Populism vs. Progressivism: Who Knows Best?

Opposing types of knowledge are at the heart of today’s polarization. How does a Christian decide?
Populism vs. Progressivism: Who Knows Best?
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Across Europe and the Americas, from Budapest to Brasilia, a striking mass migration is well underway. This migration involves no passports, asylum claims, or border police. It is happening within each nation’s own borders and can be made without leaving your house, street, or hometown (which may be why many of its migrants are quite unaware that they are part of such a thing).

As a mass movement of people, it is based on the emergence of two rival visions of the world. Each envisioned world emits a kind of gravitational pull—cultural, rather than physical—that draws some, but not others. One attracts those receptive to the restoration of national greatness, the importance of groups over individuals, and the conservation of the past. The other pulls on those receptive to a starkly individualistic future, unhitched from the obligations of the past, and bound, instead, to the notion of progress.

Crucially, each of these cultural forces also repels those who prove unreceptive to it. For this reason, our cultural commentators now talk of Two Americas, Two Brazils, and Two United Kingdoms. In each of these settings, populations migrate toward opposite polar extremities, one a City of Progress and the other a City of Populism.

As those called to reside between the inextricably intermingled City of God and the City of Man, and who are “foreigners and strangers on the earth” (Heb. 11:13), what should Christians think about their polarized host cultures?

Who knew?

One largely neglected aspect of this ideological migration concerns the act of knowing itself. The fault lines opening up across the West reflect a fragmented set of beliefs on two distinct kinds of knowledge. On the one hand, there is the apparent expert, drawn from an elastic group of authoritative voices ranging from Stephen Hawking to Lady Gaga. On the other, there is the ordinary Joe with practical, pragmatic wisdom and common sense that understands what’s happening “on the ground.” These two poles have been pushed far apart in the spirit of the current age.

On the populist side of this gulf, in the world of Trump, Bolsonaro, and Brexit, the “expert” is viewed with much cynicism. There, the best kind of knowing is earthy and intuitive, makes no virtue of coherence, and sells itself as anything but “expertise.” On the progressivist side, the turf of academics and media elites, the opposite is often true: There, the expert is king, and the knowledge possessed by those without higher education is often looked down on as second rate in comparison.

Given that this division brings into question what counts as knowledge and wisdom, it is increasingly difficult for the two sides of this dichotomy even to communicate with one another. The question of Who knows best? plays an important, and often destructive, role in our fractured societies. But what are we even asking? Are we asking who has our best interests in mind? Whose understanding matches reality most closely? Or, whose method of knowing things is the most correct?

Is the question who knows best? Who knows best? Or, who knows best?

“You know what I mean”

Incidentally (or importantly), the particularities of the English language make it a limited vehicle to talk about these questions. We rely on a single verb, to know, when covering a broad range of meaning on which things we know, and the different ways in which we know them. Many other languages express these distinctions in more precise vocabulary.

For example, German has a pair of verbs relating to knowing, kennen and wissen, as does French with the equivalents connaître and savoir. In each of these, the first word (kennen, connaître) refers to a knowledge that is personal, intuitive, and subjective. It is a kind of knowledge that is indispensable to human existence, but that cannot be taught in textbooks or lecture halls. You use this kind of verb when you talk about knowing a person, a city, an intuition, or a feeling.

The second word in each couplet (wissen, savoir) is different. It is less immediate, deals with causes, is more impersonal, and comes about in another process: You use this word to talk about why geese fly south in winter, how grammar works, or what economics is. (The same distinction is found in many languages: Hungarian, Finnish, Swedish, and Dutch, among others.)

Theologically, these different kinds of knowledge are closely related, and function together in the richness of our human existence. In the goodness of God’s creation, they exist in a complementary way and sustain each other. And in our day-to-day lives, of course, we constantly engage in both kinds of knowing.

In a lecture titled, “Our Instinctive Life,” the 19th-century Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper describes this point by talking about the weather: “People empathize with nature; they feel a thunderstorm coming.” This kind of knowing deals with sensation, perception, and observation, and it leads to action: We seek shelter. To know the weather, however, takes more than our own subjective impressions. Our kennen becomes wissen as we turn to (or for some, become) meteorologists, in search of a different kind of knowledge: How long will the thunderstorm last? Where will it go next? How intense will it be? Will my flight be canceled? Kuyper’s point was that our instinct forms the basis of our reflection and that human experience teaches us that both are necessary to the progress of human knowledge.

