In Defense of Conventional Wisdom

by Franklin Foer | March 19, 2001

There are certain ideas so beyond the pale they cannot be publicly defended. You never see politicians arguing for child molestation or op-eds defending Hitler. But there is one particular idea so disdained, so monstrous, that it must be pulled out and flayed almost daily: conventional wisdom.

Since 1980 the New York Times editorial page has published at least 38 columns condemning world hunger, 241 against South African apartheid, and 465 containing the phrase "conventional wisdom"--and never once did the Times mean it in a nice way. Like muckrakers railing against J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, the Times editorial board has indicted the "barons of conventional wisdom." With ferocity normally reserved for Pat Robertson, columnist Frank Rich has condemned "the iron curtain of Washington's conventional wisdom." The New Republic has been even more hostile--savaging "conventional wisdom" in 352 articles since 1983 (and TNR comes out only once a week). The consensus against CW has grown so powerful that even CW's most distinguished purveyors now denounce their craft. In what can only be described as an advertisement against himself, The Washington Post's David Broder has implored readers to be "wary of conventional wisdom." The conventional wisdom, in short, is that conventional wisdom is wrong.

But usually it's not. Today's journalists and intellectuals inherit their suspicion of conformity from the New Left: If everyone believes something, it's probably wrong. Yet CW, a broad agreement of elite opinion, is a time-tested means of filtering out the bunk; it is endorsed by philosophers and confirmed by social science. Sure, CW can be pedestrian. By definition, conventional wisdom is conventional. But it has the great virtue of being right.

The phrase "conventional wisdom" was born--appropriately, in a fit of contrarianism--when John Kenneth Galbraith coined it in his exquisite 1958 screed, The Affluent Society. Although ostensibly about economics, the book fits more comfortably alongside the radical sociology of the decade. Like C. Wright Mills and William Whyte, who decried suburbia, corporations, and the organization man, Galbraith loathed the postwar homogenization of American life. For Galbraith, "conventional wisdom"--the stifling conformity of elite opinion--was just another manifestation of the problem. Society, he concluded, rewards those who repeat old verities, rather than skeptics or innovators. "In the Communist countries," he wrote, "stability of ideas and social purpose is achieved by formal adherence to an officially proclaimed doctrine." In the United States, "a similar stability is enforced far more informally by the conventional wisdom." Under both regimes, "deviation is stigmatized as 'incorrect.'"

Galbraith was hardly the first person to criticize bourgeois conformity. Bohemians from Flaubert on had posited the same essential critique. Just a few years before The Affluent Society was published, Allen Ginsberg and the Beat poets had railed against the "highly organized academic and literary movement employment agency of the Neoanti-reconstructionist who form a dense crust over American cultural life."

But Galbraith and the Beats were fighting an uphill battle; most people in the unalienated 1950s and early '60s considered America's top-down consensus benign. Indeed, the men in gray flannel suits and the doyens of martini society bandied about Galbraith's phrase as if it were a compliment--as in "Thank goodness conventional wisdom, and not those hotheads, prevailed in the Cuban missile crisis." According to a William Safire "On Language" column touring the dictionary definitions of the day, CW was synonymous with "prudence." Many of the central cultural critics of the period--including Richard Hofstadter, Daniel Bell, and Louis Hartz--considered America's exceptional unity to be its great strength.

Only with the arrival of the New Left in the late '60s did Galbraith's critique catch on. In the ascendant culture of long hair and hairy armpits, conventionality was evil. Elites, according to the SDS kids, subscribed to a pernicious, coherent ideology intolerant of dissent, just as Galbraith had described. Like so many other New Left betes noires--the bureaucracy, the military-industrial complex, The System--CW implied a vast, nameless, faceless conspiracy.

