Do liberals and conservatives share any common ground?

Someone commented on my last article that from the perspective of someone in the UK there is no difference between the two US presidential candidates. But I think that up closer there is a difference in candidates (and parties), not just in terms of their policies but in terms of the core values that motivate those policies.

In general, I think the best value of liberals is their wish for equality and fairness, helping each other based on an understanding of mutual dependence and that the health of the whole depends on the health of its parts.

I think the best value of conservatives is their emphasis on taking personal responsibility for their lives. They also believe in charity and community support on a private, individual, voluntary basis, and can be exceedingly generous. (And giving is the karmic cause of wealth.)

My theory is that these two world views are not contradictory and in fact are mutually supportive. We need both attitudes. You can’t actually have one working properly without the other. At their best, they are two attitudes of a Bodhisattva.

kitten finding forever home
See below for (ir)relevance of kitten photos.

There is a Buddhist Lojong or training the mind meditation called equalizing self and others, where we understand how we are all exactly the same in the way it really means something, in our two main wishes in life – wanting to be happy and free from suffering.  If we value the equality of all living beings, this entails a fairness in our treatment of everyone else. But it doesn’t stop there. We are also entirely bound up in each other in mutual dependence – everything we have and everything we are depends entirely on others.  We are one body of life. And if one part of the body is suffering, say the foot has a thorn in it, the hand will want to pull it out even if not directly affected.

It is all very well not wanting people to take advantage of the system, but you cannot pull yourself up by your own bootstraps if someone didn’t make you those boots in the first place. Everyone needs boots made for them — ontologically speaking, there is no such thing as a self-made man. This is because without others we are, literally, nothing. We came into this world with nothing — not a silver spoon in our mouth, not even a plastic utensil. Rich or poor, we were given everything. All of us are entirely connected in a web of kindness. (For a description of this meditation, read Eight Steps to Happiness pages 54-57.) In that context, people with fewer resources are not undeserving of a helping hand, and they in turn can then pay it back or forward. The safety net can be like a trampoline, helping everyone have more success. (An insight into mutual dependence and karma also indicates that life is not a zero sum game, where some have to lose for others to win – that it can be a win win.) cat going to his forever home

Yet, at the same time, our mutual dependence is not an excuse for letting others pull us along like dead weight without making any effort according to our capacity, power, and ingenuity to help ourselves or others, becoming dependent in a, well, “dependent” way. Understanding our mutual dependence and what we owe to others on the contrary gives Bodhisattvas a strong sense of personal responsibility, called superior intention, where they promise to work continually until they have really freed themselves and all living beings from the ocean of suffering and actualized their full potential. They see this as their job and their obligation. It doesn’t matter what conditions they find themselves in, good or bad; they still take responsibility for their own progress and freedom.

I deliberately went over to watch the VP debate with a friend who happens to be a member of the other party, as a sort of experiment to see if we’d still like each other by the end of the evening (LOL), and during the debate I put myself in her shoes to see what that felt like. I still thought my own candidate “won”, but then so did she, which was in itself quite a teaching on relativity — we had been sitting in the same room eating the same popcorn watching the same screen but, even without watching the Spin afterward, we came to opposite conclusions! However, as a result of putting myself in her shoes, I had more sympathy for her position that I might otherwise have done.

My friend’s point was that she doesn’t like people “scrounging” off the state. I pointed out that in a way we all scrounge off the state and each other because we rely on the infrastructure of this country for everything and we paid for just a fraction of it. For example, to get to work, we all need to use roads or public transport, and even a yard of road would cost a great deal more money than I could afford – I wouldn’t get very far if I had to pay for/build the road myself. The things we use every single day cost billions of dollars, toward which we have contributed a minute fraction, whatever our tax bracket.

In fact (and she liked this point the best), the higher up we are in the world, and the more we have, the MORE we depend on others. I wrote all about that here.

Dependence is not a dirty word. It is a fact. Self-reliance is not a dirty word. We need it. Recognizing our mutual dependence is a strength, not a weakness, for it is in touch with the way things are and it also encourages us to take responsibility for ourselves and everyone else, understanding that no man is an island. Likewise, within that context it is desirable to encourage people to take responsibility for their own destiny, for although others can give us the boots, only we can pull ourselves up by the straps. So, where is the contradiction?

