The majority of Americans are not extremists when it comes to politics. They are neither very blue nor very red. They are somewhere in between. Before we call them purple, it’s best to recognize the state of mind many of them have about policy issues ranging from education to gun control to tax policy and entitlement reform, namely: uncertainty.
That’s right, uncertainty. The majority of Americans do not believe that they know with certainty how to address the problem of gun violence, whether charter schools are a good idea, what to do about Syria and North Korea or how to reform Social Security. They do not have the cognitive state of mind of certainty. Nor do they feel comfortable in their beliefs. They see some value in both progressive and conservative perspectives.
The key to formulating a political point of view that will address the dysfunction in Washington and the angry polarization that infects our country is to harness the uncertainty of those in the middle.
This does not mean we should have politicians who will propose that we accept uncertainty as a state of being and do nothing to address it. Of course not.
What it means is that we should mobilize citizens and thinkers around the honest doubts tens of millions of Americans have and leverage this uncertainty so that it binds people together and leads to creative policy solutions to our national problems.
Uncertainty begets bipartisanship because those who have it are inclined to reach out to others and find ways to work with them. Leveraging uncertainty involves rejecting rigidity, rejecting intellectual arrogance and rejecting narrow-mindedness. Leveraging uncertainty, moreover, has an honored history in our country.
Abraham Lincoln, as the late Harvard scholar David Donald argued over 50 years ago in his essay “Abraham Lincoln and the American Pragmatic Tradition,” was a leader who rejected doctrinaire solutions and rigid thinking. Lincoln said, “My policy is to have no policy.” He was tenacious, but he was not narrow-minded. He applied fundamental moral principles rooted in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to each situation as it arose, and he respected context and timing.
For example, Lincoln only issued the Emancipation Proclamation when the pragmatic moment called for it — namely when he needed to dissuade England and France from siding with the South.
If our greatest president put uncertainty on a pedestal, so did our greatest philosopher, John Dewey. One of his most important books was titled “The Quest for Certainty,” and throughout this book Dewey sharply criticized those philosophers — ancient and modern — who claimed to have certainty about what we could know about reality and what economic and political institutions were just.
Where the voices of certainty saw dualisms everywhere — knowledge and action, mind and body, individual and society — Dewey saw complexity, continuity and historical evolution. Democracy itself flourished, in his view, when armies of scientists worked together to understand natural and social reality and create public policies that would solve the “the problems of men” rather than the abstract, artificial, irrelevant “problems of philosophers.”
Likewise, the greatest economist of the 20th century, John Maynard Keynes — as Paul Davidson and Robert Skidelsky have argued in four recent books — put the concept of uncertainty at the center of his explanatory theory of what animates advanced capitalist societies. Economic theories that revolve around the “rational economic man” are fundamentally misguided from a Keynesian point of view. Once we understand the actual psychology behind the thinking of our citizens and our companies, then we will develop the best fiscal and monetary policies.
Lincoln, Dewey, and Keynes all valued uncertainty. They all hated simplistic dualisms and overly idealized conceptions of decision-making. They respected the reality of uncertainty and were not afraid of it. Instead, they embraced it.
Today, our politics are controlled by individuals, organizations and politicians who are certain about what we should do and who feel confident in their beliefs. And look where it’s gotten us.
The question is: Can future leaders craft a new politics for our country that moves away from the divisive attitude of certainty?