08/02/2011 10:31 am ET | Updated Oct 02, 2011

An Overabundance of Certainty

If you can step back a bit from the play-by-play coverage of the scrum over the debt ceiling, you might ask yourself: how in the hell did we get into such a mess? The debt ceiling 'crisis' was transformed from a rather routine fiscal action into the 10th Holy Crusade through ideological self-absorption and crass political opportunism. Yet, even more alarming is the larger and more serious problem it revealed: the evident inability of our Congress to govern.

The public used to evaluate the performance of its elected leaders by accomplishment. What have they done for the nation? What crises have been averted? What immediate problems have been solved? What future problems have been foreseen and prevented? What public needs have been met? Did representatives of various geographies and philosophies put aside parochial interests and work together for the common good?

That is no longer the standard. The value of accomplishment has as much to do with today's Washington, DC environment as a goldfish does with golf. Now, it's about winning; for your political party, or your caucus within a political party, or your particular ideology, or even just for yourself.

The underlying problem is an overabundance of certainty. Too many people are supremely confident that they have all the answers; that their values and their view of things are correct and everyone else is dead wrong. In fact, everyone else's point of view isn't just dead wrong, it's probably corrupt. They and they alone have the benefit of received wisdom.

You get a good idea of this from the proliferation of talking heads -- elected and otherwise -- who continually tell us "what the American people want." It's a pretty safe bet that most of these oracles wouldn't have the first freaking idea what the American people want, and, truth be told, don't really care.

The sincere zealots assume that everyone else must see things exactly the way they do because they are, after all, right. And, if a nonbeliever does hold a contrary view, it's wrong, so it doesn't count.

Then there are the opportunistic zealots who know they only speak for one view among many, but still reserve for themselves the right to speak for everyone because they are, after all, right. For such people, the possibility that the American public might be as divided on issues as their elected representatives doesn't really deserve serious consideration. Neither does the quaint notion that differing points of view could have any merit. Or that people who hold differing views also elect representatives who deserve a seat at the table. If you're absolutely certain that there is one and only one correct point of view -- and it happens to be yours -- it endows you with great clarity.

We've heard a number of people in the Tea Party Caucus claim to have been called to Washington by the American people to change everything. They've perhaps lost sight of the fact that they weren't elected by everyone in America, but by a majority of voters in one Congressional District. Now that isn't chopped liver, but neither is it a mandate from every man, woman, child, dog and cat in America. And, perhaps they've lost sight of the fact that there are 434 other House Districts, five U.S. territories and the District of Columbia, all with about the same number of people as their district; people who also elected someone to represent their views in Congress.

According to every reputable national poll, there's a great diversity of public opinion on nearly every issue: raising the debt ceiling, cutting federal spending, which federal spending to cut, ending or renewing tax breaks and loopholes for corporations and millionaires, ending or continuing the wars in Afghanistan and even Iraq; you name it, people disagree on it. That -- along with red meat -- is what makes America great.

It is abundantly clear that for our democratic system to work; for a government that's a little more capable of governing; for a Congress that truly represents the American people, we need a lot less certainty and a lot more doubt.

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