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Most readers are aware that the title phenomenon is commonplace in human affairs, but, especially in the blogosphere, it is so pervasive, so ubiquitous, that the direct and constant encounter with it is overwhelming. On various blogs and comment boards, I have found that merely by relentlessly questioning people’s assumptions and conclusions, arguing on-topic and without ad hominems, I have consistently become a lightening rod for the most persistent, obsessive, and abusive vitriol imaginable. I regularly attract virtual stalkers and harassers, some of whom react with an almost Tourette-like reflexiveness to any scent of my existence.

On a prominent (and, in many ways, exceptionally good) Colorado political blog on which I participated for years, after such experiences repeated at an accelerating rate over that entire period of time, in an email exchange with the nominally anonymous owner of the blog, I felt as though I had stepped through the looking glass, for this individual (who, along with his real or imaginary partners, strives mightily to assume an aura of disembodied authority, using the first person plural in all self-references, habitually assuming a dismissive and disdainful tone), for he ascribed the vitriol to me, while blithely exonerating the stalkers, harassers, and frothers-at-the-mouth, implicitly agreeing with them that the publication of relentless intellectual arguments that cause discomfort in others is what is the true affront to human decency.

Don’t get me wrong: I do not claim, and have never claimed, that my personal defects and faults are not a part of this dynamic. Clearly, I could be more diplomatic, more solicitous of other people’s sensibilities, less “pompous” and “condescending” (some of the kinder descriptors of me favored by my detractors). I won’t try to determine to what extent these perceptions of my personality are an artifact of the broader dynamic I am describing, and to what extent they are truly my own, but I will admit that I believe that both components are implicated.

But our humanity is always a part of the equation, our imperfections and personality flaws always affecting our interactions. Why would extreme, explosive, obsessive expressions of rage or hatred be considered less vitriolic than the perceived pomposity and condescension of compelling and focused arguments? Both the “more legitimate” reason that such perceived pomposity and condescension communicates a lack of respect, a lack of acknowledgement of one’s own reality, and the “less legitimate” reason that the perception of such pomposity and condescension is an artifact of one’s own investment of ego in the false certainties that are being challenged, point to the same thing: Such discussions are perceived in terms of competing egos unless great pains are taken to ensure that they are perceived otherwise.

In a sense, I’ve just brought into question my own premise described in the title of this post: Is such “belligerence” really irrational? Isn’t it, on some level, true that what those others perceive as my pomposity and condescension is, in fact, an expression of my ego gorging on my ability to “win” an argument? And isn’t that an aggressive act, a kind of assault on others that invokes legitimate feelings of rage?

Yes, on some level I think that this is true. But it is also like resenting your opponent in an athletic match for out-performing you, because those same people are engaging in the same “competition,” striving to assert their own egos through their arguments on the topics of discussion. One woman, for instance, insisted that to believe in god was to adhere to a neolithic absurdity, and became very upset with me when I presented what I think was a pretty sophisticated argument why this is not necessarily so (see A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization, though the ad hominems are omitted). Another became very hostile when I challenged her passionate insistence that the best thing progressives could do now would be to withdraw all support from the Democratic Party. Another regular poster reacted with similar (though more clenched) hostility when I effectively challenged his assumptions on education reform. In all these, and other, cases, their egos were no less invested than mine; they, no less than me, in a contest that they wished to win.

Yet, it all depends on what set of rules you have implicit in your mind while playing this “game.” For instance, few if any regulars on the blog in question appear offended by, or even cognizant of, the disdainful and dismissive aura of disembodied, superior authority cultivated so assiduously by the blog owner(s), though I find it far more “pompous” and “condescending” than my own form of argumentation, which never fails to admit to my own defects and humanity, but focuses intensely on mobilizing compelling arguments both untempered by social niceties and unreliant on ad hominem attacks.

I believe that this is because the rules of their game are: 1) Do not ever challenge the premise that, while people have strongly held conflicting opinions, the goal is not to reduce mutual false certainty and arrive together at improved understandings, but rather only to win political victories that advance one’s own dogmatic beliefs at the expense of the dogmatic beliefs of others; 2) It is perfectly acceptable to be vitriolic, disdainful, and dismissive of others, if you do so without violating rule number 1.

In other words, it’s acceptable to argue a position, but only if it is done without any intention of actually challenging the assumptions and conclusions of others; rather, it must be done in service to superficial political victories rather than any attempt to affect human consciousness. This is why it’s just as acceptable among these particular actors to focus in on completely irrelevant issues with which they might score political points as to make a compelling argument, and, in fact, more acceptable to do the former than to do the latter if the latter is done in a way which too profoundly challenges people’s assumptions and conclusions.

This was in fact summed up by one poster on the same blog, less inclined to vitriol and less antagonistic toward me than others, who counseled that I shouldn’t keep asking people to question all that they think is true. I replied that that’s not such a bad role to play, and there should be room on each forum for at least one person to play it.

And that gets to the crux of the matter: He or she who plays it becomes the center of a storm of vitriol for playing it, because what people least want is to have their comfortable false certainties challenged. One of the posters recently most antagonistic to me, assuming the job of posting constant, meaningless, snide attacks following every comment or post of mine, summed this up in an unintentionally flattering way: He wrote, “just drink the hemlock already, Socrates” (the point being that Socrates, who was famous for forcing people to question their own assumptions and conclusions, was sentenced to death for “corrupting the youth of Athens” by inducing them to question the certainties that the Athenian people considered sacrosanct).

