I’m publishing this the day before the national elections in 2020. So that’s weighing on my (and everyone else’s) mind.
The message I want to share is simple. And it might be one of the most political pieces of advice you’ll hear from me.
Not just in this election, but every time you can. Show up for off-cycle elections and engage in local policies. Participate.
In politics, and the other aspects of your life, when you have an opportunity to act with intention it’s important to take it.
What if You Are Facing an Imperfect System?
I don’t think that my exhortation to vote is going to be what gets you off your butt and to the polls if you weren’t planning on it already. But in a country with a poor and embarrassing track record of electoral participation, I figured it didn’t hurt to put a reminder out there.
Often people don’t vote for good reasons. Or for what they perceive as good reasons. Some feel it doesn’t make an impact. Others don’t feel educated enough about the issues and candidates. And many think the system doesn’t work well or that they don’t have a horse in the race that actively represents them.
At their core, all of these reasons basically have to do with the system being imperfect. Basically, those people are saying, “Hey, make the system perfect, and then I’ll participate.”
But that’s backwards. The only way systems can be improved is through action.
It’s hard to see that, though, because the system is flawed. It really can be hard to get accurate and transparent information. And it can be challenging to stay in the know about complex and nuanced issues. And often there aren’t candidates that are directly aligned with you.
The decision-making processes in democratic countries does have a lot to be desired. In fact, Winston Churchill framed it well when he said,
“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
But you can’t let those flaws stop you from participation. Because then you would never act. You would wait until the system was perfect. But you can’t make things better without involvement, and nothing changes. That’s how we get ourselves in a vicious cycle.
Waiting for Perfection is Waiting Forever
So let’s disconnect perfect (at that moment) action and a perfect system. Because you don’t need to have a perfect system before you can act perfectly. If you did, you wouldn’t act at all.
One of my favorite books of Zen wisdom is from the monk Dainin Katagiri, You Have to Say Something. He advocates an approach to Zen that moves beyond the image of quiet and removed meditation. Sure, that’s an important component, but in his view it’s also critical to be fully and actively engaged in your day-to-day living.
And in many ways, that’s where the true practice comes in. You have to be fully present in activities that operate within flawed systems. You have challenges at work, your relationships aren’t always harmonious, and yes, politics are often contentious and infuriating.
But that doesn’t mean that you should pull back from those activities, but rather that you should fully commit to them. And in a representative democracy, that means participating through voting.
And this isn’t just coming from a Buddhist perspective. I don’t get to pull out my college degree much, but I started out as a political science major and graduated with an honors degree in history and urban studies, focused on the American city post-Civil War. Basically, I studied how cities, and more importantly, the inhabitants, set priorities and got stuff done.
So I can tell you that politics aren’t just messy now, they always have been. People have always jockeyed for their goals and their causes. But the more people engaged and the more that there was broad participation, the more likely there would be better outcomes.
Non-Action is Often Just an Action with Bad Outcomes
So we can hold two truths at the same time:
1. The political system is imperfect. But that is the same for any system. That goes for our companies, our communities, and our families.
2. At the same time you can act perfectly by being fully present in your participation within the system.
That doesn’t mean your actions will be perfect. But you’ll do the best you can. The intention of your action is the where the value lies.
The alternative is to do nothing. And that rarely works out.
So vote, debate, march, support a local candidate, call someone to remind them to vote, and in general, do something.
Because every day is an opportunity to act.