Trapped in a Bubble of Intellectual Isolationism

I’m not entirely sure why this government shutdown bothers me so much more than 1995/96 when the two-year-olds last took over Washington. As I noted earlier this week, our current shutdown strikes me as far more dangerous in the long run. We are moving beyond political ideology and threatening to reshape the checks and balances that have helped America grow as a nation. Simply put, if the Republicans are successful, we will witness a presidency weakened for generations to come.

Such an idea might appeal to the Tea Party, anti-Obama voter today, but it won’t when a group of liberal party leaders shuts down the government over cuts to the SNAP program (or some other program conservatives like) in 5 years. Once we allow a government shutdown to become a viable bargaining tool, we will replay this cycle every time 26 House members decide things aren’t going their way.

That’s not governance. That’s blackmail.

I will readily admit that the video of Rep. Randy Neugebauer chastising the Park Ranger put me in a foul mood Thursday. My mood didn’t improve Friday morning when Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC), a person who voted to shut down the government, told reporters she will keep her paycheck.

“I need my paycheck. That’s the bottom line,” she said.

I have no doubt that Rep. Ellmers needs her paycheck. I’ve written before that our Representatives and Senators are, sometimes, in a tough financial situations. Many have two homes and, honestly, living in Washington D.C. is expensive. I don’t blame her for needing her pay.

But my neighbor needs his paycheck also. He would, like Rep. Ellmers, love to be at work today.

I think, though, that what bothers me the most is we are witnessing something far different than in 1996. Beyond the cynical hypocrisy when politicians who vote to shut down national monuments one day rise in righteous indignation the next, we are watching a small group of politicians emboldened by a kind of intellectual isolationism.

I rise to speak for 300 million Americans, Sen. Ted Cruz told us, who oppose Obamacare.

Except 300 million people don’t oppose Obamacare. I’m guessing Sen. Cruz is fed information from source after source that leads him to believe America agrees with him. He daily allows Fox News, the Drudge Report, NRO, and other conservative media outlets to massage his ego and he rejects the possibility that he might, in fact, not be speaking for large swaths of the American public. He has become, like too many of us, trapped in the bubble of ideological social media.

Twitter, Facebook, and our web site favorites block those inconvenient truths we might not want to see and we become victims of the vacuum of voices telling us what we want to hear.

In fact, we can see from the Republican talking points that they miscalculated America’s dislike of the Affordable Care Act. Four days in and they have stopped insisting on an end to ACA and now want to delay the medical device tax. Or they want to negotiate the debt ceiling. Or they want to vote piecemeal on funding the government. Or they want an exit strategy that doesn’t make them look weak. Or they want gold stars and cups of chocolate milk.

Heck, I’m not even sure what they are holding out for anymore. On day one of the shutdown, they owned their choice. Rep. Michelle Bachmann told us they were “giddy,” and Republicans were standing tall, shoulder to shoulder for America. By day two, the shutdown was Sen. Harry Reid’s fault. By day three, Republican Senators were privately grumbling that Sen. Cruz didn’t have an exit strategy.

In so many ways, the Republicans are replaying the same mistakes they made when Karl Rove called into question Fox News pollsters who told him President Obama would win the White House, as if somehow those Fox pollsters were secret members of the mainstream press trying to brainwash their viewers. Rove, like Dick Morris (see simply couldn’t imagine a scenario where people didn’t agree with his world view.

But let’s note that the Republicans aren’t alone in this problem. They are just the easiest target right now.

What is most disturbing, though, is too many of our politicians simply reflect our own willingness to wallow in confirmation biases that cost us our ability to sympathize and empathize with those who disagree with us. We bury ourselves in data that proves our view of the world, increasing our certainty that what we see is what everyone sees.

Or what everyone should see.

The net impact, though, is we increasingly isolate our “self” or our group as something unique and under attack from the hordes of ill-informed Americans around us. We have moved beyond disagreement to anger at other people’s ignorance.

I’m sure Rep. Neugebauer is a decent man. My guess is Sen. Ted Cruz is highly intelligent and he cares deeply about America. Even Rep. John Boehner, my liberal, tree-hugging hippie friends, cares about America.

So does President Obama. And Sen. Reid. Even Rep. Nancy Pelosi, my right-wing, evangelical friends, cares about America.

Don’t misread me here: I’m not arguing for some sort of kumbaya, can’t we all get along, campfire solution to our current shutdown. You can bring politicians to the table, but you can’t make them talk.

I’m not asking my tea party, God-loving, gun-toting friends to suddenly support open borders, free health care, and marijuana in the public square any more than I would want my liberal, humanist, PETA-member friends to support oil pipelines, capital punishment, and low corporate tax rates.

I am asking them, though, to move beyond the sycophantic voices swirling around them.

Democrats simply must recognize large segments of the population are justifiably concerned about rising entitlement costs and the changing demographic makeup of America.

Republicans must recognize large segments of the population believe in social safety nets, have radically different views about cultural issues, and support things like gun control.

These are not silly, ignorant, or uninformed concerns.

We must begin treating disagreements as opportunities to discuss, disagree, and debate not invitations to ignore, shout, and hate.

Our government was built on the former and is in danger of being destroyed by the latter.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

2 Responses to Trapped in a Bubble of Intellectual Isolationism

  1. John Wegner says:

    Thanks for reading and your comments throughout. I have a feeling even if we did invent a pill that helped critical thinking, half of Congress would vote against it just for the sake of meanness.

  2. Nick says:

    Thanks, John, for giving a thoughtful, cogent summary of the real problems we as a nation are facing. Wish there was a way to distill a vaccine for vitriol from this post, and forcibly inject all of Congress with it!

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