The title refers to the ultimate challenge of popular sovereignty, for while populism too often isn’t smart enough, its absence too often isn’t just enough or wise enough. Therefore, an ever-urgent question seems to be: How do we create and maintain “smart populism”? But before addressing it, I’m going to take a moment to situate this (only very marginally new) concept within the cognitive landscape I’m developing here.

Obviously, there is no magic wand to wave which will fundamentally change reality. Humans will be, by and large, what we have been, and the foibles that characterize the recent past are virtually guaranteed to characterize the near future. But loyal readers know that I view our collective endeavor as human beings in terms of the evolutionary ecology of our cognitive (and thus technological and social institutional) landscape, an evolutionary ecology in which we actively and consciously (if not always consciously enough) participate.

(See the series of essays linked to in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts, such as Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), Emotional Contagion, The Politics of Consciousness , Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix.)

For every fundamental, long-term challenge we identify, the essential question is: How do we negotiate the dynamical, evolving cognitive social organism described in The Fractal Geometry of Social Change in ways which increase the salience of reason and compassion and imagination (or, collectively, of wisdom) in the ongoing historical life-course of that social organism?

I’ve offered, as grist for the mill, a plethora of specific ideas and concepts to keep in mind (e.g., Ideology v. Methodology, The Signal-To-Noise Ratio, The Elusive Truth, Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems, The Genius of the Many, The Variable Malleability of Reality, and many others linked to in the various boxes at Catalogue of Selected Posts), as well as applications to specific policy areas (e.g., Humanized MarketsThe Real Deficit, Real Education Reform, The Vital Role of Child, Family, and Community Services, The Most Vulnerable AmericansSound Mind, Sound Body, Sound Society; Sound Good?Lords and Serfs on the Global Manor: Foreign Aid as Noblesse Oblige, Problems Without Borders, “Democracy IN America,” But Not BY America, The Brutality of War is RelevantGaia & Me, A comprehensive overview of the immigration issue, Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding, Rights v. Security, Freedom & Coherence, etc.), as well as an overarching paradigm of how to engage in this long-term program of conscious and conscientious social change (see, e.g., Transcendental Politics, A Proposal, The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, How to make a kinder and more reasonable world, Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives, The Ultimate Political Challenge, Second-Order Social Change, “A Theory of Justice”,  The Power of “Walking the Walk”, Community Action Groups (CAGs) & Network (CAN)).

These essays form one microcosm of the dynamical fractal of our shared cognitive (and thus social institutional and technological) landscape, as one expression of one example of the way in which each individual mind does so, not as a separate and distinct thing, but as a moment of something larger, woven into that something larger, inhaling from it and exhaling into it in a constant cognitive respiration.

“Smart Populism” is thus one new sub-swirl, one new eddy within larger eddies, I wish to add to the developing cognitive framework I am proposing here on Colorado Confluence, a cognitive framework that I hope more and more people inhale, process, and contribute to. It clearly links closely to, or nests within, many other concepts here, such as The Genius of the Many, Discipline & Purpose, The Ultimate Political ChallengeThe Signal-To-Noise Ratio, and Ideology v. Methodology. It is, in a sense, an act of ongoing triangulation, getting at The Elusive Truth from one more angle, like Richard Dreyfus in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind obsessively refining his model of the mesa where the extraterrestrials were going to land.

“Smart Populism” involves incorporating the suggestions woven through other essays into our individual and organized approaches to political activism. For instance, it refers to embracing the humility of knowing that we don’t know as much as we often pretend to, and thus investing more in the disciplines and methodologies which increase accuracy, or “signal,” and decrease error, or “noise.” Doing so requires us to identify, head-on, the logical and emotional fallacies that seduce us, and create a program for addressing them effectively.

To illustrate, let me offer an example of what I consider to be “dumb populism”: Elsewhere in the blogosphere, I got into a debate with another poster who insisted that what progressives need to do is to withhold their support of Democratic candidates, because Democratic candidates aren’t giving progressives enough of what progressives elected them to give. This, of course, mirrors the Tea Party attitude of insisting that the candidates they worked to get elected give them exactly what they elected those candidates to give them. The result, of course, is gridlock. But not only gridlock: also a reduction in the ability of the relatively sane and responsible office-holders to act as a bulwark against a powerful and destructive ideological fever sweeping across the nation.

