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Pundits Who Predict the Future Are Always Wrong | The Nation

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Pundits Who Predict the Future Are Always Wrong

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In 1976 Bell published a study called The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, still, somehow, celebrated as a classic. What Bell foresaw--"inevitably"--was that the increase in mankind's ability to control his environment and the government's "irreversible" commitment to redressing social inequalities meant that Western nations would inevitably march ever further toward "state-managed societies." Politics changed direction rather rapidly from then on, needless to say. Speaking for the conventional wisdom in December 1979, The New Republic acknowledged that it was within the realm of possibility for Reagan to win the Republican nomination in 1980--but only because he was moving to the center, no longer counting on "the kooky fringe of the GOP, on the likes of Jesse Helms [and] Phil Crane." Jesse Helms: Whatever happened to him, anyway? As for Phil Crane, he was so soon relegated so far to the margins of American political life that he provided the blueprint for a welfare reform bill that was later enthusiastically signed by Bill Clinton.

About the Author

Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, winner of...

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By refusing to remember how history always embarrasses the present, punditry only really knows how to be wrong. Have the floors of our nation's television studios ever been more littered by dishonored prognostications than in the past twenty-four months?

We have witnessed a stock market boom whose rickety legs were obvious enough for anyone with eyes to see; the endless endgame and postgame to one of the nastiest partisan episodes in memory, the Clinton impeachment; America's nearly unilateral ongoing military interventions in Iraq; more people protesting in the streets than at any time since the 1970s, eliciting near-police state responses unseen since 1968; a campaign finance debate that puts the very character of our republic in play; and dozens of other scraps besides--from the nearly universal sense of disfranchisement following the election fracas among African-Americans to the blackguard exclusion of Ralph Nader from even a place in the audience at last year's presidential debates. (This is my list; I invite our conservative foemen to compile their own.)

The past twenty-four weeks alone: activists from our two major parties shouting their lungs out over an election both believe they won; legislative actions including but not limited to the passage of a bankruptcy bill all but written by the banking lobby; executive orders on federal labor procurement that put the people's government behind the proposition that collective bargaining is not a right worth guaranteeing; and policies of opening public lands to unfettered corporate plunder, permitting unlimited CO2 emissions and upping the amount of arsenic--arsenic--in American drinking water. All in all a plentiful enough stock of nastiness and controversy to qualify for perhaps the upper tenth percentile of nasty American years.

Instead of charting this new ground, pundits apprised us in the past year that Bill Clinton, imminently, would gracefully resign in the interests of national unity (in their moral apoplexy over the American public's continuing affection for Clinton, the "experts" proved themselves considerably less sophisticated in their ability to withstand cognitive dissonance than the citizens), and that the American people would simply move on from the election controversy. Latter-day Alsops characterized street protests as "a Noah's ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960s fix." They are only now awakening to the fact that George W. Bush has not and will not be governing this nation from the political "center." But they continue to praise our President for being "civil" in conversation with and about Democrats. And they applaud the Democrats for being civil with our President. No doubt discouraged by this tendency, even though large majorities of Americans tell pollsters they consider themselves environmentalists, Democrats have been slow to attack Bush on this most vulnerable of flanks. Perhaps even now there are pundits busy predicting that the Democratic leadership, or any force capable of mustering any clout, never will. Because it would not be civil, and the American people crave civility. Because in America, the pull to the center is very strong.

To the extent that there has been ideological nastiness, it reflects the narcissism of small differences. You would be hard pressed to argue that the surge in histrionic bickering among Democrats and Republicans is a result of the fact that the parties are actually further apart than before. I love the name the political scientist Andrew Busch gave his new book on the 2000 campaign and its three major actors, the Democrats, the Republicans and the media: The Perfect Tie. It recalls the name that Salon magazine gives to its dispatches on the recount dispute: "Red vs. Blue," referring to the familiar bicolored map of the states that went to Bush and the states that went to Gore. This conjures up teams in a summer-camp color war: You need two combatants in order to wage a fight, but that doesn't mean the differences between the two sides actually mean that much. A perfect playing field for verbal athletes to make a show over their (barely) contending visions over what constitutes good, centrist common sense. An embarrassing playing field for democracy.

For although there are real differences between the two parties, the space where they overlap happens to be one of the most radical and novel propositions world history has ever known: the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which established the WTO in 1995 and remade the legal ground on which every human foot treads. Few pundits seem able to muster any substantive words on the wisdom of this political course at all. Indeed, it is not seen as a political course in the first place, but only as--reality.

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