A column printed in last Sunday’s Denver post, by syndicated columnist Froma Harrop, “The Op-Ed Pages Are No Tea Party” (, addresses one aspect of this issue: People resent compelling arguments that challenge their beliefs. As she writes:

My definition of incivility is nonfactual and uninformed opinions hidden in anonymity or false identities, and Internet forums overflow with them. When the comments gush in from orchestrated campaigns, other thoughtful views get lost in the flood. That can create two desired outcomes for the organizers. One, the writer gets cowed into thinking he or she has done something awful and holds back next time. Two, commentators outside the group see what’s up and don’t bother participating.

Vitriol without a smart argument is a bore. It’s not the vitriol alone that makes people most angry. It’s a strong argument that hits the bull’s-eye.

I would amend what she says slightly: It’s not only orchestrated campaigns that drive out other voices, but spontaneous group think, especially the highly aggressive and vitriolic kind. This is one aspect of the dynamic I’ve experienced, particularly on that Colorado political blog on which I participated frequently for a long period of time: While I was quite popular at first (winning or being runner up in their periodic “poster of the months” elections several times in succession), the belligerent voices of resistance to the role I was playing grew in number and intensity, while the calmer and more friendly voices correspondingly fell silent.

It wasn’t, I think, initially that very many of the latter group defected to the former, but rather that they ceded the field to them, loathe to get mired in the muck of contesting those angry voices. Then, over time, the growing imbalance creates a self-reinforcing impression of general consensus, that more and more people feel compelled to either acquiesce or actively adhere to. In fact, the one poster who has been most relentless most recently, appears to have been so to gain entry into the “clubhouse” with the sign out front “no stinky Steve Harveys allowed.” The vitriol serves to help consolidate a group-identity defined by the unwritten rules I stated above, rules which I consistently violated.

This dynamic permeates political discourse and political action, pushing out the questioning of assumptions or the quest for anything transcendent of current realities, enshrining and entrenching a certain kind of shallow ritualism, a competition of relatively arbitrary (and underexamined) opinions, played out professionally by strategists and tacticians rather than by those whose aspirations look beyond those exigencies of politics. And all of this is in service to the definition of borders between in-groups and out-groups, ultimately the least progressive and most regressive of all human forces.

An example of the professional political dimension is apparent in a correspondance I had with Senator Mark Udall’s office. First, I want to emphasize that I like Senator Udall, and do not aim this criticism particularly at him or his staff; it is, rather, indicative of something endemic to politics as it is currently practiced, and understandably so.

I sent Senator Udall (and a slew of others) a synopsis of my “Politics of Reason and Goodwill” proposal (see The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified). His office sent back a letter, signed by him, blandly thanking me and stating his belief that, yes, reason and goodwill are laudable goals. It was clear that whoever responded to my proposal either did not read it or did not understand it, because it really has very little to do with some bland reaffirmation that “reason and goodwill are good” (rather, it’s a detailed, systemically informed plan for how to increase the salience of reason and goodwill in public opinion and policy formation).

The generic response from his office, totally missing the point, to a novel idea reaching beyond the mud-pit of politics is illustrative of how foreign these concepts (i.e., reason and goodwill) really are to politics, so beaten out of the actual practice that the mention of them triggers a reflexive dismissal of the reference as naively oblivious to political reality. As I said, I don’t really blame Senator Udall and his staff: This is how they’ve been trained and socialized. This is what experience has taught them. And that, combined with the time pressures on them and the volume of correspondence they receive virtually guarantees such a knee-jerk response (if any response is given at all).

Neither among the rank-and-file, nor at the highest levels, can we easily break through our investment in our current level and form of consciousness. Among the chattering masses, pushing in that direction violates a jealously guarded norm of conduct. Among the seasoned professionals, it violates the perceived lessons of history and experience. But it is precisely the most profound and important of all challenges facing us.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

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.

As Max Weber noted nearly a century ago, and as others have noted in various ways and various contexts, there is an inexorable logic to certain developmental paths that is not always in best service to our humanity, or to our ultimate goals. Weber called it the “rationalization” of society, an “iron cage” from which we can’t escape. We see it in evidence today in such things as economic globalization, over-reliance on fossil fuels (with all of the associated environmental and international consequences), and weakening of American communities in favor of both geographic mobility in service to careers and school choice in service to (or so the theory goes) increasing market forces disciplining public education. We also see it in politics, in the strategies used to win elections and campaigns, and the short-sighted, ritualistic attitudes fueling them.

I wrote about this once in reference to my own campaign in an overwhelmingly Republican district, in which I sought to maximize the value of my campaign win-or-lose rather than follow strategic prescriptions oblivious to any goal other than electoral victory, almost to the point of considering adherence to that goal a moral imperative even if more good can be done by looking beyond it (see Anatomy of a Candidacy: An Illustration of the Distinction Between Substantive and Functional Rationality). As the title of that essay illustrates, the salient distinction is between functional and substantive rationality, the former being the drive to make the processes by which goals are pursued ever more efficient and effective (which is what drives the inexorable “rationalization” of society discussed above), the latter being the relatively disregarded need to consider whether the goal being pursued is always and under all circumstances the most reasonable of all goals. Substantive rationality, to put it another way, refers to focusing more on what we are trying to accomplish than on how we are trying to accomplish it, and ensuring that we are not just constantly refining our techniques, but also constantly refining the goals that those techniques are mobilized in service to.

