The Metaphysics of the Shutdown

In all the commentary about the government shutdown and the impending breaching of the debt ceiling, no one has yet noted that we are witnessing a clash of metaphysics. Andrew Sullivan calls it a “cognitive abyss:”

“That’s where we are. We cannot agree upon basic empirical fact in order to have a conversation, let alone a negotiation.”

The parties do not agree about the likely results (or the evidence to date) of Obamacare, the scientific evidence (or the motivations of scientists) concerning climate change, or the dangers to the economy represented by not increasing the nation’s debt ceiling.

Last fall there were similar debates over the presidential election (cf. ‘unskewed polls’). At the time, many observers thought that the election itself would at last provide a baseline reality check. We would finally “see the fever break.” Even Obama said as much. But what was taken as dis-confirming evidence by the one side was read as confirming evidence by the other. The election results which showed a clear Obama victory for some were seen by others as the result of voter fraud, or the deviousness of ACORN, or evidence of the pathology of the lower classes (the 47%) now utterly dependent on the Democrats.

While there is an element of crazy here, Sullivan is too quick to label the Right pathological. There is a real difference in outlook that undergirds the bipolar world that we have fallen into. The deeper causes of this may lie in globalization, technological advance, differential economic pathways (‘winners and losers’), and the development of cable news. But the result is the existence of two vastly different ways of interpreting our common political reality. And it is hard to imagine a scenario where we heal this breach.

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