Feeling a sense of danger during an election season is nothing new to me, or probably anyone else. I wrote one of my first essays about how the Democratic fervor was so zealous in my family that it was not until high school that I realized there were ideological differences between Republicans and Nazis. And it would be ridiculous to suggest that politics today is any uglier than it ever was—just look to Jefferson and Adams to dispel that notion (and I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump and Clinton become pen pals once this is all over, as our founders did).
Yet I am worried about the near absence of space for civil dialogue between political parties. And why should there be space to understand the other side? It feels good to be right, right? All my friends share the same heavily edited videos on Facebook that make the decision so clear—each video confirming: I’m not the one who is crazy. But I’ve found there's a problem with the echo chambers of Facebook, Twitter, New York Times, Slate, NPR, New Yorker, The Atlantic, Salon, and so on:
I don’t have any idea what’s going on!
The more I read the more confused, agitated, and fearful I become. Every once in a while I read a piece that seems to give me some context, such as Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone article. I recently re-watched one of my favorite movies of all-time, Network, and noted that the famous Howard Beale speech and other scenes in the film seemed to prophesy our current political moment:
But as much as these snippets plucked from our culture might lend some understanding to my liberal view—I doubt someone supporting Trump would read that piece and watch that video and say “Jared gets it.”
I’ve heard the wonderful meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein talk on various occasions about a liberal friend of hers who listens to conservative talk radio, as a practice to see how long he can remain non-reactive. I’ve spoken of this practice to friends, and often the idea of it makes them feel ill.
Inspired by Sylvia’s friend, I’ve been watching the Republican debates and reading The National Review and other conservative publications with an inclination to understand what’s important to someone with conditioning different than my own. I was taking a walk the other day with my friend Eowyn, and she asked me what I’d learned from the practice. I stumbled at first to answer, because it is not easy to get past the liberal filter of my thoughts, but then I truly answered her question. It’s obvious that each of the candidates has a great reverence for spiritual faith, especially Judeo-Christian faith but other faiths as well to varying degrees, and a trust that faith will provide. And even more than that there’s a belief that business will provide—to their minds, business and innovation are the engines powering America, and their job is get the government out of the way of business, while keeping us all safe.
Let’s be clear. I don’t share these beliefs. Anyone who knows me knows that my spiritual faith is important to me, but I don’t trust faith to take on the role of the government, nor do I particularly trust business. I’ve seen good friends who were competent at their jobs lose those jobs for the supposed best interests of business—I’ve seen this happen to hundreds of friends at National Geographic, which hardly has the reputation of being a cutthroat corporation. I’ve watched people betray their values for the interests of business and stay in jobs that deplete them out of fear of ruin.
Even so, there is so much space that opens up when I look at the sentiment in the above-paragraph and realize—that’s just my view. I think often of these words of Bankei, the 17th century zenmaster, “Don’t side with yourself.”
There was a great buzz among staff of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) recently: Madeline’s teaching. Breakfast club! The only thing other than being on retreat that can wake me up for 6:30am breakfast at IMS is Madeline’s breakfast club—a time to sit around the table in the staff dining room and talk intimately about what’s coming up in our practice and our lives. Madeline arrived this time days before Super Tuesday, and the conversation quickly drifted to politics and attachment to views. After a predictably awesome discussion, we got our homework: come up with something good about the party that is not the one we affiliate with.
I thought about it: nothing came to mind, at first.
Then I thought about a recent debate. Marco Rubio was asked about immigration and whether his current position is a betrayal of the Hispanic community. He used the opportunity to talk about how what’s most important to the Hispanic community, and all Americans, is to leave a better America for the next generation than the one that we inherited. I trust that he believes that, and I think that is so. I also recognized how even though Donald Trump was against Planned Parenthood performing abortions, he did recognize the organization’s importance to women’s health. He also knowingly took on the boos of the crowd of another debate to assert that the war with Iraq was a mistake premised on lies. I definitely agree with him there, and it was riskier for him to say that than it would have been for Hilary or Bernie to say.
I've also had the great blessing of a friend who is going to vote for Trump. As a result of my friend being open about his Trump support, friends have unfriended him on Facebook, and he regularly finds himself ideologically at odds with coworkers. Yet it is a great blessing for me, because I have the rare opportunity of a civil dialogue about politics with someone who does not agree with me. Well, the civility is aspirational. I can feel in these conversations how my muscles constrict in a way they would not if we were in disagreement over sports or movies. I’m quicker to start talking before he’s finished a point. There’s less patience on my part than I’d like. We’re two people who have each spent a decade consciously practicing mindful speech—but these types conversation are the heaviest weights in the gym. Can I listen to him with the same attentiveness as if he lost a loved one or just went through a break up?
Part of me feels like I’m betraying my upbringing to even try to understand where Republicans are coming from, and that may be so, but I’d be betraying something deeper to not make this exploration. As Madeline reminded me the other day, the way that I may feel about Trump is the way a Trump supporter may feel about Obama. In other words, while our views might be diametrically opposed, it is the same experience of fear arising. I work in a place where the Vision is to uphold the possibility of liberation of all beings, and that most certainly includes people of every political party. None of this means I’m not terrified of the possibility of a Trump presidency. I’m still terrified. But there’s something to be said for meeting that terror with tenderness, curiosity, and a commitment to not let that fear devolve into hate or ignorance.