It’s election season again… mid-terms this time. Should engaged Buddhists get involved, as Buddhists that is, or not? Or should we just keep quiet and go to the voting booth as though our spiritual practice has nothing to do with our vote?
Maybe… maybe not.
A while ago, I wrote:
My sense is that many people (particularly Buddhists) get all weird and phobic about the notion of ‘politics’ when really all it means, in its simplest form, is the use of power. Power itself, just like emotions, is neutral. It is how we work with it that makes it positive or negative, that creates beneficial actions or harmful ones. Power is everywhere, including in Buddhist centers. So to take part mindfully and skillfully in politics can be a practice, just like anything else.
So, here are some thoughts on Buddhism and politics, as non-dualistically as I can manage them.
I just read an interesting article by Van Jones and Billy Wimsatt. The bottom line, according to them: “Voter guides are cheap and easy and they help win elections. The right-wing uses them better than we do.” Jones and Wimsatt write,
According to these voter guides (which exist in all 50 states), the vast majority of Democrats in Congress are “Anti-Jesus” and have a “faith friendly” rating of zero. No matter that the majority are Christians and people of faith. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Republicans are similar to John Ensign: They get a perfect score.
The goal of this campaign, created by http://www.PrayInJesusName.org is to fax these voter guides to 120,000 churches, to be distributed among congregations during Sunday services.
Clearly, people of other religious persuasions are linking up their religious and political beliefs. Not that this makes it the right thing to do, but it’s happening.
So what would happen if we were to play around a bit with a Buddhist perspective on elections? (Please note I did not say “the” Buddhist perspective. I would never presume that there is one Buddhist opinion on anything, much less politics. Buddhists are, by nature, a pretty un-definable group of folks. Have you ever tried to organize a bunch of Buddhists to do anything? It’s worse than herding cats.)
A number of years ago, we tried that at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. We created a guide to the 2004 elections. In the guide, we sketched out some of the major issues of that year and explored how Buddhist teachings might be relevant to those issues. As a nonprofit organization, we could not endorse candidates or parties, but we listed the positions that each candidate had taken in relationship to that issue and encouraged people to decide for themselves how their dharma practice might inform their vote.
It’s no surprise, of course, that BPF was and still is a progressive, left-leaning organization, so we were not without our own biases on the candidates and the issues and you’ll no doubt pick up on those in the text below. But our attempt with this guide was to offer information and encourage people to get involved in the electoral process in whatever way they determined was appropriate for them.
So, here’s a walk down memory lane… an excerpt from that original Election Guide. (The original document is quite long, which is why I’m only including one issue here. The other issues it covered were the economy, globalization, human rights/civil rights, the environment, and health care. If there’s interest, I can post the text from the rest of the guide.) Amazing to think back on a time when Howard Dean, John Edwards, and Al Sharpton were all in the running…
I’m interested to hear what you think. How relevant is your Buddhist background when you consider how you are voting, or to take a step further back, how you relate to the whole electoral/political process in general?
Election 2004 Guide to Issues and Candidates’ Positions
From the Buddhist Peace Fellowship
The Buddhist Peace Fellowship offers the following information for the purpose of voter education about the major campaign issues of 2004. As a nonprofit organization, we do not endorse specific candidates, nor do we take specific stands on legislative issues. As an organization whose mission is to help beings liberate themselves from the suffering that manifests in individuals, relationships, institutions, and social systems, we do encourage all those who value teachings of wisdom and compassion to actively and thoughtfully engage in these issues within your sanghas and communities.
This document provides a basic outline of some of this year’s major issues, their potential impact on the lives of sentient beings, and each candidate’s position on them. For some of these issues, we have included thoughts from a dharmic perspective. But in the spirit of inquiry, we echo Gautama Buddha’s injunction: “Do not accept anything by mere tradition. Do not accept anything just because it accords with your scriptures. Do not accept anything because it agrees with your opinions or because it is socially acceptable. Do not accept anything because it comes from the mouth of a respected person. Rather, observe closely and if it is to the benefit of all, accept and abide by it” (the Kalama Sutta).
Information on candidates’ positions comes from The New York Times and is current as of February 14, 2004. Please keep in mind that these positions may change; we suggest you follow news sources regularly to keep yourself informed. And most of all, we encourage you to exercise your civic responsibility and vote in your state’s primary and on November 2, 2004.
Terrorism and National Security
This election year, the specter of terrorism looms large for Americans. In a December 2003 Gallup Poll, a majority of Americans ranked it as the most important issue that will determine how they vote. The attacks of September 11, 2001, continue to reverberate in our national psyche and nearly all of our current lawmakers and politicians have placed terrorism on the top of their agendas. The responses and strategies they present almost always revolve around increased levels of military spending and intervention, and curtailing of civil rights and privacy. Other practical alternatives that would work to keep us safe have been offered, though these are usually given less coverage in the mainstream press – for example, Sen. Schumer’s bill (passed in January 2003) to provide $150 million to plug the gap in US port security. A number of political and spiritual leaders urge us to address the root causes of terrorism around the world. But the main discourse has been dominated by militaristic responses.
