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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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A nation affluent, confident, besotted by tech-driven theories that promised every economic limit could be transcended, living under a foreign policy as taken for granted as the cold war in 1962, convinced that wide-ranging ideological disputations are a thing of the past--like the early sixties. Contemporary worries about Wall Street bubbles, weapons to Colombia, consequences arriving for phased-out welfare provisions and phased-in draconian WTO rules are once again the province of the wet blankets, the loudmouths, the crackpots, the pinks, the flat-earthers, the protectionists, the yuppies looking for their 1960s fix.

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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How an excesses of idealism and the embrace of violence harmed the American left in the 1970s.

It sure is a bracing feeling for the chair-bound intellectual to imagine himself the drivetrain in the engine of history.

Now back to our parable.

Imagine a senator who by some miracle of backroom organizing won the Democratic presidential nomination in the year 2004 with a platform as equally unfathomable to the conventional wisdom of the age as Barry Goldwater's in 1964: say, halving the military budget, socializing the medical system, reregulating the communications and electrical industries, establishing a guaranteed minimum income, promising to fire Alan Greenspan, counseling withdrawal from the World Trade Organization and, for good measure, speaking warmly about adolescent sexual experimentation. Not a Ralph Nader third-party run or a Jesse Jackson left-flank run at the Democrats, but the Democratic nominee.

She would lose in a landslide. She would be relegated to the ash heap of history: The election has finished her school of political radicalism. She has wrecked her party for a long time to come and is not even likely to control the wreckage. By every test we have, this is as surely a conservative epoch as the early sixties was a liberal one.

But let us say the precedent of 1964 is repeated. Two years later the country would begin electing dozens of men and women just like her. And not many decades after that, Republicans would find themselves proclaiming softer versions of these positions just to get taken seriously (say, by proposing to cut only a quarter of the military budget instead of half).

The story is crazy--as crazy as the ideas of a Barry Goldwater in 1964 infiltrating the center of the Democratic Party within thirty years.

History does not repeat itself. Nor does it unfold in cycles. The real future is contingent, rich beyond imagining, a perennial gobsmack, tragic and glorious in equal measure; the pundits' future, spun of "conventional wisdom," is only a sucker punch to that common-sense fact. It blinds us to the only actual, ineluctable reality--that no one knows what the future holds. It sins against informed understanding. The "broad agreement of elite opinion" is in fact a time-tested means of overwhelming the power of open-minded judgment.

Let there be a special place in hell for pundits who make predictions. And let us on the left stride confidently into the future knowing that anything is possible.

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