Magazine article The American Prospect

Expert Advice

Magazine article The American Prospect

Expert Advice

Article excerpt

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. …

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