(See, e.g., “Political Fundamentalism”, “Constitutional Idolatry”, Liberty Idolatry, Small Government Idolatry, The Tea Party’s Mistaken Historical Analogy, Liberty & Interdependence, Social Institutional Luddites, The Inherent Contradiction of Extreme Individualism, Liberty & Society, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” American Political Edition (Parts I-V), A Political Christmas Carol, and An Open Letter To The American Far-Right).

To be more precise, the argument depended on the notion that the Democrats in office are following a strategy, en masse, inferior to the strategy preferred by the poster. This is a frequent refrain, offered in varying strains from across the ideological spectrum, but one that is unlikely to be true in any given instance. And it is at the heart of “dumb populism,” because it does not respect the accumulated knowledge embedded in our shared cognitive landscape, and the marginal (but important, and sometimes quite dramatic) role that any one innovative new idea plays. The best innovations are those that dance with what is; the worst are those that erroneously believe they are superior to, and can and should completely displace, the extant “genius of the many.”

The error involves a logical fallacy that an economic historian I knew dubbed “dumb peasant theories.” Under Dumb Peasant Theories, the explanation for the inferior efficiencies of (for example) Medieval farming in comparison to pre-industrial modern farming were due to the peasants just not knowing any better, and eventually learning how to do it right.

The problem with these theories is that they don’t explain anything, and just don’t make much sense. Sure, accumulated knowledge is, in a superficial sense, the reason for the changes, but why did it accumulate as it did, and what differences in context made changes in methods more attractive (and effective) in one period than another? There is, as described in my “evolutionary ecology” and “fractal geometry” series of essays, a pattern to these developments, a pattern of interrelated changes, involving an evolving coherent whole.

Implicit in failing to recognize this systemic whole is the implication that people are just smarter in one time and place than in another, an implication co-opted, for instance, by ultra-nationalists and racists to justify their own sense of superiority. People, in large numbers, are not much different in essence from one time or place to another time or place, so to explain differences in performance, attributing it to one population being smarter or more talented than another is generally not getting at the heart of the matter, and does not move our collective consciousness in the most productive direction.

The reason for differences in Democratic and Republican power or outcomes is not that we have a bunch of dumb Dems in power who, if only they knew what this or that poster on this or that blog knows, would turn the tide of history. It’s pretty clear that there is something else at the heart of the phenomena we’re talking about than that our elected officials, en masse, just aren’t as smart as any particular blogger or group of bloggers who thinks they have the final decisive answer to the problem.

If we really want to make headway against the complex social forces that are obstructing progress, then we have to avoid the temptation of indulging in Dumb Peasant Theories, and other emotionally gratifying but counterproductive ways of thinking and acting.

The problem isn’t that Democratic elected officials are a bunch of dumb peasants who just keep letting those wily Republicans outfox them. The problem is the complex structure of power and ideology in America, in which both Democrats and Republicans are embedded, and which is currently unfavorable to progressives. There is no short-cut, no panacea, that will resolve that problem easily, and acting as if there is is far more likely to exacerbate it than reduce it.

But that does not mean that it is our job to defer blindly to their wisdom, either. We, the polity, are one of the vital forces (hopefully, the most vital force) in this systemic whole. We need to articulate our will and diffuse wisdom most effectively into the process of governance, injecting more signal than noise, doing so with more rather than less discipline, doing so in service to ideas developed more methodologically than ideologically.

And that is why I have cited and linked to the corpus of thought on this blog, because it comprises one outline of how to do so. Smart Populismmust include an exploration and modeling of the nature of the social institutional landscape and the nature of our individual cognitive landscapes, considering how we can most effectively and beneficially articulate the latter with the former. It must take a synoptic view, considering the whole of our endeavor, and then working downward into the details. It must be based, to whatever extents we are capable of individually and collectively, on consciousness rather than reflex, on analysis rather than dogma, on channeled and disciplined passions rather than on unreflecting emotional reaction and self-gratification.

The fact that, as human beings, our foibles and defects will forever form a part of the challenge we face does not mean that facing it is impossible or irrational. We must recognize and work with reality to improve upon it. But the fact that humans are not, as it happens, persuaded as much by reason as by emotional appeals does not mean that reason cannot, through our efforts, be made to play a greater role. Over the course of the past several centuries, various forms of institutionalized reason (most archetypically scientific methodology)  have developed and played increasingly crucial roles in our collective existence. Populism should not stand in opposition to that social evolutionary current, but in articulation with it, humanizing it, channeling it, internalizing it, and participating in it. That is how we, as a people, can best thrive.

