Elections & Reconciliation

Porter Clements

In the wake of its recent federal elections, the United States has seen waves of celebration on the part of supporters of the now president-elect Joe Biden. For many of these voters, the results of this election mark a clear and unequivocal victory.

Personally, I can clearly remember the atmosphere, growing up in a left-of-American-centre household and community, when Barack Obama won the election in 2008. It was similar to how it feels now in some ways: a sense of relief seemed to fill the air; our troubles seemed to be over. Looking back twelve years later, I can’t help but feel a sense of scepticism at the prospect of unbridled celebration. Underlying this year’s results lies what might constitute an uncomfortable truth for Biden supporters.

This election has seen the highest levels of popular turnout in well over a century, at a projected 66.7% of the eligible voting population participating. As our current president has wasted no time in pointing out, there has been an unprecedentedly high level of popular support for a Republican presidential candidate to date, at roughly 72 million. While of course the same is true, respectively, for Biden as a Democrat (having won almost 78 million votes), the fact remains that 72 million people voted for the incumbent president, over 10 million more than any Republican presidential candidate has won, ever. This is an incumbent who, over the course of his presidency, averaged a 6% approval rating amongst Democrats, 52 points lower than the previous Republican president. Even against a challenger who, by the standards of his party’s progressive left wing, is arguably the most inoffensive candidate the establishment could muster, this incumbent’s position was strengthened by the approximate demographic equivalent of two Denmarks.

So, while some might find it tempting to celebrate the results of the recent election as a victory, it seems to me that there is a glaring truth being ignored. History suggests that US electoral politics behave like a pendulum. Partisan electoral victories lead to political resentment on the losing side, culminating in retributive rallies 4-to-8 years down the line in a samsaric cycle of escalatory retaliation. We have a deeply rooted problem, in this country, with coexistence and reconciliation.

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Streets don't fail me now, they tell me it's a new gang in town
From Compton to Congress, set trippin all around
Ain't nothin new, but a flu of new Demo-Crips and Re-Blood-icans
Red state versus a blue state, which one you governin?
Kendrick Lamar, Hood Politics (2015)

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Reconciliation, or the restoration of friendly relations and act of making one view compatible with another, seems to be lacking in our political climate. There is an interesting perspective on reconciliation to be found in the Theravadan Vinaya, a set of guidelines for monastic life traditionally attributed to the Buddha, which I think can serve as a useful resource for understanding our own political habits as a country. The Vinaya was composed as a framework for how monks could functionally coexist in communal living situations. Therein, reconciliation is discussed as a critical prerequisite for social harmony and functional coexistence, in the absence of which conflicts would amplify and reproduce.

More than just forgiveness, reconciliation is understood here as a return to amicability, and is thought to require a reestablishment of trust. Trust, in turn, is founded on mutual understanding: to be truly reconciled, each party must understand how and why the other acts the way they do; they must be able to conceptualise the logic of another’s conduct within the realm of their own experiences and without judgement, all while holding true to their own values. To do this requires a great deal of compassion, humility, bravery and creativity, but ultimately it lays the foundation for peace and coexistence. By giving another the benefit of the doubt in this way, there is an implicit gesture of recognising their humanity. When this process occurs reciprocally, trust emerges organically, because it involves full willing participation on both sides. One cannot force another to do this; it must be done fully of one’s own volition.

Ultimately, in the domain of the political, it is more difficult, but—I believe—potentially more rewarding, to depersonalise politics and to take seriously the challenges faced by even those most diametrically opposed from oneself on the political spectrum. Doing so, perhaps we can creatively approach the task of devising solutions that meaningfully address social problems holistically.

Porter is a co-founder of Interfaith Exchange. He recently worked as a field co-ordinator for a congressional campaign in Michigan and has range of interests that includes Zen Buddhism, Hispanic literature and Critical Race Theory.