The Buddhist Insight that Explains Our Broken Politics

The Buddha’s parable of the two arrows of suffering helps us understand why our politics seems so broken and harmful, and how we can fix it.

7 min readOct 24, 2020

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Our politics and political culture feel pretty broken. I don’t think many of us can take in the ways we engage each other on political matters and think it’s healthy. In fact, writing a week before the presidential election, political culture looks like nothing but suffering. We don’t like the government, we don’t like each other, and we especially don’t like the people who join opposing teams, or aren’t sufficiently supportive of our side. We vent on social media, shame mob outcasts and undesirables — and are quick to affix those labels to anyone with whom we have even the most mild disagreement. We “cancel” everyday people, destroying their livelihoods and sometimes lives, over clumsy jokes or insensitive comments — or just ignorance about the rapidly shifting fads of language and elevated terminology. Sometimes we even drive cars through peaceful protestors who just happen to be protesting in ways, and for causes, that make us uncomfortable or cause us to feel like our status is threatened.

There isn’t a single cause for this unfortunate turn, of course. Partisanship has grown. Social media puts us constantly in each other’s pockets and thoughts like never before. We’ve politicized more and more of our lives, and centralized control in the federal government, making federal politics more rancorous, ever-present, and higher stakes. But all of this is exacerbated, and we suffer more, because we too often ignore an important Buddhist insight about suffering and how our reactions to it make it worse.

Taking this insight — the value of non-reactivity — more seriously, and putting into practice in our own lives, won’t fix everything that’s broken, but it would be a major step. Nor do we need to fix politics entirely to radically improve our relationship to it, and so make ourselves that much more free from suffering.

The Two Arrows of Suffering

The core of Buddhism is contained in the Four Noble Truths. The first is the existence of dukkha, usually translated as “suffering.” You can get…

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Aaron Ross Powell

Host of the ReImagining Liberty podcast. Writer and political ethicist. Former think tank scholar.