Politics is as caught up as any sphere of life in the goal-displacement of almost exclusive focus on improving the techniques by which the goal of winning elections and campaigns is pursued, and almost complete disregard for subjecting those intermediate goals to constant scrutiny in light of our long-term goals of putting this state, country, and world on an ever-accelerating path of ever-increasing reason and justice. True “progressives” need not only pursue progress on an issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate basis, always assuming that their own current understandings are perfectly accurate and incontrovertible, but also need to constantly reassess those current understandings, and seek to implement and advocate for improving the procedures by which we think and act in order to best serve our ultimate goal of improving the quality of life on Earth.

There is a related economic concept of “path dependence,” which is the tendency to stick with sub-optimal current ways of doing things due to the start-up costs of changing paradigms. A classic example is the “QWERTY” keyboard, which was designed to avoid the jamming of keys on the original mechanical typewriters. It is no other way the most effecient arrangement of keys on a keyboard. Yet the costs involved in everyone relearning how to type (or “keyboard,” as it is now called), along with other incidental costs of changing the keyboard arrangement, seem to outstrip any consideration of making a shift. We see this phenomenon throughout the social institutional landscape, in which existing social institutional procedures and structures have an inertia which outstrips their utility, all things considered. Path dependence has a psychological as well as economic dimension to it, with new ideas facing the habits of thought and belief into which potential adherents have invested themselves.

One of the necessary remedies to this imbalance is to constantly keep that ultimate goal in mind, and to not lose it to the short-term goals of winning elections and campaigns. That does not mean that the short-term goals are irrelevent, and the strategies in service to them can simply be disregarded. But it does mean that we keep in mind at all times that those strategies must always be mobilized only in service to our ultimate goal of improving the quality of life on Earth, and never allowed to blindly displace it.

This involves a bit of a cost-benefit analysis (always asking “does this strategy cost us more in terms of the ultimate goal than it benefits us in pursuit of it?”), and a recognition that the means have many incidental systemic consequences that may not adversely affect the intermediate goal of winning an election or campaign, but can adversely affect our social institutional landscape in ways which at times outweigh the marginal value of improved chances of winning that particular election or campaign. The cumulative effects of these incidental consequences of functionally rationally but substantively underscrutinized procedures and techniques are highly significant, and is one of the fundamental drags on robust long-term political progress.

I recently encountered an example of this on a left-leaning Facebook page, in which one participant posted a video of which she was very proud, that her organization had made, whose purpose was to stoke up popular rage against corporate power and influence. I found the video appalling, because it reinforced our irrationality rather than our rationality, reduced the issue to a two-dimensional caricature of the real issue, and was as likely to motivate a clammor for bad policies as for good ones (which is the cost of not only appealing to emotions in service to some rational end, which is generally necessary, but rather appealing to emotions in service to an emotionally defined end, which is frequently counterproductive).

This is what I call “the angry left,” a movement which superficially seeks progressive goals, but does so via methods which reproduce rather than moderate or transcend the underlying structural problems which favor irrationality over rationality in political decision-making, and which reinforces rather than counterbalances our tendencies toward mutual hostility rather than mutual cooperation. If the ultimate goal is best served by trying to increase the degree to which reason and universal goodwill guide us and inform our policies, then processes driven by irrationality and belligerence are unlikely to serve that ultimate goal very well in the long-run.

Ironically, “raging against the machine” in many ways reduces us to mere cogs within it. We have to aspire beyond the machine, to actualize and realize our humanity, to celebrate and believe in our potential to transcend our current state of being, as individuals and as a society. It is not that we can snap our fingers and create some lofty ideal, but rather that we are capable of doing better than we are doing, and we have to strive to do better than we are doing to realize that capacity.

This is not a call for political pacifism or non-confrontationalism. I confronted the woman who posted and extolled that video, just as I confront those on the right who argue belligerent and irrational ideological positions. But it is a call for keeping the ultimate ends in mind, and never forgetting that the means by which we pursue intermediate goals in service to those ultimate ends affect how well we actually move in their direction above and beyond their effects on our ability to achieve those intermediate goals.

The remedy to this perennial error of remaining locked inside the logic of political ritual and theater is to increase our attention to substantive rationality, even while maintaining our commitment to functional rationality in service to it. We do not want to let the latter displace the former, but cannot ignore the latter while pursuing the former.

This means moving toward grander visions, and more comprehensive strategies in service to them. Focusing exclusively on winning this election of this campaign locks us into the logic of short-term functional rationality and prevents us from being guided by long-term substantively wise goals. We need to be visionaries, and to promote visionaries, and to cultivate visionaries, rather than be political hacks, promote political hacks, and cultivate political hacks. We need to believe that we’re capable of doing substantially better than we are doing now, as a people, as humanity, and then figure out how to pursue the long-term goals which serve that far-sighted vision.

I am increasingly frustrated, because it is not that this is too complicated, or too difficult to do, but simply that we are too unaccustomed to consider the need for doing so. We have reduced politics and political activism to a set of technically refined rituals in service to short-term goals in struggles over immediate outcomes, and have almost completely lost sight of how our real political struggles cannot be measured in election cycles, nor are limited to what we commonly think of as the political sphere. Everything we do is political; every effort we make, individually and in various degrees of organizational collectivity, is political, and has political ramifications, because it all affects our social institutional landscape and coalesces into our ongoing evolution as a people.

We need to constantly remember that political efforts are not something separate from the entirety of our social institutional landscape, but rather something seeking to articulate with that entirety (see The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions) and the entirety of our processes of social change (see The Fractal Geometry of Social Change) in the most effective ways possible. This requires a part of our movement, a portion of our efforts, to be removed from our sophisticated, highlyt rationalized political rituals, to step back and remain critical of them, to attend to the larger picture and the longer term, and to discipline those technically sophisticated processes in service to our ultimate goals rather than forever co-opted by our immediate goals.

