10/21/2013 09:01 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Government Shutdown and the Moral Arrogance of our Politics

"The media keeps asking, was it worth it? My answer is that it is always worth it to do the right thing."

This is not a statement from the one of America's founders, justifying our nation's fight for independence. Nor is it the rhetoric of a 19th century abolitionist, explaining the purpose and motive of some courageous, rebellious act for freedom. These are absolutely not the words of President Roosevelt or Winston Churchill as they used extraordinary force to combat extraordinary evil.

No, these are the self-assured words of Senator Mike Lee from Utah.

Lee said this after the costs of the Republicans' strategy of confrontation and bullying was clear. As Americans have come to realize, the government shutdown defied common sense. The GOP fought for better health care by taking an action that starved the WIC program of funding (WIC provides funds for poor women, infants and children for basic nutrition and some basic health care needs). They rebelled against out of control deficits by executing a plan that cost the U.S. economy at least $24 billion. And they decried the "Obama economy" with a legislative strategy that put tens of thousands of Americans out of work, and the full faith and credit of the United States at risk. These are the fruits of the Republican shutdown of the federal government.

The shutdown was a symptom of what has become an overriding theme in our politics: moral arrogance, a certainty of one's own rightness that suggests not leadership, but megalomania. A group of Republican senators, Letterman-style, released a Top 10 list of reasons why the shutdown was not so bad that was part-sarcasm, all-arrogance. The New York Times reported that when asked why House Republicans would drag the nation through the ordeal of a shutdown, Congressman Steve King's answer was simple: "Because we're right, simply because we're right."

But while the shutdown was caused by one party, the problem of moral arrogance in our politics infects both parties. Congressional Democrats have enjoyed claiming the mantle of the "least unreasonable" party in Congress over the last month, but that will be tested when entitlement reform is back on the table during negotiations over the next two months. In fact, Democrats are in danger of becoming a political party obsessed with their own sanity. Sick of Ted Cruz? Get ready for district-by-district campaign ads comparing every Republican running for office to the Texas senator.

The moral arrogance of our politics as co-opted even the most beloved of our 21st century American values: empathy. As we have seen over the last several weeks, the empathy our politicians are drawn to is not one that allows us to better understand the perspective and struggles of others. Instead, empathy is only valuable to many of our leaders when it can be perverted into a bludgeon with which to shame the other side, and a shield to ward off any softening of our own views. The Democrat empathizes with the furloughed employee who can't pay their rent, and the Republican with the citizen running into Obamacare website snafus. Only moral arrogance could turn empathy into a tool to inflate our ego, rather than inspire humility.

The end of the government shutdown early this morning is no cause for celebration. It is a wake-up call: A reminder that our government is running on the ideas and passions of ideologues, and that our politics is trapped in cynicism.

What we must demand of our politicians is embarrassing, but necessary. Before they act, we need them to ask themselves the simple question: "is this good for the American people?" That we cannot hold our politicians to higher aspirations than this is shameful, but this is the fundamental rule we must expect our politicians to abide. To this question, we must not accept answers about the "long-game" or excuses that rely on just how interminable or obnoxious the other side is -- the question has a simple response: yes or no.

Over the last three weeks, Republicans in Congress answered "no," and proceeded anyways. It is moral arrogance to believe the rightness and righteousness of your ideology trumps immediate suffering. Our politics needs a new humility that puts the immediate and actual welfare of Americans ahead of the advancement of our ideological convictions. And the only way we will get it is when the American people accept nothing less.