Pundits Who Predict the Future Are Always Wrong
"It is the folly of too many," Jonathan Swift once wisely observed, "to mistake the echo of a London coffeehouse for the voice of the kingdom." Fast-forward, and the coffeehouses are televised. But the echoes remain the same. MSNBCers, Foxies and CNNites breezily declaim what everyone knows: that the retreat of the welfare state, the embrace of market absolutism, America's military role as the "indispensable nation" and the recolonization of the Third World under the sign of "free trade" are not issues open for dispute, not political issues at all--but reality. All those people in the streets of Seattle, Washington, Philadelphia, Davos? Hardly more than an angry cry of protest against things as they are. One does not argue with people who deny reality.
The New Republic's Franklin Foer recently celebrated this style of thinking as nothing less than salvational. Conventional wisdom, the "broad agreement of elite opinion," he argued, is "a time-tested means of filtering out the bunk...endorsed by philosophers and confirmed by social science." He concludes: "Sure CW can be pedestrian. By definition, conventional wisdom is conventional. But it has the great virtue of being right."
Well. Let us put her virtue to the test. Looking back now to early 1963, President Kennedy's civil rights aides repeated CW by apprising him that the country faced no "serious division" on racial matters, that blacks were "pretty much at peace"; the New York Times concurred in editorializing that same spring that "a warm sun was shining" on prospects for "mutual respect and equality of opportunity" in Birmingham, Alabama. At the end of the year U.S. News & World Report reported that "it's been a generation or more since the world was as quiet as now," with Vietnam but a "local war.... Big war is not threatened." Walter Lippmann heralded the dawn of a "post-Marxian age" in which the Keynesian "New Economics" would, under wise governmental stewardship, grow wealth as easily as turning on a spigot, so economic justice could never again mean "taxing money away from the haves and turning it over to the have nots." Then he said the nation was "far more united and at peace with itself...than it has been for a long time." Whenever possible, pundits declared that Richard Nixon would never live to see another political day.
On the ground, Birmingham smoldered (the violence began, as it happened, a night after Lippmann went on national TV and declared that Republicans would never exploit racial tensions for electoral gain, for in America, "the pull to the center is very strong"). America's position in Vietnam was coming to resemble an avalanche. And Vietnam, in turn, did its number on Lippmann's "post-Marxian revolution," as government money sluicing through defense-industry coffers began the process that brought on the stagflation of the seventies (government money invested in defense does not produce any consumer goods, so workers have money to spend but fewer products upon which to spend it; rot for a consumer-based economy). And the exception to America's supposed unity--race--was becoming the rule: Resentment over civil rights became fuel to fire hundreds of domestic rebellions and a conservative backlash.
But the pundits didn't learn. They never do. They kept on making their predictions.
Prediction is structurally inseparable from the business of punditry: It creates the essential image of indefatigable authority that is punditry's very architecture; it flows from that calcified image and it provides the substance for the story that keeps getting told about the inevitability of American progress. Punditry is what happens when the interests of ordinarily intelligent and extraordinarily ambitious men and women coincide with a rarely mentioned flaw in the American character: our undying need to believe we inhabit a nation of constancy and good feeling that is free of conflict, though we actually live in one of unceasing disputation, resentment and clashes of interest.
Consider a paradigmatic anthology, edited by the consensus sociologist Daniel Bell in 1967, called Toward the Year 2000: Work in Progress. Among the developments pronounced "likely in the next thirty-three years" are "control of weather or climate," "flexible penology without necessarily using prisons" and "human hibernation for relatively extensive periods (months to years)."
Now, there is no sin in making incorrect predictions. That's all that conventional wisdom, which can only extrapolate future trends from present realities, knows how to do (the present reality in Bell's case being the belief that man's ability to control his environment could not but continue to expand). The sin, however, is that such predictions are always at the same time political--tools for seeding general consent about which kinds of actions are sensible and which are senseless; where social emphasis can legitimately be placed and where it cannot; what is real and what is beyond the pale of imagination.