(This is the fourth in a series of four posts which discuss Tea Party “Political Fundamentalism”, comprised of the unholy trinity of “Constitutional Idolatry”, Liberty Idolatry, and Small Government Idolatry.)

To recap briefly, “Political Fundamentalism” is the mutation of christian fundamentalism that allows it to appeal more broadly to the highly secularized by equally dogma-reliant anti-intellectual populism that permeates our culture. Whereas there has long been cause for some concern about the fanaticism and cooptation by the Republican Party of right-wing evangelicals, I had always maintained that dogmatic ideology rather than merely religious fanaticism was the real problem, and that religious fanaticism in our highly secularized society could only go so far. This mutation into a secular fanaticism, equally rigid and dysfunctional, equally tyrannical, and equally anti-intellectual, is far greater cause for concern.

Political Fundamentalism is the continuation of the Inquisition, adapting to a changing world in an attempt to prevent the world itself from adapting to changing circumstances and insights, creating an obstruction to the continuation of the growth and application of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. Political Fundamentalism can be found all over the political ideological spectrum, just as religious fundamentalism can be found all over the religious spectrum, and, in both cases, the differences in ideological particulars are less compelling than the similarities in attitude. But the currently most dangerous form of Political Fundamentalism in America is the right-wing version, comprised of the three elements already named.

“Constitutional Idolatry,” the first element I wrote about, is the conversion of an historical document meant to provide a somewhat flexible legal doctrine and framework into a sacred text the caricature of which must be rigidly adhered to according to some non-existent and impossible literal interpretation. And “Liberty Idolatry,” the second element I wrote about, is the reduction of the concept of “liberty” to one divorced from consideration of interdependence and mutual responsibility, defending freedoms independently of consideration of the harm they may inflict on others or on all.

The third element in the unholy trinity of Political Fundamentalism is Small Government Idolatry. It is a fixed belief that smaller government is always better, that lower taxes and less spending are always better, that “government is the problem” (as Ronald Reagan famously proclaimed, ushering in a movement that will long be the bane of our attempts at designing and implementing reasonable proactive policies and public investments). Like its strongly intertwined fellow travelers, Constitutional Idolatry and Liberty Idolatry, it is a fixed belief, impervious to reason and evidence, insulated from compelling counterarguments or sensible attempts to achieve balance and moderation. It is a force for the contraction of the human mind, opposition to reason and knowledge, and obstruction of progress, at a very real and tragic cost in increased human suffering and decreased human welfare.

An argument against Small Government Idolatry is not an argument for big government (just as an argument against Constitutional Idolatry is not an argument against the Constitution, and an argument against Liberty Idolatry is not an argument against liberty). It is an argument in favor of doing the analysis, in favor of applying our principles knowledgeably and rationally in the context of a complex and subtle world, on a case-by-case basis. It is an argument for facing the responsibilities we have to one another and to future generations, utilizing authentic economic analyses rather than ideological pseudo-economic platitudes to balances the demands imposing themselves on government against the real economic and fiscal constraints that must discipline how these demands are met.

A blind commitment to “small government” is both humanly and fiscally irresponsible, for most economists, other social scientists, and lawyers recognize the inevitably large role that modern governments must play in modern economies, even independently of the demands that a commitment to social justice and improved equity impose on them. I’ve frequently referenced the role of information asymmetries in creating an absolute imperative that we continue to develop our regulatory infrastructure to keep pace with the opportunities to play the market system to individual advantage at sometimes catastrophic public expense. We’ve seen examples in the Enron-engineered California energy crisis of 2000-2001, and the financial sector collapse that nearly catalized a second Great Depression in 2008. Designing, implementing, and enforcing functional rules of the game for our complex market economy is an essential function of government, and one which already destroys the notion that a government too small too meet that need is preferable to one large enough to do so.

It is also fiscally, as well as humanly, irresponsible to let the problems of extreme poverty, child abuse and neglect, frequently unsuccessful public schools, high rates of violent crime, poor public health and inadequate healthcare for many, and other similar and related social problems, all of which form a mutually reinforcing matrix of dysfunctionality and growing problems that both undermine the safety and welfare of us all, and end up costing us far more to react to (with astronomical rates of very expensive incarceration, and other costs of dependency and predation) than it would have cost us to proactively address.

