The conventionality of wisdom

Jon Margolis

July 21, 1992|By Jon Margolis

SUCH is the perversity of the human animal that no sooner does a new reality displace the old conventional wisdom than someone will proclaim that reality the new conventional wisdom, and therefore wrong.

So it was as the world's oldest surviving political party assembled for its 41st quadrennial convention amid reports that its candidates were becoming more popular, its opposition less so, and its prospects not at all bleak.

"Temporary euphoria," intoned a guest at one of the convention-eve parties. "Wait until the Republican mashing machine gets done with these two blow-dried Southern fraternity boys. They'll be mush." But, wondered the intoner's lady companion, was it not possible that this fear of Republican attacks is itself part of the conventional wisdom?

"Conventional wisdom?" he repeated, mouth agape in horror. "Me?"

To be fair to the Democrats, the guests at this particular party were as much literary as political, and literary folk are at even greater pains than others to distinguish themselves from those who accept the conventional wisdom. This is one of the reasons (though hardly the only one and probably not the main one) literary folk are so fatuous.

A convention is perhaps an appropriate place to speak a word in defense of the conventional wisdom, which too casually has become a term of opprobrium. It is now possible to get the silliest ideas taken seriously simply by prefacing them with the phrase, "Contrary to the conventional wisdom . . . "

But much of the conventional wisdom is correct, even wise. Were it not, it would have had a much harder time becoming conventional. Usually, it became conventional by having been proven right in the past. This does not prove that it will continue to hold in the future, or even in the present. It does indicate that casually dismissing it is a mistake.

The same holds true for that other pejorative, the cliche. Something would not have become a cliche had it not often been true. Granted, this does not mean that it will always be true, and the independent-minded observer who tries to be insightful will look at each new development in its own context.

But there is a grave danger in trying too hard to be insightful. He or she so intent on being original runs the risk of being silly. Just remember the book "The Greening of America."

The obsession to be original is sometimes just an indication of self-absorption. The idiosyncratic rebel should be taken with even more grains of salt than the purveyor of conventional wisdom.

Whoever first said, "Things are seldom as they seem," was wrong. Things are usually as they seem. Otherwise, they wouldn't seem that way. The real problem is not the conventional wisdom, but the conventional foolishness, based on misunderstanding the conventional wisdom, or on failing to understand that the various bits of conventional wisdom often clash.

Take two cliches of political conventional wisdom and apply them to the present situation. One cliche is that whenever a president is running for re-election, the campaign is a referendum on the incumbent. That has been the case in the past and makes sense, so it's probably true. And if it is, President Bush has already lost the election.

But of course he has not, because this cliche runs up against another -- you can't beat somebody with nobody, and a little-known candidate with questions about his past isn't going to get elected president -- which also makes sense and has been true in the past.

So what do you have when an unpopular president faces not one but two little-known candidates who make the electorate uneasy? You have a situation in which even the conventional wisdom warns against relying very much on the conventional wisdom. You have great uncertainty.

Or consider polls, those much-maligned features of the conventional wisdom. Just to take the figures in the most recent New York Times/CBS News poll, the Clinton/Gore ticket has a 24-point lead over the Bush/Quayle ticket. But Mr. Clinton is not "ahead." Nobody is, especially considering that other polls come up with slightly different results, and even more especially considering that 13 percent are "undecided."

Put that "undecided" option in, ask potential voters, "Or have you really not made up your mind?" and common sense tells you that far more than 13 percent would choose it. And everybody knows what common sense is. It's part of the conventional wisdom.

Jon Margolis is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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