Political Zen [earlier Upside article] is what I call acceptance of the notion that politics is beyond the control of any individual. Certain consequences may flow from accepting this notion.
Political Zen may cause you to decide not to get involved in politics. Some people become activists because they want to “make a difference.” Thousands of journalists, activists, policy experts, and staffers spent years in Washington debating the merits of a single piece of health care legislation. Collectively, their discussion may have been very profound, but no individual can reasonably claim that he played a decisive role in the legislative process. Most political issues are like health care insurance reform: whether or not you get involved, they will be resolved in substantively the same way.
A person who accepts his inability to “make a difference” in politics needs some other reason to stay politically involved. The most obvious reason is that, even if you cannot make a “difference,” you can still make a living in politics. Politicians, their staff, journalists, policy experts, bureaucrats, lobbyists and more at least earn a paycheck, even if none of them really achieve anything.
Other people derive a sense of fulfillment from participating in politics. If you think participating is inherently meaningful or perhaps a sort of duty, then you may not care whether or not you have made a quantifiable contribution. Activism can be its own reward. Political involvement can also be a truth-seeking exercise. Debating politics is a way to test your own understanding, and hopefully improve it. Or it can be a way to help improve the understanding of other people. Debate can be enjoyable for its own sake, even when if it is unproductive. You may just enjoy being right – or arguing with people who aren’t – or just arguing.
If you do remain involved in politics, you may find the nature of your involvement changing. Although wonks prefer to discuss politics in terms of concrete, achievable policies, there is no need for any individual partisan to do so. You may find yourself becoming more Utopian, and less concerned with following the political horse race. You might stop caring about political strategy. Or you may not. Like sports, elections have their own inexplicable appeal, though not to me. Unfortunately, if you make a living in politics, you may have to at least pretend to care about “practical” politics. This is perhaps something to consider before getting involved.
Finally, you may start to think about politics differently. You may reluctantly accept that, in politics, no one is really to blame – and conversely, that no one really deserves credit. If you don’t have any real control over policy, then your political opinions are just thoughts. Even elected politicians only have the power to legislate within the strict constraints imposed by public opinion and the decisions of their colleagues. In practice, laws don’t get passed merely because politicians choose to support them – rather, politicians only have office in the first place because they have credibly committed to satisfying the legislative demands of their constituents.
Some people find Political Zen to be bleak or depressing, but it isn’t that way to me. Political Zen only tells us what we should know already – that the world is big and an individual is small. Along the way, it lifts the burden of responsibility from our shoulders. You cannot be to blame for what is out of your control. You don’t have to worry about the results of getting politics wrong, because the world will be no different if you do. And because you aren’t responsible, you can work toward your own goals instead of worrying about the political disposition of society at large. If you want to discover truth, share it with others, fulfill a categorical duty despite the hopelessness of achieving specific results, or if you decide to simply give up on politics, then Political Zen is no obstacle to you, just a first step.
This piece was originally written for Stephen Dewey’s UpsidePolitics.com