Predictions reconsidered

How Did Such Smart People Get it So Wrong?

For a long time, my wife and I went to the State Fair every Labor Day. On a couple of those visits, after spending time watering up and speaking to office-holders and candidates at the Republican booth, we would pay our respects to Sen. Paul Wellstone, who would be greeting people a safe distance away. On at least one those occasions (I don’t recall exactly how many as the heat was usually blurring), a portion of the conversation would go something like this when we reached the head of the line:

Me: “Senator, good to see you.”

Wellstone: “Mitch and Diane, good to see you, too.”

After a few additional pleasantries by the three of us about French fries or livestock or something, Paul would look at Diane while pointing at me and say to her, with excellent male-bonding intonation, “He’s such a good guy, but how could such a good guy be so wrong?”

We would all laugh, and out of respect for the dignity and majesty of the U.S. Senate, I wouldn’t say anything as crisply male in return. We would then laugh some more, wish each other a good year, and say good-bye.

I often remember those brief exchanges, in part, because Paul, his wife and others died in a plane crash not many years later. I also think of our conversations because I’m proud that American Experiment has never been afflicted by the kind of silly and destructive zeal that makes being human and sociable with those with whom we differ, ideologically or otherwise, beyond bounds. But in recent months I’ve been recalling one slice of those conversations in particular – “How can such a good guy be so wrong?” – as it kindles the question: “How could so many otherwise smart, even brilliant observers get Donald Trump’s victory and Hillary Clinton’s loss so wildly wrong?”

Professionally embarrassing as it might have been, mistaken prognosticators might take a sliver of comfort given the giant degree to which famous journalists and scholars got it wrong two generations ago regarding how Barry Goldwater’s huge loss to Lyndon Johnson in 1964 would eventually play out. The following excerpts are from Rick Perlstein’s 2001 book, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. My own prediction is that you will have a hard time picking a favorite laugher, as they are all gems. Rick, by the way, is not a relative as he spells his name wrong.

• “He has wrecked his party for a long time to come.” James “Scotty” Reston in the New York Times.

• “The election has finished the Goldwater school of political reaction.” Richard Rovere in The New Yorker.

• “This is surely a liberal epoch as the late Nineteenth Century was a conservative one.” James MacGregor Burns.

• “The election results of 1964 seemed to demonstrate Thomas Dewey’s prediction about what would happen if the parties were realigned on an ideological basis: ‘The Democrats would win every election and the Republicans would lose every election.’” Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

Do the biographical sketches in Wikipedia for any of these four guys say anything about how humiliatingly wrong they were about what happened politically in the United States after 1964? Not a word is revealed.

Beyond, there is almost always safety in numbers, especially enormous numbers, as reflected in an admission by the well-respected and well-exposed Prof. Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, who has said of the Trump-Clinton race: “The entire punditry industry got it wrong. The entire polling industry got it wrong. And the entire analyst industry got it wrong.”

Yes, they did.

Is there a price to be paid—any kind of price—for being so totally off? Bob Beckel is a venerable political hand who falls under at least two of these categories. A Democrat, he said during last year’s race that Clinton would “crush Trump.” For his acuity, Fox has brought him back to “The Five,” where predicting is a staple.

Fair is fair, and fun is fun, as even well-trained meteorologists have been known to get their forecasts wrong once in a while. Is there any possible downside in all these political miscalculations, at least when it comes to their entertainment value? Here’s a thought, albeit admittedly a stretch.

Truly smart and brilliant economists have been predicting for a long time that the way Washington spends money is not sustainable and that things will grow even more out of whack, doing serious damage to the nation, as Baby Boomers continue to retire, and for decades afterwards, persist in falling apart expensively. If my guess is correct, these generally rigorous projections are attended to less seriously than are predictions regularly flying off the tops of talking heads.

I don’t want to say the contrast is “sad,” but you get the idea.

Mitch Pearlstein is Founder and American Experiment Senior Fellow.