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It's about smart ideas, stupid

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Smart v. Stupid

It's about smart ideas, stupid

What's the secret to the power of really dumb ideas?

  • A Tea Party rally in Sept. 2009.
    dbking/FlickrA Tea Party rally in Sept. 2009.

"Smart v. Stupid" may sound a little pretentious in today's wide-open marketplace of ideas. But current political debate is long on "noise" and short on substance primarily because stupid ideas go unchallenged.

We all remember James Carville's 1992 admonition, "It's the economy, stupid!" He focused an entire campaign on what's important, and in doing so won the White House for Bill Clinton. When he said it - both to the campaign and to America - he meant stick to substance; avoid sinking into protracted arguments about made-up issues.

Today, there is a different ethos to politics. During eight years of Bush the Lesser, we watched pandering-for-distraction reassert itself in a way that hasn't been seen since the Republican's now famous Southern Strategy. It relied on the tactic of race-blame and was used to elect every Republican president from Nixon to Reagan.

Here's a bit of history: Reagan fans argue that candidate Reagan's decision to give a states-rights speech in Philadelphia, Miss. was just a coincidence. Philadelphia is where three civil rights workers were famously lynched in 1964. Near as I can tell, those were the only two events for which little Philadelphia, Miss. ever made national news.

Reagan's campaign strategist, Lee Atwater, admitted the racial pandering, after cancer caused him to reassess his own dark life. He also revealed the tactic of replacing racial epithets with code language like "states rights" to resonate with white racists.

Jump to today. The current version of the Southern Strategy works like this. Find the ordinary men and women who grew up truly believing that if they just worked hard enough they could be anything they wanted – even rich. Then give them an excuse for why it didn't happen.

The excuse doesn't have to be well-reasoned, or even logical. It just needs to relieve the pain of unmet expectations. It has to identify a villain that robbed these folks of the chance they'd worked so hard for. Blame liberals or poor people or educated people or socialists, or lately brown people. Blame anyone -- the operative notion is blame, not who. "Without [insert villain here] you'd be rich," it goes (even if you never finished high school and can't even spell "investment.") Without [insert villain here] it would still be the happy 1950's of our collective imaginations.

The party that formerly consisted of industrialists and bankers - and relied on manipulating racists - unlocked the key to recruiting the gullible segment of the middle class. Create a ridiculous straw man, coordinate by morning email, and flog that poor scarecrow to death. Then repeat.

Today, the battle for power isn't between right and left, big and small, conservative and liberal or even Republican and Democrat. Today's battle for power is between those who want to debate smart ideas and those who want to distract you with stupid ones. Stupid may be winning; Democrats are using it now and then too.

Many ideas (whether ultimately right or wrong-headed) are smart enough to be worthy of discussion. Others are utterly idiotic. We need to focus our time and attention on the smart ones.

"Obama isn't an American," is a dumb idea. Universal health care is a smart one. "Socialists are in the White House" is a dumb idea. How much to regulate commerce is a smart one. "Dumb ideas" are offered to distract and obscure and excuse. "Smart ideas," whether you agree with them or not, have a logical basis upon which to disagree.

So what's the secret to the power of these really dumb ideas? It's only partly that someone who has had an unspectacular life is hungry to blame someone else. The other reason is liberal inclusiveness, the philosophy that everyone's contributions are equal. Somewhere along the line, we decided fairness dictated dumb and dishonest ideas should be respected anyway. Even though they are dumb and dishonest, the logic goes, they are still ideas.

It's stoner-logic, a dumb idea, a hippie-era notion of open-mindedness that leads liberals to allow stupid ideas to go unchallenged. That changes today.

Jimmy Zuma splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Tucson. He writes the online opinion journal, Smart v. Stupid. He spent 5 years in Tucson in the early ‘80s, when life was a little slower, swamp coolers were a little more plentiful, Tucson’s legendary music scene was in full bloom, and the prevailing work ethic was “don’t - unless you have to.”

Welcome to Smart v. Stupid

Starting today, Smart v. Stupid will also be published on Jimmy Zuma says, "I've always had a special love for Tucson, and I'm honored to be published there. It was a favorite place to live and is still my favorite place to vacation. My best friend still lives in the shadow of A Mountain. Welcome to our conversation, Tucson. I hope you'll join in."

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