06/26/2011 07:23 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2011

Debt-Limit Chicken and the Spread of Political Fundamentalism

The game of debt-limit chicken has reached crunch time now that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Senator John Kyl have walked out of bipartisan talks to reach agreement on raising the debt ceiling. Although Cantor and Kyl like the trillions of dollars in rumored spending cuts, which would negatively impact the old, the sick and the poor, they would rather move us toward a U.S. Government default, which would dive us into the murky pool of financial panic, than talk about including "revenue enhancement" in a balanced approach to deficit reduction. Their refusal to even discuss the possibility of "enhanced revenues," is a feckless profile in political cowardice. Rather than take a stand on taxing the rich or closing corporate tax loopholes, which would generate billions of dollars of federal revenues, they have elected to literally pass the buck on to House Speaker Boehner and President Obama. Would you want these guys as your friends?

There is no shortage of opinion about the meaning of this latest development in the debt limit crisis. Some say House Majority Leader Cantor is playing an inside political game, currying favor with the Tea Party at the expense of his colleague, Speaker Boehner. Others say it is a ploy to force the president to give a public speech about raising taxes.

To me the flight from talks about enhancing revenues, cutting spending, and raising the debt limit ceiling underscores a much more disturbing pattern: the spread of political fundamentalism in our public life. Millions of our citizens -- and voters -- adhere to a strict, fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, believing that its passages are the word of God. Of greater concern, though, is the kind of conceptual orthodoxy that fundamentalism seems to construct. For fundamentalists the world is divided into hermetically sealed black and white categories. What's more, fundamentalists adhere to a set of inviolable principles. If you are member of a fundamentalist religious group and do something or say something that crosses a forbidden boundary, you become a sinner or an outcast. Having transgressed, social relations are severed and you are socially isolated. Even if you make an eloquent case for your restitution, you will probably not be heard.

This kind of ironclad mentality surfaced repeatedly during my anthropological fieldwork in the Republic of Niger. In the village of Mehanna in Western Niger, I routinely talked with Muslim clerics, all of whom ceaselessly attempted to convert me to Islam. The clerics who were open-minded and conceptually flexible, accepted my refusal. They disagreed with my refusal, but accepted me as a human being. They'd shrug their shoulders and say that in the end "we are all Adam's children." Their open-mindedness encouraged me to continue what turned out to be fascinating discussions about religion. In so doing, we stretched the boundaries of our comprehension of the world. The closed-minded fundamentalist clerics also tried to convert me, but for them my refusal to become a Muslim meant that I was an infidel, someone whose presence polluted the purity of the community. These clerics wanted me to leave -- or better yet -- be expelled from Mehanna. They refused to talk with me and encouraged their children to stay far away from the dangerous presence of the infidel. My unacceptable difference meant that there was no space for us to talk or relate to one another.

The presence of fundamentalism -- Christian, Jewish, or Muslim -- often results in the absence of meaningful dialogue with non-believers. Imagine trying to have a meaningful conversation with a fundamentalist member of the Taliban or, for that matter, a soldier in The Army of God. Such extreme orthodoxy seems to becoming increasingly the case in the contemporary American politics, which today suffers from the noxious spread of a political fundamentalism that shares all the conceptual attributes and practical orthodoxies of religious fundamentalism. Even if it's really in the national interest, you can't vote to increase taxes because you've taken a pledge. A vote to raise the debt ceiling, even if it is a vote against political insanity, is not possible because it will anger your constituents and financial supporters. In the past, a courageous act, like voting your conscience, might get you, to paraphrase the late Ken Kesey, put off the bus. Today, voting your conscience gets you thrown under the bus. In short, the pervasiveness of contemporary political fundamentalism has already severed political relations, reducing debate to meaningless talking points that leave no room for discussion, debate or compromise -- the glue that holds our political system together.

How do you deal with a political fundamentalism that erodes the prospect for compromise? You voice your objection, you participate in the political process and you vote the close-minded bums out of office. The 2012 election can't come soon enough!!