In the New Left's view, the media functioned as the conspiracy's Ministry of Information, shamelessly shilling for greedy corporate bosses and the racist military. (Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent, the locus classicus of this critique, assails America's "propaganda state," in which the press proudly serves as the capitalists' lapdog.) No audience proved more receptive to this indictment of the media than the media itself. Sorting through the detritus of Vietnam, news organizations flagellated themselves for having credulously consumed the government's spin on the war. To ensure it would never repeat such complicity, the media began to treat itself as just another elite institution requiring oversight and reform. Newspapers hired ombudsmen and media critics. Journalists began speaking of their profession with bemused detachment--lest anyone think they harbored illusions about the corporations for which they worked. And nowhere did this self-loathing manifest itself more clearly than in the media's tirade against conventional wisdom.

By the mid-'70s, sniping at CW had become a journalistic commonplace. Even a reporter as mainstream as CBS's Bob Schieffer could complain, in 1976, that "every bit of conventional wisdom we've had about politics this year has turned out to be wrong." And by the early '80s it had become fashionable for Washington journalists to insert lengthy assaults against conventional wisdom into their pieces, regardless of the subject. In a 1984 column about Walter Mondale, The Washington Post's Richard Cohen wrote: "The big hit of the summer movie season seems to be 'Gremlins'--a film about mischievous and malevolent little creatures that are hard to catch and even harder to kill. If Washington were Hollywood, it would make a film about an indigenous creature of its own called 'Conventional Wisdom.'" But nothing ratified this trend more clearly than Newsweek's "Conventional Wisdom Watch," instituted in 1988. Portraying the commentariat's opinions with glib comments and fluctuating arrows like weather vanes, Newsweek seemed to be making an ironic point: that CW was as whimsical and irrational as the wind. Of course, there was an even greater irony at play: A magazine that had long been one of the towering pillars of CW was now making fun of it.

For all their establishment credentials, Schieffer, Cohen, and Newsweek were essentially replicating the New Left's ideological bias against authority. CW is still described today as if it were a shadowy government agency covertly imposing itself on popular opinion. The Associated Press's Mike Glover has ominously written that "no one really knows where conventional wisdom originates." National Journal's Charlie Cook says, "Conventional wisdom creates that all-important buzz that can either help or hurt candidates and political parties with fund raising, morale building, and momentum." And, in a widely reviewed 1992 book called Fooling America, ex-Newsweek reporter Robert Parry purported to show "how Washington insiders twist the truth and manufacture the conventional wisdom."

 

And CW does indeed represent a source of authority. But, all things considered, it's a relatively wise and benign one. The argument for CW stems from the broader argument in favor of consensus as the most effective means of uncovering and defining truth. In the United States, this tradition can be traced back to the eccentric logician and scientist Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), the godfather of American pragmatism. At a time when belief in old sources of authority--God, tradition, the monarch--was collapsing, Peirce realized that truth required a new source of authority. In the end, he concluded, truth is what competent people eventually come to agree it is. As he famously stated, "The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate is what we mean by truth and the object represented by this opinion is real."

Peirce's defense of consensus is not as facile as it sounds. Groups are simply better than individuals at ferreting out truth. In one classic social science experiment, a professor asked students to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar. Invariably each individual's guess was way off. But an average of all the predictions almost always landed near the target. As The New Yorker's James Surowiecki recently described, Los Alamos physicist Norman Johnson has conducted a similar but more intricate study. Johnson asked his subjects to navigate a computer-simulated maze. In a first attempt, it took Johnson's subjects an average of 34.3 steps to get out. But when Johnson aggregated all the data and then navigated the maze himself using the majority's choice for each turn, the path was only nine steps long. Johnson calls this the "collective solution," but it works just like conventional wisdom. In essence, CW is the average of the punditry's opinions. It dismisses the ideological outliers and produces a sensible synthesis. In a country with liberal traditions as deeply ingrained as America's, modern CW usually rules out prejudice and demagoguery. Witness the way CW marginalizes Pat Buchanan, Louis Farrakhan, and David Duke.