The fiscal concerns that the Political Fundamentalists identify are not to be disregarded, or treated as irrelevant, but rather are one set of considerations among many, to be included in a complete analysis rather than treated as always and forever dispositive independently of any application of reason or knowledge to the question of whether it is actually dispositive or not. The challenge of self-governance requires utilizing our fully developed and focused cognitive capacities, applied to all available information, in pursuit of intelligent and well-conceived policies. It is undermined by the imposition of an a priori set of fixed certainties that are impervious to both knowledge and reason.

We need, in our political discourse, less fundamentalism and more analysis, less idolatry and more (and better) methodology, less false certainty and more foundational humility. We need less deference to fixed and static beliefs, and more to our process by which we test our beliefs and improve upon them. We need less commitment to ideologies, and more commitment to working together as reasonable people of goodwill, doing the best we can to confront the challenges and opportunities of a complex and subtle world.

Reading an AP article on President Obama’s appearance on The Daly Show ( reminded me of the title truism, the flip side of “the electorate rewards pandering.” Of course, to the current dominant populist force in America, there’s no such thing as “pandering,” because democracy to them means, should mean, must mean, government by the lowest common denominator, that whatever is shouted loudest must be truest, that the mob is never wrong, and knowledge is never relevant. Forget the fact that history has thoroughly disproved this (ever seen film clips of Nazi rallies in 1920s Germany?). Forget that fact that it is mindbogglingly obvious that there are complex issues, economic, legal, technical issues that require the application of actual knowledge to actual systems. Forget the fact that the only response this neo-Neanderthal movement has to these obvious observations is to yell:

 I have never before read so much elitist, “better-than-thou” snobbery rife opinions full of progressive intellectual drivel in my life than right here. Somebody has spent way too much time in isolated Liberal environments and media.

(That was a direct quote from someone named Keith Perry in a recent Tea Party Facebook circle jerk I had the honor of inspiring). There are better quotes out there, ones that more explicitly denounce any application of knowledge with accusations of disdaining “the unwashed masses.” Any attempt to suggest that we should consider that governance merits professionalization in much the same way that medicine, law, education, accounting, geology, carpentry, mechanics, and any other profession that deals with even moderately complex systems do is met with blind, unreasoning rejection. Even when it is coupled with recognition of the need to hold those professionals democratically accountable for the job they do.

No, the rising tide is one that rejects such quaint notions as that there is any relevance to expertise. They don’t want laymen to instruct surgeons on how to do their child’s open-heart surgery, but they want laymen to instruct representatives on how to deal with complex economic, legal and technical challenges, because they are incapable of recognizing social systems as systems, complex and subtle systems, systems as challenging to work with effectively as (really more challenging than) human anatomical systems, or mechanical systems. But we are cursed by an ignorance so aggressive that it isn’t content merely to lack any understanding of social systems, but has to insist on dictating how they are addressed.

The people best equipped to govern are those who do know enough about these social systems, about the economic dynamics, the technological complexities, the legal and administrative framework, the ways in which all of these articulate with one another and with the natural and cultural systems that envelop and permeate them. These are people professional enough to examine the historical and international record, to compare various institutional arrangements, to identify their strengths and weaknesses, in short, to do what professionals do, applying training to information in service to the job for which they are paid.

And those so equipped shouldn’t say, “yes, Joe-the-Plumber, you are the expert, you know all that needs to be known about economic and fiscal policy, about international relations, about geohydrology and electrical grids and toxic environmental contamination. There is no knowledge anywhere in the world that you don’t possess that can possibly be relevant to public policy.” No, they should say, “You hired me to do a job, and it is my responsibility to do it faithfully and capably. And doing it the way your telling me to do it would be neither.” Just as the surgeon would refuse to take a hacksaw to his patient just because the father insisted it was the best way to go, so to the most talented elected officials, the kind who have the combination of knowledge, integrity, and courage to do the job they were paid to do, and to do it well, the true leaders, are punished at the polls for being true leaders. Only sycophants to popular ignorance need apply.

In fact, true leaders do more than tell the public that not each and every member knows each and every relevant fact or systemic dynamic, but also tells the public that, collectively, they possess vast untapped genius, and that that wisdom can only be tapped once the public stops drowning it out with undifferentiated noise. The job requires not just technocracy, but also energizing and mobilizing what’s best about the populace, inspiring each to contribute what they have in greater degree than others, while also encouraging each to acknowledge what their individual limitations and areas of inexpertise are.

If too many cooks spoil the broth, then the Tea these particular chefs are steeping is a toxic brew, one so putrid that it poisons the body politic each and every time it is served.