There is a way of doing this, if enough of us are willing enough to invest enough of our time, effort, and passion into it. There is a way of increasing the salience of reason and universal goodwill in our political efforts, to make them more attractive forces, to inspire people to move in their direction, not by ignoring the realities of our cognitive processes, but rather by addressing them in service to our ultimate goal of creating an ever kinder, gentler, more reasonable world. (See A Proposal, The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, and How to make a kinder and more reasonable world, as well as the rest of the essays in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts, for an overview of my proposed methodology for pursuing this long-term vision).

Please join me in this effort. Help me to engage in the processes that serve our humanity, not just by fighting against our inhumanity on its terms and in its arena, but by trying constantly to refine the arena itself, improve our political substructure and popular processes, and make that social institutional framework one which is ever more defined by our humanity and our commitment to reason and universal goodwill.

Now that the election is over, I can speak more candidly about my own candidacy, and how the amateur punditry of the blogosphere consistently fails to distinguish the substance from the ritual of politics. It is, in fact, a classic error, involving the distinction between substantive and functional rationality, between pursuing a rational goal and pursuing a goal rationally. Though some may misinterpret this post as an “apology” for a “failed” candidacy, its real purpose is to point the way toward a political discourse that looks beyond the horse race and remains cognizant of the ultimate purpose of politics: Not to run a race better than others, but to stop running in circles altogether, and actually move toward a destination, whether quickly or slowly.

Substantive rationality must always take priority over functional rationality: We must always first ensure that the goals we are pursuing are the most rational goals possible, before ensuring that we are pursuing them in the most rational ways possible. Sometimes the answer is obvious, such as in how best to use my candidacy (explained below). Sometimes it’s more complex, and involves more weighing out of costs and benefits, with less certain results.

For instance, would it have been more rational for the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats during the past two years to pass as much progressive legislation as they could while they had the chance, or more rational to try to move forward in a way which might be more sustainable? How much political capital should be invested in trying to make marginal deep structural improvements, and how much in trying to make immediate legislative improvements?

Regardless of whether a simple or a complex calculation, we must always examine both our goals, and our means of pursuing them. And we must consider both long-term and short-term goals, and how the balance struck between them affects the means by which we pursue them.

My candidacy for the Colorado House of Representatives this year provides a good example of what I’m talking about, and of the institutionalized pressures to focus on functional rationality at the expense of substantive rationality, to perform the rituals of electoral politics faithfully even if it is not the most useful thing to do.

When I agreed to run, I knew that I was running in a district that no Democrat had won in almost half a century (and even then, before redistricting made it even harder), and whose numbers of registered Democrats, Republicans, and Independents were far worse than any of the seats formerly considered “safe Republican seats” that Democrats managed to orchestrate surprise victories in (generally with the help of funding from a well-organized netrork of 527’s targeting the most winnable races). I also soon realized that even the core Democrats in my district, for the most part, were resigned to losing, and were strongly disinclined to invest any significant amount of time or money in what they perceived to be an impossible task. Finally, it became increasingly clear that 2010 wasn’t going to be a year in which a Democrat could buck those odds and overcome those obstacles.

The Jefferson County political blog Jeffco Pols (off-shoot of Colorado Pols), wrote of my candidacy that “few candidates have done less.” I responded with the following:

Respectfully, I’m going to add my completion of your statement, without which it is not quite correct: “Few candidates have done less fundraising….” In a context broader than the one to which you limit yourself, (yours) is a dramatically inaccurate statement.What I’ve done a lot of is communicating with constituents, discussing public policy issues, learning about and analyzing public policy issues, and actually working on public policy issues (currently on braiding and blending funding streams for children and families in need, as well as lobbying Jeffco Schools to implement a robust school-community partnership). I manned booths the entire weekends at Jeffco Rodeo and Fair, and Summerset, with a political toss game and “good citizens maze” that I created for kids, talking with constituents, and have walked my district as much as I have been able to. I also founded and preside over a local community organization.

Prior to and during all of that, I’ve spent my life studying social institutional dynamics and public policy issues, with the ultimate end of affecting them for the better….

I used my candidacy in what I considered the best way it could be used to advance the progressive agenda. That’s what I intended to do, and that’s what I did, with a great investment of time and effort. I did not run to engage in a ritual devoid of a realistic calculation of what I could accomplish and how best to accomplish it; I ran to have what effect I could have. And my choices were based on that calculation.

I’ve attended numerous events in which I can talk with constituents, interest groups, and those who are involved in public policy formation, was on Mike Zinna’s television and radio political talk shows (exposure that few if any first time, long-shot state house candidates manage to get), on a Spanish language radio political talk show, had three feature spreads in The Columbine Courier, and a few op-eds in the Denver Post….

Voters should vote for whom they consider most qualified to legislate, not whom they consider to have done the best job marketing himself, or who they think  (between two candidates in the general election) has the best chance of winning. I encourage the voters in my district to make their own decision based on an assessment of the relative talents and qualities of the candidates, and not have it made for them by the self-annointed gate-keepers of democracy.

Following Jeffco Pols repetition of their insistence that none of that is relevant, I continued:

What I did was to state clearly what I have done a lot of, for what purpose, a purpose directly related to running for office, though not limited to winning an election….

You say “few candidates have done less,” and I say, “well, it depends on what kind of ‘doing’ you want to emphasize….” You want to emphasize what wins elections, and I want to emphasize what serves the public interest….

To you, politics is the competition to win elections. To me, politics is the effort to have a positive influence on the world….

