Commentary Magazine


Sputnik, Egypt, and the Consensus

I do agree with Ted Bromund’s conclusion on the default mentality of the center-left: it’s both a symptom and a cause of our educational system. Ted puts it this way:

The consensus on the value of often-politicized expert opinion — a consensus that derives from the Progressive Era — is so strong that even when the Cold War ended, and the so-called experts were demonstrably proved to have been wrong about it, the consensus endured.  It’s not really a belief, per se. It’s a default mentality.

This is one reason I have sympathy and concern for the Obama administration as it tries to grapple with the problems piling up in 2011. Its highest hurdle may be the default mentality Ted refers to: a mentality that has a reflexive way of seeing everything but admits little audit from reality.

The divorce between the conventional-left consensus and reality has been startlingly clear over the past few weeks. Confronted with reality, the consensus — or the Consensus — is out of ideas. To drum up enthusiasm for new deficit spending, a 20th-century Consensus remedy with the track record of 16th-century medical procedures, President Obama reached backward past decades of left-wing “debunking” to invoke Sputnik. Soon he’ll be rallying us with the cry of “Better dead than Red!” The Consensus knows only that the spending must be done; selling it need not be accomplished with thematic consistency.

Faced now with the Hezbollah coup in Lebanon and the unrest in Egypt and Tunisia, Obama is simply silent. It’s as if he and his advisers are waiting for a new consensus to form. The old, reliable Consensus would tell them only that popular unrest is noble and positive, and the American government invariably does the wrong thing about it when it erupts abroad. These can be satisfying conclusions in an academic or editorial environment, but they offer no useful framework for official policy.

There is still great inertia behind the Consensus. It has been proclaimed dead often throughout the last 30 years, but the continuation of the Pax Americana — with everything that means at home and abroad — has just as often rescued it. Coexistence with an often antithetical reality has been possible because, for the most part, the Consensus has thrived as a self-appointed dissenting opposition, in a stasis maintained on the principles of others.

As the Consensus would have it, Team Obama is now on the hook for choosing the “wrong” thing America does about Egypt. That intellectual limitation certainly poses a challenge to policy. We’ll see in the coming days if the administration can transcend it. Alana Goodman notes that Obama has invited Robert Kagan and Elliott Abrams to participate in his deliberations, which is a good start. Obama has sometimes proposed to listen to conventional, “neoconservative,” or hawkish voices in foreign-policy matters, rather than hear solely from an ideologically unified core of advisers. But the Consensus long ago adopted the views of Marxism on the meaning and utility of national responses, traditional diplomacy, alliances, and the defense of national interests. Having seen these concepts devalued for decades, those schooled in the Consensus are likely to find the learning curve steep.