Despite the constant use of both types of knowledge, the relationship between the two has been recast as brutally competitive in our current cultural moment. The spirit of our age sets gut feeling against careful reason, intuition against intentionality. In the blood sport that is 21st-century politics, savoir and connaître are goaded into fighting as though they were mortal enemies. Those who lead the City of Progress tell us, “Trust me, I’m an expert” and disdain their political opponents as deplorably ignorant, while their equivalents in the City of Populism say the opposite, “Trust me, not those phony experts.”

The politics of knowing

This much certainly seems true of current populist versus progressivist conflicts in the United States and the United Kingdom. In a thought-provoking essay last year, Barton Swaim described the new American reality as a struggle between the supporters of Expertocracy, on the one hand, and a War on Expertise on the other. In that setting, it seems, Donald Trump’s choice to position himself as anti-expertise and decidedly unprofessional—precisely the things to which Hillary Clinton appealed—was politically astute, given that many Americans appear to feel the same way about experts and their particular kind of knowledge.

Something similar can be observed on the Old World side of the Atlantic. In the build-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum, the Brexiteer politician Michael Gove responded to the near-unanimous anti-Brexit views of British economists by publicly stating that “people in this country have had enough of experts.” While Gove’s blanket dismissal of the economist guild drew shock and astonishment from the British media and academy, his dismissal of the experts proved effective. Soon afterward, a narrow majority voted to leave the European Union, despite the intelligentsia’s dire projections. That studied opposition has not yet abated and continues to be met with general indifference by Brexiteers.

This growing divide is also heard in commonly aired sentiments on higher education. In progressivist circles, the knowledge gained through an accredited degree is often held to be worth far more than anything the “university of life” can offer. In populist circles, conversely, many believe themselves to have been quite successful at navigating life without gaining academic credits on Dostoyevsky or retail management.

As Swaim has noted, support for anti-expert leaders thrives in cultures where—among other things—higher education’s purview expands relentlessly in order to provide academic certification in skills that traditionally were learned on the job. Nobody, his argument goes, would assume that holding a BA in business means that person is therefore excellent in the real world of business or that every outstanding businessperson must have a degree in business studies as the essential first step down that path.

Navigating the cloud of unknowing

What should Christians think as they see this mass migration pull our varied kinds of knowing apart? Should they join the migration, and if so, with which caravan should they march?

In their manufactured conflict between the experts and hoi polloi, the Cities of Progress and Populism call on us to support cartoonish leaders who answer the question Who knows best? by pointing to themselves: all savoir and no connaître, and vice versa. In so doing, they load the world with an antithesis that should not be there.

The doctrine of creation provides a better lead: It reminds us that the world, as made by God, is the natural environment for human flourishing and that God has equipped us—in our faculties of perception, sensation, and understanding—to know our Creator and the world in which we find ourselves. In the divine mandate to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen. 1:28), Scripture affirms the human life as one of gut instinct and mental deliberation, of kennen and wissen.

This creation mandate from Genesis 1 affirms that a human being does not need a university degree to live well—glorifying and enjoying God—within the creation. Likewise, it affirms that the ordinariness of life, knowledge included, is inherently good. However, that mandate also contains the impulse to develop what we know: It is hard to subdue the earth without cultivating knowledge of it. The doctrine of creation teaches us not to despise that kind of knowledge. In our day, it calls for a greater degree of humility and respect across our political divides because it denies either side a monopoly on something as rich and complex as knowing.

Taking a cue from Augustine, we can recognize that both Cities—those of Populism and of Progress—are different iterations of the same City of Man. They are disordered differently, to be sure, but neither can be mistaken for the City of God. In both of its present guises, the City of Man certainly has its own gravitational pull. We see this disordered force in action as it draws our fellow citizens toward polar extremes, leaving those who live on the same streets to conclude that they aren’t really neighbors at all. What should Christians make of this pull, as they find themselves in the midst of this mass migration?

Timothy Keller has recently offered a sage reminder of the interaction between Christian faith and political action: Our faith compels us toward political engagement but will always make us an awkward fit on either side of a two-party spectrum. In a bipartisan political environment, he argues, the gospel itself will incline Christians to sympathize with the political right on some issues and the left on others. The same is true between the Cities of Progress and of Populism. Only when a believer’s sense of Christianity’s own unique gravitational pull has diminished will they be fully or uncritically satisfied in either of these two cities.

Like the City of Man, the City of God exerts its own attractive power. The Christian faith is its own agenda and moves most naturally when dancing to its own tune. When the crucial distinction between City of God and City of Man is recognized, Christians who find themselves as residents at either polar extremity (progressive or populist) will invariably find that they do not quite fit in—pilgrims and sojourners who “are looking for the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14).

James Eglinton is Meldrum Lecturer in Reformed Theology at the University of Edinburgh.

July/August
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