You equate working on developing a robust community-school partnership in Jefferson County, and working to create more effective delivery of services to children and families, and working to create a better understanding of some of the social and economic challenges that face us, (with) “driving up and down I-25,” because, to you, if I prioritize serving the public interest, using my candidacy as a platform from which to do so, rather than marginally decreasing the overwhelming odds against me in an election I had almost no chance of winning…, that is tantamount to “doing nothing.” To me, it is the most rational strategy to make some marginal improvement in the quality of our shared existence. And that, not the ritual of electoral politics, is the real goal.

There are activities a candidate can engage in that only have value, vis-a-vis the ultimate goal of improving the human condition, if the candidate wins, and other activities that have some value vis-a-vis that goal win or lose. The more improbable an electoral victory is in the candidate’s particular jurisdiction at that particular time, the more rational it is to shift the balance of investment of time and energy toward those activities that have value win or lose, such as persuasive substantive communication, community organizing, and actual policy work. Those are the activities I have emphasized, and have done so with energy and commitment. Mathematically, it looks like this:

Let’s say the goal is to produce as many units of X (public welfare) as possible. And let’s say there are various means of contributing to it: W (winning an election); O (community organizing); R (public policy research); and P (effective persuasive communication).

Let’s say that there are 10 units of time to spend on all of these means (since time is finite, this just means dividing however much can be spent on political activities by 10). Let’s say that W produces 100 units of X if successfully completed, and zero if not. Let’s say that there are four ways to contribute to the success of W: M (raising money), C (canvassing), and E (attending events). Let’s say for every unit of time spent doing M, the odds of success in W go up 4%; for every unit of time spent doing C, the odds go up 2%; and for every unit of E, the odds go up 1%.

Let’s say that each unit of time spent doing O produces 3 units of X, each unit of time spent doing R produces 5 units of X, and each unit of time spent doing P produces 4 units of X. But let’s say that when a candidate spends a unit of time doing O, it also counts as a unit doing C; and when he spends a unit of time doing P, it also counts as a unit doing E. And let’s say that no more than 4 units of time can usefully be spent on any one of O, R, or P.

Under these circumstances (which roughly reflect reality), the most rational way to maximize production of X is to run for office, and distribute your activities among C (O), E (P), and R, completely ignoring M. In other words, to do exactly what I’m doing. (The expected value of each time unit of M is 4 units of X; of O, P, and R as a non-candidate 3, 4, and 5 units of X, respectively; while the value of each time unit of O, P, and R as a candidate is 5 units of X). The issue becomes a little more complicated if by running you are displacing someone else who might have run instead, who wouldn’t have been able or willing to do O, R, or P in lieu of running for office. But that’s not the case in HD28 (no one else wanted to run, and I have always offered to step aside for anyone who did).

The value in this model that is probably least realistic is the 4% rise in probability of X per unit of M, suggesting that full time fund raising would have given me a 40% chance of winning the election. In reality, nothing would have given me a 40% chance of winning. I inflated the chances of winning in order to make it a closer calculation; in reality, it wasn’t a close call at all. The best way for me to contribute to the public interest was to be a candidate who spent my time doing things other than those that would have maximized my (inevitably slim) chances of winning.

Recognizing this allowed me not to sacrifice the real objective to the “goal displacement” of over-emphasis on trying to accomplish an intermediate goal.

(I want to emphasize, though, that many circumstances have already changed, and will continue to change, the odds of my winning in 2012, if I decide to run again. I will start out with more name recognition, with a bit of a foundation to work with, competing for an open seat, in a different political climate. If, with the assistance of others, I determine that my district’s seat in the Colorado House of Representatives is winnable in 2012, I will do everything in my power to win it).

As we all work together, here in South Jeffco and the Denver metropolitan area, throughout Colorado, in the United States, and around the world, to improve the quality of life for all people, now and in the future, we will have to balance many considerations: What should be the distribution across the spectrum of the most local to the most global of our concerns and our efforts? What should be the distribution across the spectrum of the most short-term to the most long-term goals? What should be the distribution across the spectrum of the most superficial (and therefore, generally, most tractable) challenges to the most deeply structural (and therefore, generally, most intractable)?

These issues of balancing the focus of efforts across levels and across time, combined with the necessity of negotiating conflicting interests and ideologies, and the complexity of the natural, technological, and social institutional systems we are working with, together define the dimensions of our on-going political challenge. Understanding this, and understanding it with ever increasing clarity and precision, is part of what it takes to meet that challenge most effectively.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

The question of when a person becomes a person, raised again by Amendment 62 on this year’s Colorado ballot (defining personhood as beginning at conception), provides a good example of basing one’s notion of truth on one’s political preferences rather than vice versa.

What raises the issue today is Susan Greene’s column in yesterday’s Denver Post (, in which, despite Greene taking the position that Amendment 62 would be disastrous public policy, she was booed by a pro-choice audience for even admitting to any complexities or subtleties to the issue. The audience’s approach is the wrong one; Greene’s is the right one. Explore the issue thoroughly, with the courage to confront the complexities and subtleties, and then arrive at conclusions which are the result of that process.

Before I delve deeper into this issue, a couple of disclaimers: 1) I fervently believe that doing it “the right way” (reasoning applied prior to and informing conclusions, rather than mobilized afterward as rationalizations for them) leads to, in this case, the conclusion that, for legal purposes, personhood should be defined as vesting at birth rather than at conception (or at any intermediate point), despite the fact that I’m about to point out the legitimate ontological counterpoints to that conclusion; and 2) As a matter of political strategy, it is undeniably true that once you form a position on a controversial issue, admitting to some logical validity on the other side does more to shore up the opposition than to increase your own credibility and the strength, through a demonstration of moderation and subtlety, of your own position (as should be the case, in a world that applied reason more scrupulously to political issues). This latter fact is a direct result of the privileging of political strategizing in all-out political warfare: Admissions and concessions provide ammunition for opposing zealots to a greater extent than they generate goodwill among them, and that ammunition is then used in sophisticated propaganda techniques to play on the cognitive dissonance and other psychological vulnerabilities of those in the middle to convince them of the opposing view.

