Random Thought (May 3rd, 2015)

We can—and should—have big debates about important ideologic questions (every one a variation of “How can we perfect our society?) but I think think it’s important to address a single, fundamental question at the beginning of the whole conversation:

What constitutes “winning”?

I’m not smart enough to have all the answers but I think it’s a question that clarifies what’s at stake when we make difficult choices (and we will always have those to make).

My own feeling—and it’s a position I’d argue for strongly—is that “winning” for us as a society means figuring out how to get everyone over the Finish line. Not just a few people, not even most people. Everyone.

We haven’t won anything until we’ve figures out an answer to this difficult question, until we stop being willing to sacrifice people who—for whatever reason—aren’t able to fend for themselves.

Are Buddhism and the GOP compatible?

“Elephant in the Meditation Room?” (no online link available) is an article that appears in the latest issue of Shamble Sun. The author, Christopher Ford, is a senior counsel for national security policy at the U.S. Senate Banking Committee, an ordained lay Buddhist chaplain, and a life-long Republican.

Dr. Ford wastes little time in stating his basic premise: “Buddhism doesn’t have to entail political liberalism. I would argue that a thoughtful Buddhist’s engagement with the socio-political world can lead to a quite conservative sensibility.” I’d like to respectfully suggest that the opposite might be closer to SUN-May-2015-Basic-Goodness-340pxthe truth. Dr. Ford might agree with me, though, that a more productive discussion would result if we defined our terms more clearly.

For example, in defense of his argument Dr. Ford points out that “Buddhist ideas of right conduct are consistent with some of the traditional social mores of Western culture.” That’s certainly true, as far as it goes, but the implication that liberalism and traditional social mores are somehow incompatible is misleading. I understand Dr. Ford’s desire to embrace traditional values but I quarrel with his attempt to appropriate those values for the conservative cause. They are universal values that transcend political ideology. They’re as foundational for certain brands of liberalism as they are for certain brands of conservatism.

A lynchpin of Dr. Ford’s position is “Not Knowing,” one of the three tenets of the Zen Peacemaker Order. This tenet calls on Zen Peacemakers to “give up fixed ideas” about themselves and the universe. But surely giving up fixed ideas is not the same as being unwilling to make value judgments about what we see going on around us at any given moment. The Dalai Lama provided a more practical model for “Not Knowing” when he was asked about the prospect of science contradicting Buddhist doctrine and replied, “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.”

The concept of Engaged Buddhism, it seems to me, is predicated on the idea of embracing a responsibility we all have to help each other. In fact, among the convert Buddhists that Dr. Ford describes in his article, there’s a likely explanation for why they tend to be — in his words— “overwhelmingly liberal.” I’ll suggest it might be because “Not Knowing” is not — in their minds — the salient characteristic of Buddhism. The salient characteristic of Buddhism in my mind (and, I suspect, in the minds of many other American convert Buddhists) is compassion.

And it is on the issue of compassion that I believe Buddhism and American political conservatism begin to diverge dramatically. It’s not that conservatives aren’t personally compassionate. They often are. It’s that they favor policy prescriptions that don’t take compassion into account. (Of course, many conservatives sincerely believe that their policies produce better outcomes all up and down the economic spectrum but in the spirit of “Not Knowing,” surely there’s a point at which a generation’s worth of data makes that theory no longer tenable.) For many of us, the effect of Buddhism is to heighten our awareness of the need to infuse our public policy choices with empathy and compassion.

My biggest disconnect with the article is on a point that, perhaps, isn’t one that Dr. Ford himself meant to make. Though the article’s title refers obliquely to Republicans, Dr. Ford never brings partisanship, per se, into the conversation. He refers to Buddhism’s compatibility with “conservative” principles, not “Republican” principles. I might disagree with that conclusion but it’s a reasonable position (and one which Dr. Ford isn’t the first to take).

On the other hand, if the question switches to one about today’s Republican party as an institution, I’d argue that there is little basis for any kind of ongoing affinity between it and American Buddhism. Name whatever issue you’d like and the Republican Party likely supports policies that are at odds with Buddhist principles. For example, to his credit Dr. Ford admits that “progress is affected by people’s external circumstances” so that “there is some role for government in preventing these conditions from becoming catastrophically bad.” That fundamental observation would be controversial in today’s Republican Party. (I wish I were exaggerating.)

The Buddhist aversion to waging war is also an important area of fundamental incompatibility. So is climate change. So is factory farming. The list is a long one.

The impression given by this article to the contrary (and, again, underscoring that the text of the article itself did not mention political parties), I cannot imagine Buddhist practice resulting in the embrace of any of the ideas that characterize the Republican Party in 2015.

There is one point on which I suspect Dr. Ford and I probably agree. I believe we’d both be pleased to see all of our policymakers become more acquainted with Buddhist principles and practices. Of course, he and I have different ideas about what a more widespread embrace of the dharma might look like in the political arena over time. But I, for one, would like to see dharma practice proliferate as widely as possible — and I’d be willing to take my chances with the political outcome.

How Hillary Might Emulate Reagan and Kick Some Ass

Secretary Hillary Clinton
The audacity of Hillary?

On the eve of Hillary’s announcement that she’s running for president, let’s begin by facing an unpleasant truth: There doesn’t seem to be anyone in the leadership of today’s Democratic Party who has any real idea how politics is done. Take Hillary Clinton, for example.

