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The perils of conventional wisdom

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Thursday, 31 January 2008

“Predicting a continuation of the thing that is happening” argued George Orwell “is not simply a bad habit, like inaccuracy or exaggeration. It is a major mental disease, and its roots lie partly in cowardice and partly in the worship of power.”

Those commenting on the current American presidential elections have been particularly prone to this illness. Commentators have constantly assumed that current trends (even micro-happenings like Obama’s victory in Iowa) will continue unabated.

Thus conventional wisdom has frequently been more conventional than it has been wise. Throughout 2007 most US commentators could not envisage anything but a Hillary Clinton victory in the 2008 Democratic Party primaries. However, one election loss and she was toast according to many journalists. Now, after one narrow victory, she’s back!


On the Republican side in 2007 John McCain’s campaign was declared broke and thus dead; now he is once again the anointed front-runner. We were also told that the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary were supposed to be more important than ever in choosing the nominees, that is, until commentators decided they only made things more confused.

Journalists feel forced into making these predictions because of their assumption that the general public will not be able to last the distance in the months of campaigning, debates and elections that make up the gruelling marathon of a US presidential campaign. Furthermore, the correspondent who boldly forecasts a political victory well ahead of time looks perspicuous indeed to their readers. However, based on the best information of the day which is largely opinion polls, such predictions are always partly guess work.

As has already been shown in the US this year, such polls can swing wildly from day to day due to a bewildering number of factors. Voters often leave their decision making until the day before voting and plenty of people have a change of heart after confirming their preferences to a pollster. Furthermore, in the US, there is no guarantee that those who answer the polls will even show up to vote.

This extreme unpredictability is a bane for political pundits, sportswriters, economists and meteorologists alike, turning their endeavours in futurology into nothing better than pub predictions.

It was the economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, who coined the term conventional wisdom. He used the phrase to criticise ideas that pandered to what audiences wanted to hear rather than acknowledging that human behaviour is “complex and mentally tiring”. Galbraith’s plea to economists was to be open to the incoherent and intellectually frustrating nature of life. Political commentators, too, would do well to heed his sage advice.

Just a few years ago this conventional wisdom declared Hillary Clinton unelectable to any office and certainly never able to make president. In the 1990s Hillary hating was a national pastime, akin to horse-racing, which could unite the elite and the lumpen proletariat. However, a combination of ineptness from the Bush presidency and Hillary’s own hard work and diligence have seen those who wrote her off as too divisive, cold and impersonal to ever be the president made to eat their own words.


As for an African-American becoming president, the odds looked overwhelmingly negative. In its entire history, the US has elected five black senators out of a total of 1,907 Senators and two black governors out of a total of 2,338 governors. Thankfully, however, Orwell is right: trends, even long standing historical trends, are bucked. For example, once shamefully low black voting rates have lifted to fairly similar levels as those of whites.

If opinion polls cannot be trusted, the other tried and tested approach to predicting election outcomes is to look for historical parallels. On one level Obama’s campaign looks like Jimmy Carter’s run for the presidency in 1976. On the other hand, he is nothing like Carter or any candidate I can think of. Further, pundits are prone to re-fighting the last election when predicting new election outcomes. If they understated the influence of Christian conservatives in the last campaign they are likely to overstate their influence next time around just as, after Munich, some commentators came to view every petty dictator as a contemporary Hitler if appeased.

A strong understanding of a nation’s political history is often the hallmark of great journalists; however using history to predict what will happen next is often dangerous. When it comes to predicting future elections I agree with the historian A.J.P.Taylor who wrote “I have long thought that we learn too much from history rather than the reverse”. Just as each conflict around the world needs to be looked at as a separate event with distinct features, each election needs to be looked at as a new race.

Despite these words of caution I will still be attracted to columnists who make bold predictions. However, I hope the media in general will refrain from turning such informed guesses into anointments. My own prediction is that Barack Obama will be the next US president; however, this is based significantly on that other great sin of political journalism, wishful thinking.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on January 25, 2008.

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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