Even so, as tempting as it is to get sucked into this logic, and to “do what it takes” to ensure that we arrive at “the right” political conclusions, I think that, all things considered, it vastly diminishes our ability to progress toward governing ourselves ever-more  intelligently. By reducing politics to a battle of more-or-less arbitrary ideological certainties, rather than trying to raise it to a process of collectively searching for those policies that are best informed and most conducive to the public interest, we obstruct rather than facilitate the deep structural political development that will serve us best in the long run.

On so many levels, in so many ways, politics imposes a constant pressure to continually disregard long-term goals in favor of short-term ones. This is a pressure we have to resist and transcend.

Ontologically, two things regarding the definition of when human life begins seem abundantly clear: 1) A zygote isn’t a “human being” in any legally relevant sense, and 2) The only significant difference between a late-term fetus and a newborn baby is location.

A zygote can be defined as a human being by means of either a religious/mystical assumption or a rigidly typological approach, but both are irrelevant to the legal and moral issues involved. It’s true that, even in a political system which separates church and state, those moral convictions that are nearly universally held by all members of all faiths, rooted perhaps in those faiths, can inform our legal structure (e.g., “thou shalt not kill”). Even if a separate utilitarian argument can’t be made (as it can in the case of a prohibition against murder), if it is something that is a non-contested interfaith moral conviction, then certainly it can be incorporated into law. But once there is significant disagreement, a fundamentally religious belief cannot be incorporated into the law that governs us all, without both violating the First Amendment and undermining the public interest that it protects.

But there is a non-religious justification for defining human life to begin at conception: Conception is the one and only truly bright-line change of state that demarcates the boundary between non-existence and existence. Prior to conception, there is the sperm, which belongs entirely to the father, and the egg, which belongs entirely to the mother; it is only after the former fertilizes the latter that you have a new and distinct full complement of DNA in a single entity that defines the new human being.

But that bright-line change of state, while very convenient, has no relevance to the purposes of the laws regulating the social relationships and interactions among human beings, since that single-celled entity bears no resemblance whatsoever to a socially incorporated human being. It has no consciousness, no independent existence, no attributes of a human being as a member of a society. Conception may be the most logical scientific threshold for defining the beginning of the development of a human being, but it is not the most logical legal or moral threshold.

At the other end of pregnancy, birth is not a significant change of state for the fetus (though it is for the mother!). The fetus in the womb when contractions begin is really pretty much the same being as the newborn baby held in the nurse’s arms at the end of the process (here’s a link to a description of the changes that a fetus does undergo at birth: This poses a real dilemma: We as a people, probably fortuitously, are not willing to reexamine our nearly universal moral conviction that infanticide is wrong, but are then left with the reality that there is no functional difference, except for the form of the mother’s connection, between a late-term abortion and infanticide.

I believe that this dilemma is a function of human conceptualization, rather than the result of an actual moral imperative. In reality, our moral and legal universe is laden with arbitrary lines in the sand, and really must be. For instance, at what point does expressing anger and hostility toward another person become unacceptable? (Or, where is the line between just being a jerk, or a person acting on their own insecurities and hurt feelings, and being a bully?) It depends both on the relationship to the person, and the form and strength of the expression of anger. There is no bright-line change-of-state boundary involved: Calmly saying “that makes me angry” is acceptable in most contexts, while red-faced rants are unacceptable in most contexts. Somewhere between those two is a not very clearly demarcated line which one can cross, one which is defined by a sense of what best serves the pragmatic purpose of the normative prohibition.

Since there is no legally or morally useful clear line when a fetus becomes a baby, we need to draw the line according to other, similarly pragmatic, considerations. Certainly, there’s a moral argument that can be made for drawing that line somewhere between conception and birth, according to some notion of when the fetus is less like a mere cluster of cells or mass of organic material with a full DNA complement, and more like the baby that eventually emerges. It’s an argument by logical extension: If it’s wrong to kill babies, then it must be wrong to kill them wherever they are located.

Personally, I’m not such a moral absolutist: We’ve drawn the line at defining post-birth infanticide as morally unacceptable, and that’s good. We aren’t therefore under some moral obligation to define anything and everything that logically follows from that moral precept as also morally unacceptable. The moral and legal prohibition of infanticide is a moral line in the sand, no more, and no less. Some hypothetical historical figure might have argued, when moral and legal prohibitions against infanticide were taking root, “Ah, but that’s a slippery slope! If you outlaw infanticide, someday people will insist that we outlaw abortion as well, and think of what havok that would wreak on society!” I say, let’s not slide down any slopes. We can pick where to draw the line, and not be obligated to follow indefinitely the path that we imagine it carves for us.

There are overwhelming practical reasons to define life as beginning at birth for legal purposes. Doing otherwise reduces pregnant women to the legal status of incubators, denying adult human beings the right to decide what to do with their own bodies. It denies those who do not want to give birth -many of whom are teenagers, poor, facing challenges and constrained opportunities of their own- that choice, and leads to all of the problems frequently associated with children born into such conditions, particularly if truly not wanted. (Many readers are probably familiar with the theory from the book Freakonomics that, despite almost universal predictions to the contrary, U.S. crime rates began dropping in the early 1990’s because of the legalization of abortion in the early 1970’s). And it drives women seeking abortions into back alleys, creating what has been in the past a public health nightmare.

