Rodin Thinker - flickr user MarttjThere were plenty of winners and losers in last week’s election.  But perhaps the biggest loser of all was conventional wisdom.

Consider the national election.  As of late 2007, conventional wisdom asserted that Hillary Clinton had the Democratic nomination sewn up, and that McCain ought to pull the plug on his faltering, underfunded campaign. 

Conventional wisdom went 0-for-2 on that one. 

If anything, political prognosticators in Washington State fared even worse.  Consider the Puget Sound light rail vote. Time and again, political insiders billed the 2007 “Roads-and-Transit” package as the last, best hope for rail transit in greater Seattle.  The roads were considered crucial to the train’s chances: there was simply no way, the wise ones intoned, that the electorate would approve a multi-billion dollar train system unless it was leavened with some road projects to lure suburban voters.  And if voters rejected the package in 2007, we were assured, the train would be dead for a decade; politicians would never put a tax increase on the ballot two years in a row, especially with an economic downturn on the horizon.

How’d the wisdom do?  0-for-4. 

  • Confounding the politicos and pundits, the roads didn’t lift the 2007 package, they sank it.  Light rail made it to the ballot the very next year.  Puget Sound voters approved of the transit-only measure in a landslide.  And the shaky economy may actually have helped light rail: the train was seen by some voters as an economic stimulus, and by others as a way of protecting commuters from high gas prices. In the end, all of the prognosticators who lectured the 2007 Roads-and-Transit naysayers about “political reality” got their heads handed to them.

    The failure of conventional wisdom was no better regarding Washington’s Initiative 985.  Political observers thought that I-985 would be as irresistible to voters as leftover Halloween candy is to a four-year-old (a subject I now know quite a bit about).  I-985 had fantastic soundbites and a charismatic proponent—and everyone knows that voters don’t really care about substance.  But the confident predictions were exactly backwards:  a ragtag campaignwiped the floor with I-985, and voters proved perfectly able to ignore soundbites and focus on substance. (It didn’t hurt, of course, that I-985 was comically stupid transportation policy).

    I could go on.  History is chock full of examples of long-shot causes that scored victories that at one point seemed impossible:  women’s suffrage, the temperance movement, civil rights.  Conventional wisdom—especially the confident assurances of political insiders—is absolutely no guide to what’s possible in the world.  

    The fact that conventional wisdom is so often foolish is both confounding, and excellent news.  Confounding, because it shows that the future is fundamentally unknowable; even sage advice can be worthless, and what counts as political “inside baseball” is anything but sage.  And excellent news, since it shows that political certainties aren’t certain. Long-shots and pie-in-the-sky ideas are far more possible than anyone dares hope.

    So if you’ll excuse us, we’ve got some windmills to tilt at.  We suggest you do the same.

    Photo courtesy of Flickr user marttj under a Creative Commons license.