As pretty much half this country is Democrat and half Republican, and that is not going to change anytime soon, I think it’d be a relief if we could recognize what is good or even noble about the other party’s world view and try to embrace it. Otherwise at least half of us are in for a pretty annoying four years, starting Tuesday. We don’t have to like everything the other party is trying to do (like that is ever going to happen anyway!) Some politicians and activists do try to do this, start from respect and understanding rather than dislike; but these days many more seem to be entrenched in the “We’re inherently right, you’re inherently wrong” polarity. Mutual antipathy based on accentuating others’ faults is unrealistic and crippling at any time, as it is based on inappropriate attention. Throw out those attack ads, they demean everyone.  

On the whole, politics and religion have different goals because the former is concerned with this life and the latter with future lives. But we need to overcome our delusions and get along with others to gain peace and happiness in this life and in future lives, and we can find practical ways of doing so through Lojong.

So, for example, understanding how our values are not contradictory but mutually supportive might be a good way of engendering respect and even some affection, and on that basis it might be easier to work together? What do you think? (Now I’m ducking as I wait for some of you to throw eggs at me… This was my last foray into politics. But I still want my candidate to win on Tuesday, ha ha!!)

(By the way, two of my kittens just found a wonderful home, and I had to write this whole article with lonely big-eyed Alyona on my lap, so I blame her cuteness for any sentimental idealism or oxytocin-induced lapses of logic. That has given me an idea… I don’t know what other pictures to use, so I’m going to transform this into a feel-good article by sprinkling it with kittens in their new forever homes.)

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

10 thoughts on “Do liberals and conservatives share any common ground?”

  1. Love this: ” It doesn’t matter what conditions they find themselves in, good or bad; they still take responsibility for their own progress and freedom”

    Great to get the underlying perspective on all these poli-tricks ;)) thank you

  2. Only thing that’s going to really help is
    • a realisation of emptiness….. : ) – and to share that example with the world just as Geshe-la so wisely and incredibly has done so
    • and some variety re kitten pictures…. ; )
    (Prefer dogs myself – still working on the ol’ equanimity thang…)

  3. Thanks for putting me straight on the Republican / Democrat division. It sounds like our Conservative / Labour parties, showing that the split could well be the same the world over. I think you’re right, as well, the two views are mutually supportive. Problem is, they just fight against each other and achieve less because of it.
    That’s a teaching for each of us, isn’t it. Recognising our dependence on each other and </em< the necessity for personal responsibility, and gaining more success because of it.
    Thanks for this foray into politics; I'm often tempted, but haven't gone there just yet…
    * Kittie pictures are always relevant!

  4. Excellent insight and teaching. I’m voting for you, Luna! The Buddha can even guide us to a more benign and compassionate political system if we emulate a bodhisattva’s way of life…. and don’t forget the environment and the other living beings who also depend on it for survival. Super teaching as always.

  5. Interesting article Luna. I think mutual interdependence is a superb political idea, but I would characterise it as Green rather than liberal, arising in the 19th & 20th centuries with Gandhi, William Morris, Fritz Schumacher et al, along with a greater understanding of ecology and our dependence on natural world. The idea is beautifully expressed by Satish Kumar (editor of Resurgence magazine) in his book ‘You Are Therefore I Am’.

    I think you would struggle to find the idea of mutual dependence in historical liberalism going back to the c17th. You might find some antecedents in Socialism, but the Green/Gandhian view is far more compatible with Buddhism because it does not promote class anger, stressing that because we are all mutually dependent we all suffer from failures of the system.

    One of the sadnesses of the US political system is the lack of variety, meaning that all choices are compressed into just two candidates. When the Green candidate Jill Stein tried to participate in a Presidential debate she was arrested. It seems that the only way climate change and our dependence on the environment could enter the debate was via Sandy.

    1. Matthew, sadness is exactly the right word to describe the feelings brought on by contemplating the current political system in the US. The two party system makes a mockery of the ideal of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, as illustrated by the way Jill Stein was excluded from the debates. If the race was not such a close call between the two main candidates, I would undoubtedly vote for her. And it’s tragic that I have to make a decision between voting with my conscience and voting for one of the only two candidates who actually have a chance of winning.

      And as horrible as Sandy was for the millions affected by it, you are correct in that it served to force us to consider the environment at this critical moment in history. It’s deeply disturbing that that’s what it took to get the topic addressed.

      Luna, as always, your insights calm me, inspire me, and help me to see things in a new way, which is something I needed in the midst of all the bitterness generated by this election. Thank you.

  6. I’m always happy after I read your posts. It’s not just the kittens…it’s nice to know someone articulate and like minded is out there.

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