Even if one rejects my argument about drawing moral lines in the sand, and takes instead the stand that it is a moral bad to abort late-term fetuses, one can still weigh that against all of these considerations and say, “some bads are worse than others.” If the balancing test has any degree of practicality to it, then the complete protection of a woman’s right to choose is the inevitable outcome.

I am an advocate for moving political discourse in the direction of what I just exemplified above, and away from the no-holds-barred cage matches between precipitous oversimplified absolute certainties. We need to invest in the process by which we arrive at our individual and collective cognitive conclusions, as well as the process by which we select from among them what to implement as public policy. Just as in science and in courts of law we adhere to methodologies and procedures to our great benefit, we need to improve our political procedure as well.

We have developed a pretty good procedure for resolving our differences of opinion in the political arena, but apply almost no procedural discipline to how those competing opinions are formed, or how they compete for adherents. Extending the progress we’ve made in the fields of science, law, and electoral politics to the realm of cognitive politics would be an enormous step forward, and one each of us can choose to advance, both by advocating it, and by modeling it as our own individual approach to political discourse.

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If America ever was an enlightened country, it hasn’t been in my lifetime. Shortly before I was born, we had congressional hearings and blacklistings to destroy lives on the mere insinuation that someone believed in a particular political economic theory. During my childhood, we had the hippy movement that, while more hopeful and positive in outlook, almost immediately became just another pretext for a symbiosis of glassy-eyed and opportunistic human folly (even more so in the case of its progeny, the “New Age” movement). Then we (over-)reacted to such utopianism with the Reagan years, which put into place an astronomical bloating of the national debt (while claiming to represent fiscal conservativism), a renewed (self-delusional) sense of moral superiority vis-a-vis the rest of the world, a cynical promotion of religious fanaticism and cultural tyranny for political strategic purposes, a deregulatory frenzy that we are still paying for in numerous ways, and a set of policies that created more economic polarization in this country than existed in the 19th century “gilded age” of the “Robber Barons.” (As of 2007, 34.6% of net worth and financial wealth, 42.7 % of financial wealth alone, was concentrated into the hands of the wealthiest 1% of the American population. The bottom 80% of the American population were left to divide among them 15% of net worth and wealth combined, and just 7% of financial wealth alone.

After a brief respite under Clinton, we returned to insanity with redoubled enthusiasm. Like a reverse John the Baptist to Bush’s reverse Jesus, Newt Gingrich regaled us with his “Contract With America,” a grandstanding promise to be indifferent to the needs of our most vulnerable citizens. Then came George W. Bush himself, not merely an embarrassing dimwit, but the first president in American history to both engage in and try to advance as our national values the torture of prisoners, the pre-emptive military bombardments of other sovereign nations, the kidnapping of foreign citizens off of foreign streets on the barest wisps of evidence against them (a mere accusation from a neighbor perhaps miffed about some private dispute) and then holding them in secret compounds and torturing them, even after concluding that they’re innocent of any crime, or “rendering” them to other countries that will torture them with even less self-restraint. After eight years of that president who morally and financially bankrupted the country, squandering the economic surplus left by Clinton, catalyzing the worst economic crisis since The Great Depression, we finally, in a rare glimmer of sanity, elected Barack Obama.

But sanity never lasts long in America. Since after a year and a half he has failed to erase the mess that Bush (and his Republican predecessors) created, since though he stopped the hemorrhaging of jobs ( he has not turned around what economists almost universally admit no one can, since he has tried to address the disgraceful fact that the richest country in the world had the most expensive and least efficient health care system in the developed world (the only one that failed to cover a significant portion of the population), since he addressed the lack of financial regulation (insisted upon and advanced by all preceding Republican executives and legislators) that led to the financial sector meltdown in the first place, he is the devil incarnate (born elsewhere, foreign in every way), and we must return to the insanity that preceded him (and is reacting to him).

Yesterday, on “This Week” (, Queen Rania of Jordan very eloquently and moderately captured the corrosive role of religious extremism, both at home (in the United States) and abroad, the multiple folly of opposition to the Muslim cultural center in Manhattan (which stands in opposition to the intolerance and extremism of 9/11, and which in turn is opposed by the parallel intolerance and extremism at home), and the need not to surrender to cynicism and pessimism regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Such a voice of reason! So certain to fall on deaf ears….

After all, she is speaking to the America of Florida pastor Terry Jones, who felt that responding to the hopeful building of a Muslim interfaith center in Manhattan (not at “ground zero”, in fact) by threatening to burn the Koran was the epitome of what it means to be an American ( While many even on the right denounced him (only because they knew it would end up costing American lives), the ironic similarity of such intolerant ethnocentric escalators of hatred to the terrorists whose acts they abhor, and the dissimilarity to those who preach tolerance rather than interethnic hatred, is lost on them.

The Republican “Pledge to America”, which even conservative economists admit will further increase the deficit (, is being aggressively and successfully marketed by the right as fiscal responsibility which no rational person could oppose (though virtually all rational people oppose it). And it imposes debt on future generations only to benefit the wealthiest Americans, rather than those who need assistance, or to improve our human or material infrastructure. We should incur debt only as an investment in the future, not as a redistribution of wealth, across generations, to the uber-wealthy of today.

