For me, political zen begins with the realization that I have no influence over the broader political forces at large in this country, or the world. Most people who care about politics want to change society, reverse injustice, or alter the vision of morality held in the minds of their countrymen. None of these things are achievable.
Take voting. More than 300 million people live in the United States. More than 131 million people voted in the last presidential election. No individual voter could have hoped to change the result of an election by voting. If a person were a tie-breaker, it would probably not matter who they had voted for. Whichever politician won would preside over a strongly divided electorate. He would not be likely to have the political support to pass drastically different legislation. And in two, four, or six years, there would be another election, and whatever votes passed or failed on thin margins could be reversed.
Many people who understand the futility of voting hope to change politics by entering it. There may be 300 million voters, but there are only one hundred senators, fifty governors, and one president.
But it is just as hard to make a difference by running for office as by voting. There are 300 million people in America, and each has only a small chance of becoming president. On a more fundamental level, politicians can only win elections if many people will vote for them. To win votes, a politician must promise to do what people want him to. A politician can lie about his beliefs, or he can believe the things that people already want, but over the long run he cannot resist the political regression to the voters’ mean.
Many people stake their hopes not on voting or political office, but on ideas. Politicians and activists alike both suppose that if they study ideas carefully, learn which ideas are true, and argue for those ideas forcefully, they can convince voters to want different things. This strategy suffers from the same basic problem as the others. In a nation of 300 million people, why imagine that you will be the one whose ideas spread to others? Why think that you will be the one who argues more forcefully than anyone else? Why imagine that you will learn truer ideas than all others? Moreover, the truth of an idea is a part of external reality. No personal efforts will change an idea’s “truthiness.” If an idea is true, and if truth recommends itself (but who knows if it does?), then the truth does not need any individual advocate’s support.
Ideas have their power external to their believers. The welfare state did not occur because Otto von Bismark imagined it; Martin Luther King could not have prevented the Civil Rights movement if he had tried. Idealists who want to make a difference often hope that they will be able to spread their ideas to others. But an activist’s ideas are not attractive because he believes them, he believes them because they are attractive. We can participate in change, but we cannot change it.
People can make a difference. They can make a difference in their own lives, in the lives of their friends and family; they can make a difference to their coworkers and the people they interact with from day to day. In a sense, whether you are rude or generous or cruel to others is “political.” And this difference may be vastly important to these other people. But this is not politics as generally conceived, or as people usually seek to practice it.
This piece was originally written for Stephen Dewey’s UpsidePolitics.com.