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.

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