Pundits Who Predict the Future Are Always Wrong

Pundits Who Predict the Future Are Always Wrong

Pundits Who Predict the Future Are Always Wrong

A glance back to 1964 shows that predictions are always wrong and always political–and that the left’s possibilities may be greater than they seem.


At its 1964 convention in San Francisco, the Republican Party emerged from a corrosive faction fight between its left and right wings to do something that was supposed to be impossible: It nominated a conservative. Barry Goldwater earned that nomination by the efforts of a stealthy organizing juggernaut against the party’s moderate and liberal establishment unlike any seen before in the annals of American politics. Then he went down to devastating defeat in November at the hands of Lyndon Johnson. And there, for most observers, the matter stood: The American right had been rendered a political footnote–probably for good.

The wise men weighed in. Richard Rovere of The New Yorker: “The election has finished the Goldwater school of political reaction.” James Reston of the New York Times: “He has wrecked his party for a long time to come and is not even likely to control the wreckage.” James MacGregor Burns: “By every test we have…this is as surely a liberal epoch as the late 19th Century was a conservative one.” For, as The Atlantic Monthly insisted, government’s active obligation to provide “a solution of the manifold problems of modern urban life–housing, education, welfare, mass transportation, health, and civil rights,” was simply not a matter of ideological dispute; it was reality. And one did not argue with those who denied reality. As Stewart Alsop said, conservatism was “not really a coherent, rational alternative at all–it is hardly more than an angry cry of protest against things as they are.” (Richard Hofstadter joked that he welcomed the Goldwater-for-President movement when it sprang up because it was providing conservatives “a kind of vocational therapy, without which they might have to be committed.”) Wide-ranging ideological disputes on first principles were a thing of the past. America was a nation of consensus–right down to its soul.

It was one of the most dramatic failures of discernment in the history of American letters. Few noticed that in the same election in which Goldwater lost California by more than a million votes, a proposition to strike the state’s fair housing law from the books won by almost a million and a half. After off-year elections a mere two years later, there were so many conservatives in Congress that Lyndon Johnson couldn’t even win a budget appropriation for rodent control in the slums. Ten new conservative Republican governors were installed; one of them was Ronald Reagan. And even as conservatives invaded Congress and George Wallace began plotting a startlingly successful 1968 presidential run, left-wing students took to the streets, receiving reports from establishment mandarins concerning their mental health much the same as that delivered to right-wingers by Hofstadter.

The illusion of an American consensus was in tatters, in about the amount of time it takes a mediocre sitcom to vanish from the air.

It happened at a time much like the present. The nation was affluent and confident, besotted with tech-driven theories promising that every economic limit could be transcended. It was an end-of-history moment in American culture; not the first, and not the last. There were portents of danger and risk around the edges of that Kennedyesque vision, to be sure: all those outliers who voted for Goldwater; and the wet blankets, loudmouths, crackpots and pinks; and the young–but they were just folks for pundits to mock and abuse as irrational or worse when they weren’t to be ignored altogether.

The fact that history vindicated the skeptics and embarrassed the pundits–well, I dream there might be a parable for the left’s future in all this. Not for what our fate will be, but for what our possibilities are–for what any political tendency’s possibilities always are. I write here not on behalf of the left; what I will argue has been equally relevant for that former generation of insurgents on the right. I write for the party of political life against the party of political death. I write to call punditry a sin.

History does not repeat itself. Nor, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. notwithstanding, does it unfold in cycles. But the discerning can still learn a few things about the future from the past. Mostly, that there’s nothing you can really know about the future at all. And to pretend otherwise is an insult to democracy.

“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.

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.

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.

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.

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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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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