Pres. Carter and R. Reagan shaking hands

History, Politics and Mindfulness: Why a life-long Democrat once voted for a Republican.

by James Porter October 29, 2020

This blog is about how mindfulness may have impacted my decision to vote for a Ronald Reagan back in 1980. In large part I voted for Reagan because of this very moment which you see pictured above. It occurred at the conclusion of the first debate with Jimmy Carter. There was no Fox News or CNN or MSNBC back then, and just about every political pundit was predicting that on a debate stage, Jimmy Carter, the intellectual, would make mincemeat of Ronald Reagan, the former actor. In large part I voted for Reagan because of this very moment which you see pictured above. It occurred at the conclusion of the first debate with Jimmy Carter. There was no Fox News or CNN or MSNBC back then, and just about every political pundit was predicting that on a debate stage, Jimmy Carter, the intellectual, would make mincemeat of Ronald Reagan, the former actor.

Reagan, much to my surprise, held his own. He counter-punched and swerved with sufficient accuracy and skill to end the debate in what I perceived of as a draw. Carter made all his carefully thought-out points and articulated them very well, but he looked stiff and uncomfortable. Reagan looked comfortable and at ease. Occasionally, and this was unheard of as a debating tactic at that time, he even smiled and joked.

After the debate Carter looked stunned. Perhaps he had believed the pundits: That this debate was going to be a walk in the park. It clearly wasn’t. After the moderator made his concluding remarks, signaling that the debate was over, Carter just stood behind the podium, staring out at the audience, kind of glassy-eyed and almost like his feet were glued to the floor. Reagan, on the other hand quickly stepped out from behind his podium and walked over to Carter to shake hands. That is the very moment you see captured above.

All my liberal friends said, without exception that Carter had won the debate. While I thought Carter had made many good points, I wasn’t so sure that the outcome of the debate was so conclusive. The few Republicans I knew all thought Reagan, had won. That’s when I began to realize that every person I knew who watched this debate was looking at it through the lens of their past affiliations. If they were Republicans, Reagan won. If they were Democrats, Carter won. It seemed like they weren’t seeing the debate objectively at all.

Since I didn’t know anything about mindfulness in 1980, I can’t say that mindfulness consciously influenced my decision. What I can say is this: I didn’t make the decision on an entirely intellectual level. For the most part, I trusted my gut. Mindfulness is about cultivating an awareness below the level of thinking. In other words, mindfulness teaches us to turn down the incessant chatter of the thinking mind and turn up the volume on the awareness or “inner voice” that exists below the level of thinking.

And that’s exactly what I did when I decided to vote for Reagan. Sure, Reagan didn’t exactly stand for what I stood for: He was for building up the military, reducing big government and lowering taxes. I was more in the middle of the road and leaning left. I was young and not paying a lot in taxes, so I didn’t have a strong opinion about that. I didn’t particularly like big government, but I also saw the importance of helping people in need. I didn’t see the need to build up the military at that time, but I also believed that America needed a strong military presence in the world.

Mostly, it all boiled down to the simple fact that I liked Reagan. (I’ve come to like Jimmy Carter, too. But much more for what he did after he was president.) In 1980, Reagan was a breath of fresh air. I didn’t care what my thinking mind was telling me to do, or what my friends were whispering (and sometimes shouting) in my ear. I was voting with my heart instead of my head.

Admittedly, the decision wasn’t all heart centered. In the late 1970’s, the country was going through a difficult time. Carter had presided over a turbulent first term which included rapidly growing inflation, high unemployment, and super high interest rates. If that wasn’t bad enough, the US was suffering from the international humiliation of having our embassy in Iran taken over by terrorists. We not only seemed powerless to stop the takeover but the military attempt to free the hostages under Carter’s watch, “Operation Eagle Claw” had ended in disaster. 

Even if Reagan’s values didn’t match my peace-loving and pro-social nature, I wanted to see a change in the White House. The country was struggling, and Carter was having trouble getting any legislation passed that might change things for the better, even though he had a fully Democratic House and Senate to help him do that. Surprisingly, even with all that backing there was still gridlock. Sound familiar?

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “seeing is believing.” Mindfulness would say: It’s not that we believe what we see, it’s that we see what we ALREADY believe. The philosophy of mindfulness says we ALWAYS see the world through the lens of our likes and dislikes, past beliefs, preferences and so forth. Thus, without some major help from others, YOU (and I mean everyone) can’t possibly even begin to SEE the world objectively.