Despite her patina of cool professionalism, Hillary Clinton simply isn’t a very good candidate. She wasn’t in 2008 and she isn’t today. I don’t want to take up too much time here with an exhaustive list but let me simply posit that almost all of Hillary’s wounds in 2008 were self-inflicted and she shows no signs of being much better this time around.

Beyond Hillary’s questionable competence as a candidate, there’s also a question (in my mind, at least) of how well Hillary might do in getting out the vote in 2016. If we survey the Democratic candidates who lost in 2014 by running away from the party’s populist wing, Hillary fits in comfortably with all of them. And if Democratic centrism failed to excite the base in 2014, where’s the evidence that it can do any better in 2016?

Hillary needs to shore up her left flank in a big way and I think she understands this. Unfortunately, when she’s tried to appropriate Elizabeth Warren’s populist tone, things haven’t gone well. Perhaps the bolder move for Hillary would be to forget about appropriating Warren’s tone and instead appropriate Warren herself. In fact, if Hillary wants something more than the divided-government sclerosis that’s plagued our politics for a generation now, she might consider borrowing an audacious move from the playbook of… Ronald Reagan.

Reagans and Clintons
Is there something valuable that Ronald Reagan might teach Hillary?

In 1976, Ronald Reagan took up the cause of Republican conservatives and challenged a sitting president, the moderate Gerald Ford, for the GOP nomination. Taking on an incumbent president is a long shot under any circumstances and Reagan understood that he was going to need a “Hail Mary” pass to secure the nomination. His tactic was something that, as far as anyone could remember, had never been tried before. Knowing that he needed to shore up his support among the party’s centrists, Reagan named his vice-presidential nominee before the party’s convention. That nominee was Richard Schweiker, a decidedly moderate Republican senator from Pennsylvania.

Reagan’s quixotic candidacy came to an end at the convention that year. He didn’t win but he came far closer than anyone expected. And even though he failed in an improbably quest, his surprise announcement might point to a way forward for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and a way to position her prospective presidency for real success.

As Reagan did in 1976, Hillary needs to shore up her left flank. And she needs to do so in a way that will get Democratic voters to the polls in big numbers in November.

What could possibly be more effective than naming Elizabeth Warren as her vice-presidential candidate? If Hillary wants to clear the field then such a bold move would certainly do it. The key, though, would be how Hillary and her running mate use the months leading up to the convention.

While the Republican field busies itself running to the extreme right (as it will under any circumstances), imagine Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren delivering a non-stop, coast-to-coast seminar on progressive values and economics. Imagine that once — just once — there’s a progressive Democratic ticket driving the electoral narrative.

For decades now, Democrats have made little headway among blue-collar white voters who ought to be a natural part of any Democratic coalition. Elizabeth Warren has a unique talent for making common-sense economics accessible. She has a message that I believe will resonate well in precisely those places where Democrats need to make gains.

The ultimate hope would be to not only win the presidency (and vice-presidency!) but to also move our entire debate to the left. This is no pipe dream. On issue after issue, progressive positions enjoy majority support among voters. Unfortunately, Democrats have been singularly unable to translate these policy positions into widespread electoral success.

Elizabeth Warren has the potential to be the kind of catalyst the party needs to seriously improve its fortunes beyond just winning the White House. If progressives can’t make a bigger impact, if we cannot move our policy initiatives into the mainstream of political discussion, then there is little hope that the dysfunctional political environment of the last six years will improve anytime in the foreseeable future.

This is Hillary’s chance to seriously alter the electoral landscape. Will she be content to win a term or two of the presidency for herself (if, in fact, she can), or will she follow Ronald Reagan’s example and seize an opportunity to go for the sort of victory that could make a difference for an entire generation?

One of my favorite projects ever

Two years ago, as Florida was gearing up for election season, I got a call from my friend Steve Barnes who was then chairman of Seminole County’s Democratic Party. Steve knew that I’d done media work in the past and asked if I’d give him a hand putting together an ad for Florida’s 29th congressional district, one of three districts in Seminole. I’d have jumped at any chance to work with Steve but, for a variety of reasons, this opportunity was particularly appealing.

Steve’s original idea was to create some kind of A Clockwork Orange takeoff. While that was an intriguing idea in a number of ways, I thought we should aim for something a little more… mainstream. Eventually, we decided on a format based on the original Law & Order. I think it’s fair to say that we both liked the idea but neither of us loved it. One afternoon, I got a call from Steve with a tweak that put the spot over the top. The ad was always going to be about the closing of Longwood Elementary, a huge issue in the district that transcended partisan politics. What was appealing about the Law & Order approach was that it allowed the “prosecutor” to make a rapid series of dramatic points that reflected how parents and kids felt about what had happened. Steve’s idea was simple and brilliant: “Let’s make the prosecutor a kid!”

The rest, as they say, is history. We were able to find an incredible collection of young actors, most of whom had never acted on camera before. We got the whole thing shot in a couple of hours and it turned out even better than we’d hoped. The young man who played the “prosecutor” was the only cast member who’d ever acted before… and his experience showed. When the ad was unveiled on YouTube, it created so much buzz that it got featured on a couple of the local news shows and several local political web sites.

I always feel fortunate when I can look back on a project and, after the passage of time, still feel that it turned out well. That was certainly the case here but, as is so often the case with projects that yield exceptional results, this one was a genuinely collaborative effort. But more important than that, it was a blast!