets of intuitions are true. People certainly can be victims of circumstance, but they also are capable of taking responsibility. There certainly are bad actors in powerful positions who oppress those beneath them, but there are also those individuals born into lower castes who rise above their station by rejecting their fate. They do this by transforming their values, which then alter their circumstances. No one is born outside of fate; we cannot live outside of an environment. Neither is anyone born without the chance to transcend or to capitulate to that destiny. In the United States, we have enough guns to outfit a capable standing army, if we wished. Does this doom us to a constant string of mass shootings? The left would say so, and they rightly point to the fact that most mass killers procure their weapons legally and easily. The clear solution: ban all guns. Firearms, however, are available on the black market, and those determined to find them will track them down, insists the right. Perhaps there are limits to the effectiveness of external solutions and we would be well advised to address the interior anguish which drives isolated young men to exit this world in a rain of bullets, taking scores of innocent people with them. A workable solution requires taking into account both the external and the internal. The type of politics which recognizes this fact is the type which could integrate both intuitions.
Have these views been integrated before? A former teacher of mine once made the surprising claim that Buddhism, while not a political system, is simultaneously the most conservative and liberal worldview. This is a bold assertion. I myself had always considered Buddhism to lean very far left, based on the inclinations of the Buddhists I had known personally. When I pushed back, my teacher pointed out that Buddhism is, one the one hand, supremely conservative because it locates the source of suffering entirely within the self. Life is suffering and the path to liberation is to relinquish attachments. Siddhartha (the historical buddha) was born in a palace but became dissatisfied. He practiced extreme asceticism, starving himself until bystanders could see the bones of his spine through his stomach, yet he was still miserable. He realized that, to attain happiness, he had to transform his mind. To the Buddha, circumstances are irrelevant. He taught that “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” The art of eliminating suffering must be practiced by the individual. For the Buddha, the externalities of life must be properly ordered (right speech, right conduct, right livelihood) but in the service of interior transformation, which in turn improves one’s outward action, forming a virtuous cycle of deepening interior and exterior conversion which culminates in emancipation from samsara.
On the other hand, Buddhism is supremely liberal in that it extends the possibility of enlightenment to all of humanity, not only those who occupy the upper echelons of society. Conservatism, because of its emphasis on character, tends to view worldly success as de facto evidence of a righteous interior. This is an illusion, as Jesus warned when he upbraided the Pharisees for their flagrant hypocrisy, famously branding them “whitewashed tombs”. To the left, all humans are born equal and become unequal due to unjust circumstances. Buddhism acknowledges this fact and demolishes the caste system, which has an official existence in India but which covertly operates everywhere. For the Buddha, there is no human hierarchy — all are equally capable of realizing the truth of no-self and escaping this hellish merry-go-round.
Politically, there have been attempts to integrate right and left, most recently by Bill Clinton who, during his 1992 presidential campaign, embraced the burgeoning “third way” movement which had its roots in the writings of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI). The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which Clinton signed into law in 1996, exemplifies many third way principles, in particular its inclusion of a “workfare” provision whereby welfare recipients were required to begin working after receiving two years of benefits and were limited to five years of lifetime assistance. This component of the law highlighted the fact that circumstances often conspire to temporarily inhibit an individual’s employment prospects, but that an individual, given ample time, was responsible for finding new employment. The law also contained many provisions aimed at discouraging out-of-wedlock births (a major cause of poverty) and enhancing child support collection, which bettered the circumstances of impoverished children by enforcing responsibility on absent fathers. The House Ways and Means committee said of the bill: “The major goal of Public Law 104–193 [PRWORA] is to reduce the length of welfare spells by attacking dependency while simultaneously preserving the function of welfare as a safety net for families experiencing temporary financial problems.” The law reduced the welfare rolls by approximately 53% between 1997–2000. It was a prime example of an attempt to recognize both the necessity for personal responsibility and the reality of environmental differences. Implicitly, it acknowledged that permitting large segments of the population to sink into utter destitution was morally unacceptable. It also granted that to allow citizens to abdicate all personal responsibility would be to court disaster.
A contemporary of Clinton, British prime minister Tony Blair also espoused third way principles. In his speech at the “New World, New Capitalism” conference in 2009, Blair had the following to say about the then-unfolding financial crisis:
What is absolutely apparent from the economic crisis is that it requires values to function effectively. Note that I say effectively, not just fairly. Yes, it has always been clear that globalization needs values to be equitable. What has been less clear but now is clear, is that it needs values to work. If we want to keep our world economy open, and not lapse into protectionism, we must strive to make it just. If businesses want to succeed, they must embrace their stakeholders with respect; they must develop the potential of their employees, not just exploit them. If the financial system is to recover, it must regain confidence.
To regain confidence, there must be trust. To have trust, the system as a whole needs to be inbred with values other than those of short-term profit maximization. It must be about more than mere speculation and the clever bet. It must also be about investing and building. The best business people I have met, have been first and foremost passionate about what they are creating, rather than what they are accumulating.
The new capitalism is therefore not about a return to the past. The change we seek should not be about replacing the free enterprise system or the market but about sustaining them in a way that is stable and enduring.
Again, we find the emphasis on building circumstances that encourage individual development. By emphasizing the necessity of values, Blair gives voice to the conservative position that character determines circumstance. His indictment of “short-term profit maximization” also acknowledges the devastating effects that systemic failures can have on individuals, eroding trust and despoiling the fruits of good character, such as savings and investments.
These third way ideas have long since fallen out of fashion. There were many criticisms of the theory’s implementation, such as the idea that “workfare” unfairly demonized women of color and failed to sufficiently account for the severe limitations of many citizens’ circumstances. The mass bailout of the financial industry in 2009 and the subsequent hardship experienced by the middle classes poured gasoline on the embers of resentment, which grew into a fire that produced Donald Trump and the wider populist movement of 2016. Greater awareness of the vast differences in perspective among the sexes and various ethnic groups led many to conclude that any idea of “fairness” or “equity” enshrined into third way laws would merely be a white-male conception of the term. Fenced in by their unconscious perspectives, political leaders could never effectively produce a one-size-fits-all solution. Because of this and a general disenchantment with the open society, many citizens concluded that they were better off turning to their tribes for protection and meaning.
Clearly this particular attempt fell far short of a lasting integration. I do not wish to declare Bill Clinton’s politics the crowning glory of American thought — far from it. It is helpful, however, to remember the possibility of integrating the two fundamental political perspectives and to accede to the truth of each. Take a look at the current situation and ask yourself if it appears sustainable. If it is not, then disintegration is the inevitable outcome. Consider the parable of the three blind men and the elephant:
A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, “This being is like a thick snake”. For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, “the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk.” The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, “is a wall”. Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.
Each man, committed to what he can perceive, proceeds to attack the others, assuming that they are lying. If we are to overcome the present division, we must admit that there are many aspects of the political elephant, that the intuitions of both right and left reflect a different facet of reality. We have seen glimmers of hope that these can be integrated, and it is of dire necessity that we redouble our efforts…and soon.