Psychologists call this “confirmation bias.” We go out in the world specifically looking for anything that confirms what we already believe. “For example, a person may cherry-pick empirical data that supports one's belief, ignoring the remainder of the data that is not supportive,” reports Wikipedia in the link to confirmation bias above. That Wikipedia page goes onto say: “Confirmation bias contributes to overconfidence in personal beliefs and can maintain or strengthen beliefs in the face of contrary evidence. Poor decisions due to these biases have been found in political, organizational, financial and scientific contexts.” Whether it’s who to vote for, or what the outcome of a research study really means, or the criminal investigations we choose to believe or not, we always gravitate toward a conclusion that on some level, we’ve already made.

Confirmation bias explains why conspiracy theories run rampant. People believe them because they  want to believe them. They don’t question the source of the evidence or whether a supporting video might be doctored or not. Since the questionable evidence already fits their beliefs, it doesn’t really matter what its origins are, or exactly how questionable it is. This is why Democrats believed Bill Clinton when he famously said: “I did not have sex with that woman.”  And it’s why Republicans believed Richard Nixon when he said: “I’m am not a crook.” We don’t like being wrong and we desperately want to believe that our candidate is right. No matter what evidence there is to the contrary.

If you are still on the fence about who or what to believe in this upcoming election and you think confirmation bias may be playing a role in your decision here’s some simple advice: Mindfulness teachers would say; Don’t necessarily trust your thinking mind to deliver the answer.

There’s a bumper sticker out there that really sums up this aspect of mindfulness. It simply states: “You don’t have to believe everything you think.” Your thinking mind is already lying to you on a regular basis when it says things like I’m a terrible parent. I will never be a success in life. I’m no good at anything. I have the world’s worst boss, etc. So maybe it’s time to recognize the fallacy of always believing what the thinking mind says about you AND about politics and look below the surface for answers to your most important questions.

Here's a mindfulness trick that might help. Instead of asking yourself, which candidate should I vote for? Ask yourself a deeper question like: Which candidate would be better for our country? Here you have a question that’s not about you, it’s about helping others.

I suggest you pose this question (or any other similarly important question) before you go to sleep at night or before meditating, exercising, or before praying. In other words, while you are doing anything OTHER than trying to come up with the answer.

When I voted in the Democratic primary in 2008, I went to the polls fully prepared to vote for Hillary Clinton. At the last minute, while standing in line, an old expression, came to mind: If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten. And at that moment, I decided to cast my ballot for Barack Obama. It was NOT a decision that came from my thinking mind. It just popped into my head out of nowhere. Mindfulness has helped me to embrace moments like that, where something wells up from my unconscious mind and tells me to go left instead of right, or as was the case in 1980 to right instead of left. Those decisions always take me down a new and unexpected pathway.

Is voting for one candidate or another more likely to bring about a better outcome? I think so. And for me personally, I believe that means voting for Joe Biden. But of course, that isn’t necessarily going to be what YOU believe. This is a question you must answer between now and Tuesday. I do hope mindfulness, awareness, asking a deeper question and quieting the thinking mind (and understanding the role that confirmation bias can play in your decision making) can help you make the decision that is right for you AND our country. In either case, please vote on Tuesday and let your inner voice, be heard.

 

Check out this glowing description of Ronald Reagan, written by none other than California’s very liberal, Democratic former Senator Barbara Boxer. (Here’s the link to the original article from the SFGate Politics blog where this statement originally appeared.) Oh how I wish politics could be more like this today.

“Ronald Reagan showed all of us that you can disagree without being disagreeable, and that even if you have sharply different views on some issues, you can still work to find common ground.”

President Reagan once said: ‘I’ve always believed that a lot of the troubles of the world would disappear if we were talking to each other instead of about each other.’

“He believed if we were all respectful to each other, we could find those areas of agreement. We could get things done. That was an important lesson for me and for all of us because, in the Senate, with the rules of the Senate, the only way to get things done for our constituents and for our country is by working together.”

“I believe he had learned this lesson in California, where, as a Republican Governor, he worked with a Democratic State legislature. He brought that same approach from Sacramento to the Nation’s Capital.”

“As Governor, in keeping with the values and wishes of most Californians, he helped to establish the Redwood National Park. He regulated auto emissions to reduce pollution. He opposed the State proposition that discriminated against teachers based on sexual orientation. He was willing to reach across party lines and find consensus.”

“He continued these efforts to work across the aisle when he became President. Although there were serious disagreements on important issues, President Reagan worked closely with a Democratic House to ratify and sign important arms control agreements, increase investments in math and science education, and reauthorize the Superfund hazardous waste cleanup program.”

“President Reagan was a conservative, but he was not an ideologue. He fulfilled his campaign promise to appoint the first woman to the Supreme Court, choosing Sandra Day O’Connor as the first female Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, even though she was considered too moderate by many conservatives.”

(Here’s the link to the original article from the SFGate Politics blog)




James Porter
James Porter

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