Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Paradox of Politics

Article first published as The Paradox of Politics on Blogcritics.

Just when you thought you could breathe a sigh of relief that the government did not shut down, Washington is gearing up for yet another “battle”. This time it will be about the national debt and some are predicting it will be just as difficult with even worse potential consequences. In this Sunday’s New York Times, Nicholas Kristof captures the frustration that many of us probably feel in the face of our government’s seeming inability to actually govern. Kristof comments, “This isn’t government we’re watching. This is junior high.”

I always find it amusing when I hear people lamenting political partisanship in Washington. People act surprised that the major parties find it difficult to “come together” and “find solutions”. Why should this surprise anyone? Our democracy works (or doesn’t) based upon an electoral system which encourages and rewards division, competition, and conflict. Yet, we expect that once politicians are elected, they will go to Washington and distinguish themselves for unity, cooperation, and civility. The political paralysis we are witnessing right now is a consequence of a paradox at the heart of our democracy; to win elections you have to divide, to govern you have to unite.

The Baha’i Faith teaches that unity is fundamental for the progress of civilization. Baha’u’llah (1817-1892), the Founder of the Baha’i Faith put it this way:

“The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.” (Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 286)

Unity should not be confused with uniformity. In the Baha’i view, governance can and should include a diversity of perspectives and approaches to problems. In fact, such diversity is essential to the process of seeking the truth and applying the truths discovered to problem solving. The issue is the spirit in which diverse viewpoints are expressed, disagreements are resolved, and collective action is carried out. Opinions should be offered as contributions to the consensus of opinion, rather than as “THE TRUTH” on an issue. Once these opinions are contributed, they belong to the group rather than an individual or party to be explored, adapted, adopted or rejected. When consensus is achieved or a majority view emerges in the absence of consensus, all parties commit to carrying out the decision regardless of their personal views are partisan agenda. If this is done the strengths or weaknesses of the decision will emerge organically in unified action and the process can begin again in light of what has been learned. The Baha’i Faith refers to this process as “consultation”.

In addition to an alternative approach to problem solving, effective governance is a matter of the process by which leaders are chosen and the qualities that should distinguish them. On April 21st, the first day of the Festival of Ridvan which commemorates Baha’u’llah’s public declaration of His prophetic mission, Baha’is around the world will participate in a form of spiritual democracy. Baha’i communities will vote for the members of their nine-member, local governing councils, called Local Spiritual Assemblies. These elections will involve no campaigning, no electioneering, no debating, and not a single cent will be wasted on “attack ads”. Individuals will vote based upon prayer, contemplation and the dictates of conscience. Until the votes are counted and the results announced the “winners” will not even know they were in the “running”! The qualities the electorate will be seeking in the leaders of their communities have been described by Shoghi Effendi (1897—1957): “unquestioned loyalty…selfless devotion…a well-trained mind…recognized ability and mature experience.”(Shoghi Effendi, Baha'i Administration, p. 88).

Over the past century and a half, Baha’is have learned through the spiritual discipline of consultation and the Baha’i electoral process that there are alternative ways to govern and solve problems. The dynamic of paradox and paralysis in America’s political system is not inevitable but self-inflicted.