There's another way to measure the accuracy of CW--through its human incarnation, David Gergen. With his turkey chin and soporific baritone, Gergen isn't a flashy pundit. Unlike George Stephanopoulos or Bill Kristol, he never turns handsprings of counter-intuition. Unlike Paul Begala or Robert Novak, he never breaks into fisticuffs with ideological foes. Yet, like CW, his judgments are based on deep and wide experience. He has worked for four presidents, including Democrats and Republicans. He shares CW's proclivity for careful moderation. Regarding the Clinton-Lazio Senate race, he told Larry King, "When you turn Hillary into a victim, you're only going to help her." On "Nightline" last March he predicted that the presidential election "is going to be a very, very hard, closely fought campaign. It's going to be state by state." And last week he told King that Bill Clinton's pardons have "hurt him considerably. I do think it has destroyed any serious possibility that his wife would be the presidential nominee in 2004." In fact, after scouring his public comments over the past six months, I couldn't find a single incorrect pronouncement. True, Gergen's assertions weren't terribly interesting or creative. But the rap against conventional wisdom isn't that it's boring, which it often is; it's that it's wrong.

And it's not just his analyses--Gergen's moral impulses are also impeccable. During his stint as Clinton's all-purpose guru from 1993 to 1994, Gergen, arguing the conventional wisdom that stonewalling never works, implored the president to allow Washington Post reporters to peruse all the documents pertaining to Whitewater. If Clinton had heeded Gergen, the press likely would have seen how picayune the Republican complaints truly were, and the scandal would have faded. In addition, Gergen tried to steer Clinton away from the more liberal policies that alienated white men (e.g., Hillarycare) and toward the centrist politics that characterized Clinton's more successful second term (e.g., welfare reform). His post-White House punditry is nearly as impressive. In seemingly every TV appearance he condemns "the politics of personal destruction" and calls for politicians to act like statesmen. Who can argue with that?

Gergen's are the clearest example. But think of the numerous other conventional views the past year has proved true. Low expectations did redound to George W. Bush's favor in the debates; Clinton fatigue did hurt Al Gore; Bush's easygoing personality did help him politically; Florida did prove central to the election's outcome; both candidates did shatter past campaign spending records; George W.'s administration does look like his father's; Bush doesn't have a strong grasp of policy; the recession is helping his tax cut. These points now seem hopelessly banal. But they are banal because they are so unassailably correct--and have become so thoroughly enmeshed in everyone's thinking.

If conventional wisdom is so wonderful, you might ask, why is the conventional wisdom about conventional wisdom so wrong? But the question answers itself. Conventional wisdom no longer takes itself seriously.

Back in the 1950s conventional wisdom could indeed be overbearing. Those who dissented from the consensus--Marxists, beatniks, gays--were stigmatized and relegated to society's margins. By most accounts, this conformity of opinion produced a decade of unspeakable dullness. Yet it's possible to exaggerate CW's tyranny. Galbraith and the New Left caricatured CW as not just conservative but reactionary--unyielding in its defense of inherited values. This criticism, however, misunderstands CW's careful regulation of the marketplace of ideas. Yes, CW is conservative. It makes it difficult for faddish ideas to win popular acceptance quickly. It stymies the widespread adoption of ideas that challenge its authority. But compared with other methods of regulating ideas--totalitarian dictatorships, doctrines of papal infallibility--CW is remarkably open-minded. American social movements arrive and shout their ideas: Ban child labor! Outlaw abortion! Redistribute wealth! And CW responds in its reassuringly predictable pattern. First it dismisses these ideas, then it argues with them, and then it reconsiders and absorbs the insurgent movement's best insights into the mainstream.

Even Galbraith conceded that CW could serve as sand in the machine, protecting society from hastily assimilating bad ideas. Sadly, the machine has now been greased. On television, consensus-minded pundits--Gergen and a few others excepted--are considered too dull for the air. It's the argumentative ones--Chris Matthews, Sam Donaldson, Bill Press--who get invited back and even win their own shows. In print, the older bastions of elite opinion, like the New York Times editorial page, now refuse to endorse CW, preferring a contrarian pose. And then there's the Internet and the accelerated news cycle: It becomes harder for consensus to congeal around opinions when the pace of opinion journalism doesn't allow for the slightest prolonged rumination. Of course, you might say this criticism of punditry, television, and the Internet is banal. You might even call it trite or cliched. I say, damn straight it is.

 

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