In 1999, the U.S. spent $281 billion on defense, far outranking the second biggest spender, China ($89 billion). In the 2000 federal budget, $291 billion was allocated for defense compared to $35 billion for education. The next president and administration will choose whether to continue this same course. And they will decide on major policy issues related to use of our defense. In 2003, the Bush Administration made the decision to bypass the United Nations and stage a pre-emptive attack on Iraq, under the premise that the U.S. was in imminent danger from the Iraqi government. This premise has yet to be proven true, and the future ramifications of such a decision are critical.
From a Buddhist perspective, the question of intention and motivation is helpful to consider. What is the intention behind these actions and proposals? How much is driven by panic, fear, and the profit motive? What would a life-affirming approach to these issues look like? One of the best known quotes from the Dhammapada is “Hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love, this is an old rule.” How does this teaching apply to this issue?
George W. Bush
• Following Sept. 11 attacks on U.S., instituted policy of pre-emptive strikes against suspected threats to the nation’s security, where U.S. would act alone or with others to protect the nation. • Prosecuted successful war against Taliban forces in Afghanistan and is currently working to create a stable, democratic government there.
• Invaded Iraq, calling it a threat to nation’s security. • Swift military victory in Iraq was followed by violent aftermath, halting efforts at stabilizing new government. • Won congressional approval of $87 billion for continued military operations and aid in Iraq and Afghanistan. • Calls for a Palestinian state as part of yet-to-be-adopted “road map for peace” plan. • Administration has had a deep rift with some traditional allies in Europe over war in Iraq.
• Opposes the war in Iraq. • Would transfer sovereignty to “credible and legitimate” Iraqi leaders and “encourage the United Nations to take responsibility for this political transition.” • Supported war in Afghanistan. • “One priority should be strengthening our bonds with other countries, especially our historical allies in a world growing ever more interdependent.” • “Our long range foreign policy ought to embrace nation building, not run from it.” • Would open talks with North Korea. • Would triple American financing to $30 billion over 10 years to combat unconventional weapons around the world. • Has said he would approve the use of force to halt genocide. • Would increase finances to secure the former Soviet Union’s nuclear stockpile. Would appoint a nonproliferation czar and convene a summit within six months to draw up a “global nuclear compact”
• Mr. Edwards voted for the war last year in a Congressional resolution but against the $87 billion appropriation in the fall to finance rebuilding and some military operations. • Would put the Iraqi Civilian Authority under the control of the United Nations. • Voted to enlarge NATO to include Eastern Europe.
• On North Korea: “We should negotiate with the North Koreans. We should be tough. We should require that they stop their nuclear development program. We should have the absolute ability to verify that that has occurred.” • On the Middle East: Has said that he believes “a two-state solution is ultimately the answer” but would not negotiate with Yasir Arafat. Would send an envoy to the region. • Would devote more resources to worldwide disarmament programs and to cooperative threat-reduction programs.
• Supported decision to go to war but now says he did so based on faulty U.S. intelligence. • Opposed $87 billion package for Iraq and Afghanistan. • Believes greater international involvement is necessary in Iraq. • Supported legislation providing American expertise and funding to the nations of the former Soviet Union to help secure nuclear stockpiles, a program that he now supports extending to other countries.
• Fought against withdrawal from the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. • Voted to enlarge NATO to include Eastern Europe • Brought issue of investigations of U.S. involvement in Latin America, especially with the Nicaraguan Contras, to the forefront. • On Middle East: Sees the Bush Administration’s road map as an acceptable approach for reinvigorating the peace process, but says there must be verifiable security benchmarks that the Palestinian Authority can reasonably achieve.
• Opposed U.S. going to war, and wants United Nations to take over in Iraq. “It is time to bring our troops home.” • Says the U.S. must immediately work to ratify a number of international measures including: the Kyoto Treaty on Global Climate Change, the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty and the Landmine Ban Treaty
• Says, “Foreign aid should be used to protect our interests in terms of diplomacy, human rights, isolation of disease, environmental destruction and prevention of increased refugees to the U.S.” • Has proposed the creation of a cabinet-level Department of Peace dedicated to peacemaking and the study of conditions that are conducive to both domestic and international peace.
• Opposed war in Iraq. • Meet with Anan immediately, admit that we were wrong in our unilateral actions and negotiate the U.N.’s introduction into the process. • Open the rebuilding process up to the U.N. to all of our allies who have supported us over the last 50 years