At South Jeffco’s Summerset Festival the weekend before last, for instance, I had numerous encounters which drove home the zeitgeist. One pleasant young woman told me she was a Republican, and responded to my suggestion that we should all agree to be reasonable people of goodwill and build on that by saying, “yes, just look at health care reform, that ruined the best health care system in the world.” Was she referring to the same health care system that, by every statistical measure, underperformed the systems of every other developed nation on Earth, and did so at far greater expense, while managing to cover a smaller percentage of the population than any other developed nation’s health care system? And another woman insisted that illegal immigrants never pay taxes and are purely a sap on our economy, though many pay taxes, often for services they can never collect on, and by all economic analyses are either an economic wash or a slight benefit nationally. Truth is the first casualty of war, and there is currently a war being waged on truth itself in America.

Examples abound. There are the Colorado ballot initiatives, 60, 61, and 101, that even fiscally conservative Republican politicians in Colorado oppose (, but that have a chance of passing, and are defended by earnest pseudo-economic arguments such as those presented by Debbie Schum in yesterdays Denver Post ( This is what happens when insanity is cultivated, in the hope of it being harnessed for political gain. Those who cultivate it eventually lose control of it, and it is the insanity unleashed that prevails.

As I’ve often said, there are legitimate debates to be had, legitimate disputes based on the differing conclusions of sound reasoning applied to reliable data in service to mutual goodwill. But we’re not having those debates. Instead, public discourse and the political process that simultaneously tracks and exploits it, have been hijacked by the need to incessantly debunk the unsound reasoning, fabricated facts, and fundamental inhumanity of what is perhaps the most powerful social movement in America today. We are too busy fighting the sheer human folly incarnate among us to get to the legitimate debates, and the hard, information-intensive work of governing ourselves wisely and effectively.

I have long noted that, in many ways, America is Ancient Rome to Europe’s Ancient Greece, the more brutish inheritor of a cultural, economic, and political fluorescence. Unlike Rome, however, which coveted Greek slaves to tutor their children, America has come to disparage rather than respect the still more civilized originators of modernity across the Atlantic. We look at countries that have almost completely eliminated poverty, have universal health care, low infant mortality, a far more successful and higher functioning public education system, greater social mobility, and higher rates of self-reported happiness, and many among us dismiss them as “socialist” countries, which we arbitrarily claim, by definition, must be failures. (As one individual quoted in yesterday’s Denver Post said, health care reform is “a communist, socialist scheme. All the other countries that have tried this, they’re billions in debt, and they admit this doesn’t work” (

The western European countries have their defects, to be sure, and America has done better than them on some dimensions, but this absolute rejection of the possibility that we have something to learn from others, who have fared better than us on numerous dimensions, is the epitome of combined arrogance and ignorance, that unholy marriage that dooms any individual or social entity to self-destructive irrelevance. We are a country very much like the one we were when Elmer Gantry was written a century ago, a country of small-minded yahoos and those that exploit them, with the marginalized voices of sincere and well-informed analysts shouting desperately across the sound-proofed barrier that has been erected against us.

But the question remains: How do we defeat this persistent, deeply embedded insanity that has come to define us as a people? In a conversation with Adam Schrager (Colorado’s pre-eminent political broadcast journalist) last week, we both voiced our disgust that politics has become far too much about the acquisition of power, and far too little about the challenge of devising intelligent public policies. But I shared with him this thought: Politics is almost inevitably hostage to an evolutionary logic. That which works (in the competition of policies and candidates) is that which is reproduced, while that which doesn’t work is abandoned. As a result, politics has devolved into a competition of marketing strategies and raising the funds necessary to their effectiveness. It isn’t enough to bemoan this fact, because any attempt to reject it, unless embracing an alternative simultaneously less cynical and more effective (which, as much as we’d like to be the case, almost never is), is doomed to failure, and thus obsolescence.

The ironic challenge we face, then, is how to use what works to create a context in which it is no longer what works, or no longer an option. For, while extraordinary acts of self-sacrifice for the public good by political leaders are both admirable and meaningful, they are not a sustainable strategy. Ralph Carr (Adam Schrager’s favorite example), the Republican governor of Colorado during WWII, who refused to comply with Japanese interment, despite such refusal being political suicide, might be a great example to follow, but if universally followed by all reasonable people of goodwill in all instances, would succeed only in ensuring that only irrational people of ill-will ever remain in office once confronted with the choice to do what’s right or do what’s politically expedient. The somewhat empty admonition that elected officials (like the rest of us) should always do what’s right rather than what’s in their own interests does not get us very far, both because of human nature (one’s own interests are going to remain a powerful incentive, whether we like it or not), and because of the evolutionary logic of politics (to paraphrase a famous quote from Henry Kissinger, in politics, always doing what’s right rather than what’s politically expedient or strategically superior merely cedes the world to the less scrupulous).

We can afford neither to be “above politics,” nor to surrender completely to its dysfunctional logic. But here is the limit of my own cynicism: We most certainly can’t afford to make ourselves morally indistinguishable from those we oppose. We must find successful strategies, in pursuit of raw political power, but by finding resonance between our own better angels and those of the electorate, rather than bringing both us and them down by resorting to the same old political cynicism as a first rather than last resort.

People criticize Obama for having tried to take the political high road rather than jamming through whatever we could any way that we could, but I do not. He is looking at a longer-term agenda, and a deeper necessity, than his critics are. There is a balance to be struck between what reality demands of us, and what our ideals demand of us, and we must always subordinate the former to the latter in the final analysis. Health care reform may have been critically important to our collective welfare, but there are deeper and more essential reforms that should not be sacrificed in every instance to the exigencies of the moment. We cannot defeat our own ignorance by surrendering to a political strategic system that exploits and cultivates it.