On June 11, 1962, John F. Kennedy delivered the commencement address at Yale. After some Harvard-Yale jocularity, he put forward the most memorable definition of that triumphal moment in what historians now call the era of liberal consensus: "What is at stake in our economic decisions today is not some grand warfare of rival ideologies ... but the practical management of a modern economy." Economic problems of the 1960s, Kennedy said, are "subtle challenges for which technical answers, not political answers, must be provided."
According to Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the speech was the work of a supergroup of Camelot intellectuals that included himself, John Kenneth Galbraith, Theodore Sorenson, and McGeorge Bundy. Its calmly persuasive, sensible pragmatism would sound familiar coming from our current president, and Kennedy's argument that concern about federal budget deficits was based on "myths" (marking his turn toward Keynesianism) would be at home in this magazine today.
And yet, one can recount the history of the subsequent decades largely as a chronicle of the political error of that speech. It was short-sighted in dismissing a "grand warfare of ideologies" at the very moment the Goldwater movement was being born, which would set the stage for a battle not between Marxism and capitalism but between a new ideology of unrestricted capitalism and the managed economy that seemed so commonsensical in Kennedy's time.
By taking public questions out of the domain of "political answers," and leaving them to experts, as technical questions, Kennedy gave birth to two backlashes. From the left, in reaction to the failure of the great brains--notably Bundy's--in Vietnam, the New Left turned to the dream of participatory democracy, which in six years led to the unraveling of the liberal consensus on the streets of Chicago. On the right, a new conservatism found its voice in a kind of disingenuous anti-intellectualism and contempt for experts, exemplified by William F. Buckley's comment, "I'd rather be governed by the first 200 names in the Boston phone book than by the Harvard faculty."
The erudite Buckley wasn't serious, and his was a bit of Yale-Harvard jocularity too, as well as a jab at Bundy, an old enemy who had been dean of the faculty at Harvard. But not everyone was in on the campus jokes. That phony populism gradually became the guiding principle of a party that four decades later made heroes of Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. We are still recovering from eight years of an administration governed by contempt for experts and facts, in which every problem could be solved with a political solution.
George W. Bush left us with a staggering set of questions for which political answers are elusive at best. Like Kennedy at Yale, Barack Obama has had to make the case that many long-held political truths, such as that the deficit shouldn't get too high and that government shouldn't intervene in the private sector, are actually ideological myths. In his March 24 press conference, he reiterated that his mission is not ideological but is marked by "knotty problems" such as how to "improve liquidity in the financial markets, create jobs, get businesses to reopen, keep America safe." Despite the fact that he is building what may turn out to be the most progressive presidency since Lyndon Johnson, Obama eschews ideology not just for tactical reasons but because it provides little guidance on bank bailouts, reviving the auto industry, dealing with international currency account imbalances, or shifting the whole economy to a lower level of consumption. The only way to develop a useful view on these questions is, as Obama said, to take "a couple of days ... to know what I'm talking about."
And yet, as Kennedy would have found, it is difficult to sustain a political vision based on solving technical problems and trusting the experts, especially if many of the experts in a given field were complicit in the creation of the problems. The anti-expert backlash on the political right was automatic and to be expected--and is as unserious as Buckley. But it has arisen on the left, too, as in columnist David Sirota's call to reject the "eliteocracy" and "empower the population to make decisions for itself." Participatory democracy lives.
Two lessons come from Kennedy's error. One is that the experts had better get it right. There is a huge political price to be paid for getting these technical questions wrong. The second is that, complicated as these questions are, "trust us" isn't a good enough answer. The Obama administration must find a way to bring the public in, to let it feel a sense of participation and ownership. Ideology, in a measured dosage, can help people understand where we're headed and why.