Like cockroaches, "America's Funniest Home Videos" and other things that just won't die, conventional wisdom is back to humiliate itself for another election cycle.
Despite being overused and thoroughly discredited, the CW is still part of the political dialogue. (Robert Shrum, by contrast, had the good sense to hang up his cleats.) But hardly anybody talks about conventional wisdom being proved right. Instead, the phrase is employed almost exclusively in an ironic sense, as a shorthand for naïve or pigheaded thinking.
"You know there's this running conventional wisdom about you," Chuck Todd informed Donald Trump on "Meet the Press" last Sunday. It's that if Trump "doesn't win Iowa, he'll leave the race."
"No, I'm not leaving," Trump replied, knocking down that straw man.
A week earlier, on "Fox News Sunday," Chris Wallace asked Chris Christie about the "conventional wisdom" that a loss in New Hampshire might end his campaign. "Absolutely not," said Christie.
In November, Fox News' Sean Hannity told Ted Cruz, "Conventional wisdom -- we hear this all the time, senator -- is that, Oh, if Republicans are too hard on illegal immigrants, it's going to cost them the Hispanic vote." "Utter nonsense," responded Mr. Congeniality.
In what may have been a new low even for a maligned phrase, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson established the conventional wisdom against his own chances, then rebutted it, all in the same sentence while announcing his Libertarian campaign for president. As our man Ben Brody wrote:
Johnson said it was "conventional wisdom" that his run could damage Republicans by pulling voters away from the party, but that someone who is "fiscally conservative and socially liberal" like him would draw from both parties.
Like most problems in the world, the proliferation of "conventional wisdom" is the fault of an economist. John Kenneth Galbraith devoted a chapter to it in his 1958 book, "The Affluent Society."
"It will be convenient," he wrote, "to have a name for the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability, and it should be a term that emphasizes this predictability. I shall refer to these ideas henceforth as the Conventional Wisdom."
Note the lack of irony. As Galbraith saw it, conventional wisdom really was wisdom. The truth. A good thing to have on your side.
"Conventional wisdom now just seems to bubble up, fatherless, with minimal brain work or reflection behind it," Mark Leibovich wrote in the New York Times in 2008, theorizing that the CW's accuracy rate "in this presidential election has plummeted to new lows."
If so, the 2016 campaign is at least giving 2008 a run for its money. Remember, if you will, the conventional wisdom that:
- Hillary Clinton would cruise to a coronation
- Donald Trump couldn't possibly last
- Party outsiders like Bernie Sanders and Ben Carson would struggle to compete in raising money
- Carly Fiorina would be a major player in the Republican field, though of course Jeb Bush would dominate it
- Kevin McCarthy would succeed John Boehner as House speaker
According to this Google Books survey, use of "conventional wisdom" might actually (and deservedly) be on the decline in the 21st century, though it'll be a long time before it dwindles to the level of other political cliches:
Conventional wisdom "has been wrong at every turn of this campaign," David Corn noted last Friday on PBS's "NewsHour." On the final "Meet the Press" of 2015, Andrea Mitchell observed that Trump and Sanders had made it "a year when conventional wisdom was turned on its head."
So how 'bout it? Let's put a stake through heart of conventional wisdom and move on to bigger problems.
Like that darn microphone.
Ladies and gentleman, the man I'm about to introduce understands that the greatest threat to our nation's security and well-being is people who cross a border1 to get here!
Like the rest of us, he ekes out a living on the strength of his own hard work!7
This is a man who speaks the truth, hides nothing, and hates nothing so much as hypocrisy in politics!
Ladies and gentleman, the next president of the United States, Ted Cruz!
Thank you! Thank you! This is so humbling. I never, even in my wildest dreams or ambitions, pictured myself up here one day.8
(Read My Lips is a column dedicated to the proposition that men and women in a position of power, or the pursuit of it, will say or do things for which they will be sorry.)