This is election week in America. What would the Buddha say to us about the presidential race? The initial reaction of the x-buddhist would, of course, be that he would not mention such things. Buddhism, they tell us, is not political, it is concerned only with personal well-being and awakening. Of course we know that this is absurd, that the protagonist of the Pali canon was a frequent advisor of political rulers of his day and had a lot to say about proper government, that everywhere Buddhism has existed for over two millennia it has been thoroughly involved in politics right up until 1959, when the Dalai Lama was the political ruler of Tibet. The myth of apolitical Buddhism was invented in the West, especially America, only in the last half-century, when the supreme arrogance of the Baby Boomers led them to believe that the Buddha, if he had any wisdom at all, was surely teaching their dominant ideology: the postmodern insistence that politics are not to be taken seriously, that it is only personal comfort that really matters.
So, leaving aside the apolitical nonsense, how would a Buddhist vote? Given Buddhism’s long history of political involvement, one would assume this has been discussed in sanghas around the country, right? Buddhists certainly aren’t afraid of offending people with inconvenient things like political reality, are they? And all that wisdom must offer some insight into the best choice to make for the future of America and our global empire…er, I mean allies in capitalism.
So, what do we think, Buddhists: how should we vote?
To be honest, my initial reaction, as a communist, is that we should vote for Romney. If he were to win, and be able to accomplish what he hopes to (of course he wouldn’t be), the ensuing economic catastrophe would greatly speed the radicalization of the increasingly impoverished majority. (I am one of those who still believe that if Hoover had won in 1932 America would have been communist before WWII ever got started).
However, it might be worth giving it a little more thought. After all, what are we really voting for here? One candidate who is sponsored by high finance and the industrial conglomerates, and another who is sponsored by the media outlets and the universities. We can choose between the candidate of the owners of the economic means of production, and the candidate of the owners of the ideological state apparatuses. Would they really be all that different? The one thing we can learn here is that there is a struggle, in global capitalism, over whether it is the base or the superstructure that is determinant in the last instance—or at least a struggle over which function the political apparatus serves: to produce ideology or guarantee profits.
In The Meaning of Sarkozy, Badiou (yes, him again) points out the absurdity of the electoral process:
Rejecting Illusions always means reorientation…Voting in general, and in particular the vote proposed to us today, is a state mechanism that presents disorientation itself as a choice…disoriented minds are convinced of the great importance of voting. So they go and vote for one or the other of the indistinguishable candidates…The government, which would not be very different if it were chosen by lottery, declared is has been mandated by the choice of the citizens and can act in the name of this choice. Voting thus produces a singular illusion, which passes this disorientation through the fallacious filter of a choice.
What is the goal here? It does not matter who wins, what matters is only that enough people vote for the government to pretend to have been chosen—and that enough of us participate in the delusion that it is really important who wins, kidding ourselves that it will really change something. Thus, voting is not “political” in any real sense of the word, it is ideological, but the worst kind of ideology—the kind of ideology that requires delusion.
It is my position, then, that the proper Buddhist response is not to participate in perpetuating this delusion. After all, isn’t the goal of Buddhism to reject illusions? We should refuse to vote not because Buddhism is apolitical, but because it is much more political than the American electoral process.
Non-buddhists and x-buddhists, how (why?) would you vote?