In the age of Donald Trump, groupthink has driven so many to get so much so wrong

Note from launchphase2: Good Tips to Avoid Groupthink

  1. Get out of your bubble
  2. Build a system for hearing different voices
  3. Be ready for some discomfort
  4. Show some humility

In February 2016, some nine months before the presidential election that upended American politics, Rahm Emanuel called it.
The Chicago mayor and former White House chief of staff predicted over the phone to me that Donald Trump would not only win the Republican nomination but also beat Hillary Clinton in the fall. I promptly relayed our exchange to a colleague by email. “With this blue-collar, screw-you appeal he has,” my email recounted Mr. Emanuel as saying, “why should anybody assume that Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan are safe for Hillary?” One of the Democratic Party’s wiliest pols, Mr. Emanuel didn’t just nail the outcome; he even got the specific states right.

Did I believe him? No.

Why? At least in part because the Washington consensus said that a Trump presidency simply couldn’t happen. My resistance to Mr. Emanuel’s views was a perfect example of the perils of being trapped in conventional wisdom, which has, in the past few years, driven so many to get so much so wrong.
Conventional wisdom emerges with particular ease in Washington—a small, one-industry city in which politicians, journalists, analysts and lobbyists spend a great deal of time talking to one another. “A lot of people in this town spend a lot of time thinking about what other people in this town think,” says Jeff Weaver, who ran Sen. Bernie Sanders’s decidedly unconventional 2016 Democratic presidential campaign. “Anybody who has a contrary idea runs the risk of being ridiculed by others in the commentator community.”

If ever there were a time to be skeptical that something is true just because “everybody” says so, it is the era of Trump, where past practice rather emphatically doesn’t guarantee future performance. I know whereof I speak: As a Washington columnist, I am a longtime purveyor of conventional wisdom. Sometimes, I suppose, I help to create it. I’m certainly always swimming in it. And struggling against its tide is uncomfortable.

The CW has gotten plenty wrong in recent years. The consensus held that Mr. Sanders could never get traction because he was an old, rumpled socialist who couldn’t possibly raise enough money from small donations to mount a national campaign. The same sachems—myself included—were sure that Mr. Trump’s candidacy had been killed off when he sneered at the heroism of Sen. John McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Then the CW was certain that the “Access Hollywood” tape of Mr. Trump bragging about groping women would bring his run to an end. It was similarly sure that Mrs. Clinton’s advisers were safe in presuming that Democratic voters flirting with third-party candidates would “come home” to her in the end—and that the alarms sounded by Mrs. Clinton’s team about Russian interference in the election were exaggerated.

Wrong on all counts.
Robert Gates has seen the risks of groupthink firsthand. Mr. Gates was a career analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency who became the director of central intelligence and then secretary of defense for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. As an intelligence leader, he says, he was wary of insular analyses that seemed safe but could miss unexpected outcomes because all the smart people had told one another it couldn’t happen. “The irony,” he says, “is that where it bites you most frequently is when you’re dealing with experts.”

For example, he says, the CIA’s top Iran analyst in the late 1970s had handled the portfolio for 20 years and spoke Farsi. But when the 1979 Iranian Revolution came, “he totally missed it,” Mr. Gates says.

So what’s the best way to escape from the influence of conventional wisdom? Here are four pieces of advice I’ve gleaned.

Get out of your bubble. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan defied the Kremlin—and Washington conventional wisdom—by going to the Berlin Wall and declaring to his Soviet counterpart, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” The line shocked the capital’s foreign-policy establishment, which feared that the Soviets would react badly and that West Berlin would be roiled by new tension. Neither turned out to be true, and the wall would come down in just over two years.
Peter Robinson, then a junior White House speechwriter, composed the famous line. How could he dare such a thing, knowing that his elders and betters would consider it too provocative? “I did original reporting,” he says. “I had gone to the wall. Above all, I had sat down in West Berlin with a bunch of West Berliners. I asked them, ‘I’ve been told you’ve gotten used to the wall. Is that true?’ It wasn’t…I like to think I got out of the Washington bubble.”

Build a system for hearing different views. The intelligence community, Mr. Gates says, uses a technique called competitive analysis, which directs “a group to go off and challenge the conventional wisdom.”
For example, Mr. Gates remembers a debate within the CIA in the 1980s over how much of the Soviet Union’s gross domestic product went to military spending. The CIA’s in-house experts, he recalls, thought the share was about 15%. But outside the CIA, a Russian émigré was arguing that the correct figure was several times higher. Intrigued, Mr. Gates drew him into the debate—and the outsider turned out to be much closer to the mark than the experts.

In a similar vein, Mr. Emanuel says that he has formed a “kitchen cabinet” of people outside his own staff to offer ideas and advice. One of them is former Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who inspired Mr. Emanuel’s program to provide free community college education to graduates of Chicago public high schools who maintain a B average.

It can also help to give yourself time and space to challenge preconceived notions. Matthew Slaughter, dean of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, says that he advises business leaders to build regular reflection time into their calendars to force themselves to think about unconventional solutions.

Be ready for some discomfort. Countering the conventional wisdom can feel lonely. “You don’t want to be the kid sitting by himself in the lunch room who is trying to be different,” says John Murray, who was a top aide to former House Republican Leader Eric Cantor.
The discomfort can extend to entire organizations. Robert Kimmitt, a West Point graduate who became a U.S. Army general and later deputy treasury secretary under President George W. Bush, notes that after Vietnam, the Army forced itself through a painful, systematic study to re-examine its practices. “A bunch of young colonels who fought in Vietnam basically just took the Army down to its basest point and asked the tough questions,” he says. One of the study’s conclusions: The predilection for “trying to achieve consensus in the analysis and reporting of intelligence information must be avoided at all cost; divergent opinions and conflicting analyses should be tolerated, listened to, and even encouraged.”

Show some humility. We can all do better in asking questions and actually listening to the answers. That’s especially important in Washington, where impressing others with how much you know sometimes gets in the way of finding out what they know.
Public-opinion polling, which has been maligned in recent years, remains a crucial tool in gauging feelings outside the D.C. bubble. Focus groups—in-depth discussions with small groups of voters—are even more valuable. But there is no substitute for person-to-person listening.

Consider two small examples from 2016. Early in the campaign, I went to a New Hampshire town-hall meeting with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, then a top Republican presidential contender. I expected to hear about the issues then fixating Washington—including the Iran nuclear deal and gay marriage—but was stunned that the first two questions were about opioid abuse. A question that wasn’t even on the CW’s radar screen was a burning issue in a key state.

Then, late in the campaign, I happened to take a cab in Washington driven by an African immigrant with a thick accent, who had a “Make America Great Again” sticker on the center of his dashboard. I asked: Aren’t you scared by Trump’s harsh words on immigration? That rhetoric, the driver replied, was directed toward others, not himself. He was voting Trump. I was amused. I should have been listening more closely.