|The Dalai Lama and US President Barack Obama|
One of the odder things in the last year of American politics has been the relative popularity of ideas long considered to lurk on the fringes. One of the main candidates in the Democratic Presidential primary openly called himself a socialist and advocated for single-payer universal healthcare. The Republican nominee has accepted outré conspiracy theories, is supported by the KKK, attacked the family of an American soldier killed in combat, failed to release his tax returns, and is on record bragging about committing sexual assault (this is a condensed list of his political oddities). The Libertarian candidate has, until recently, been polling higher than third party candidates usually do. Even the most mainstream candidate, Democrat Hillary Clinton, has been facing unprecedented legal scrutiny as well as general suspicion and hostility based on little to no evidence of wrongdoing.
In US Presidential elections in recent memory, any of this would have flown in the face of conventional political wisdom. To be clear, it still does, which is why it's so strange (and, in the case of Trump, a deeply troubling emboldening of bigotry). But still, something weird is going on. To understand it, I think it might help to take a philosophical detour to the Buddhist conception of the two truths.
Ultimate and Conventional Truth in Buddhist Philosophy
Early Buddhist texts (i.e., those in which the Buddha appears) seem to contain startling inconsistencies. For example, the Buddha is famous for denying that persons or selves are real, but then in other places his language seems to imply the existence of persons or selves, especially when he talks about morality or rebirth.
Since it would be highly embarrassing if the founder of one's tradition were to contradict himself, later Buddhist philosophers developed a principle of interpretation according to which some of the Buddha's statements are to be taken as reflecting the final truth about things while others are statements that require some interpretation to fully understand. This later became the basis for one of the most famous aspects of Buddhist philosophy: the theory of the two truths.
Here's a clear statement of the distinction from Mark Siderits's Buddhism as Philosophy:
- "A statement is conventionally true if and only if it is acceptable to common sense and consistently leads to successful practice.
- A statement is ultimately true if and only if it corresponds to the facts and neither asserts nor presupposes the existence of any conceptual fictions." (p. 56)
For more on the two truths, see this Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry from Sonam Thakchoe.
A famous example of this distinction appears in a Buddhist text called The Questions of King Milinda. Because a chariot can be broken down into non-chariot parts, there really is no chariot, just the parts. "Chariot" is a conceptual fiction. This is the ultimate truth. But it's useful to talk about chariots for purposes of transportation, impressing your friends who love Ben-Hur, etc. Likewise, a person can be conceptually analyzed into impersonal parts, so ultimately there is no person; however, it's still useful and convenient to talk about persons, as when you identify as the same person who will be going to the dentist in a few months when deciding whether to eat all that discount Halloween candy.
Confusing the Two Truths: A Strange Overlap of the Academic Left and Libertarians
I think a lot of the weirdness of the 2016 Presidential election results from a muddling of the distinction between ultimate and conventional in the political realm.
Before going on, I should be clear that from a Buddhist perspective, almost everything about politics would be at the level of conventional truth: political parties, policies, and nation states themselves are ultimately unreal wholes. In what follows, I'm borrowing the idea of the ultimate-conventional distinction to explain a phenomenon in the political realm. I should also be clear that when I say things are in the conventional or ultimate realms, I really mean they could be true or false conventionally or ultimately.
The American academic left often uses terminology unfamiliar to the majority of Americans. For instance, many on the academic left decry something they call neoliberalism. See this article by Elias Isquith for a clear description of neoliberalism.
My point here isn't whether neoliberalism really is harmful ideology (although I suspect it is, especially insofar as it makes us more selfish and disconnected to each other). Rather I wonder whether using the term "neoliberalism" or various Marxist-inspired vocabulary items (late capitalism, bourgeoisie, etc.) is going to accomplish much beyond inviting other vaguely Marxist academic leftists to pat you on the back. Outside of a small handful of college-educated people who majored in humanities and social sciences disciplines, the vast majority of Americans will have no idea what you're talking about.
Again, my point is not whether neoliberalism ultimately really is a harmful ideology, but whether talking about it using the terms currently fashionable on the academic left is going to accomplish anything when it comes to addressing that harm. It may be ultimately true (or false) that neoliberalism is bad, but it is conventionally just nonsensical.
Likewise, many libertarians like to talk about an idea they call statism. See a particularly strongly-worded definition on the Ayn Rand Lexicon. Again, my real point isn't whether statism is a bad thing (although I honestly don't think it is), but whether it does you any good to talk about it outside of Libertarian websites or Gary Johnson rallies. Rail against statism all day long and the vast majority of Americans will merely stare at you blankly.
Incidentally, this is probably why I never specialized in political philosophy: my interest in politics is primarily pragmatic and conventional while political philosophy exists mainly at the ultimate level.
Ultimate and Conventional Healthcare
Another place where confusion between ultimate and conventional occurs is healthcare. As I've said before, I honestly agree with Bernie Sanders and others on the left that a single-payer healthcare system is the best way to guarantee equal access and drive down costs overall. I've believed this for years, as do, I suspect, many Democratic politicians.
But I also realize that anything in the neighborhood of government-run healthcare is going to be viscerally, immediately rejected by the majority of Americans. This is why I think the Affordable Care Act (ACA), for all its many problems, is a good compromise that expands coverage without the bugbear of total government control. Also, keep in mind that the ACA barely passed with a Democratic majority in Congress and is under constant threat of being scrapped by Republicans.
I think it's entirely possible that the US will eventually be forced into something like a single-payer system by economic necessities and popular demand. The fact that Bernie Sanders was so popular among young people gives me hope for the future in that regard. But scrapping the ACA now and starting over is strategically and pragmatically a terrible idea that could backfire: one can easily imagine Republicans gleefully agreeing to dismantle the ACA while refusing to replace it with anything.
So the problem isn't that single-payer healthcare isn't good, it's that its good is an ultimate truth that will be greeted with sneering disdain at the conventional level of American politics.
From Ultimate to Conventional?
One might object that ideas that were once outside the mainstream, like abolishing slavery, have successfully moved into the conventional realm of American politics. Others ideas, like legal marriage for same sex couples, are still precariously on the cusp. One big disanalogy between Buddhist philosophy and American politics is that the line between ultimate and conventional is fluid in American politics. (At least if you're talking about Abhidharma Buddhism. The situation is more complex in Madhyamaka Buddhism.)
So why couldn't terms like neoliberalism or statism or ideas like single-payer healthcare or Trumpian white nationalism break into the mainstream? Will they move from the realm of the ultimate into the realm of the conventional? I'm not sure. But it will be equal parts terrifying and intriguing to find out.