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In the Washington Post, David Mayhew asks which was the most important presidential election in US history.

This is tough, because not all consequential presidencies derived from consequential elections. Roosevelt sailed to victory in 1932 and 1936, which respectively inaugurated and ratified the New Deal. It’s hard to feel the elections themselves were consequential, because they were nothing like close; it’s the surrounding circumstances and the appeal of Roosevelt’s reactions that were important; the presidency was won or lost before the actual election.

The 1860 election wasn’t close, so it’s more like 1932 that way. The 1960 election was very close, and maybe an earlier Nixon presidency would have made a big difference, but I’m not sure. A Dewey win in 1948 might well have mattered, but again, I’m not entirely sure.

I think the best match of consequential election – where the election itself determined who would go to the White House – to consequential presidency – where the person in the White House really shifted the course of history – was probably 2000.


If Mark Wahlberg had been seated in first class on that fateful day, there would have been no 9/11. Yes, seriously. I dare you to challenge his logic.

Further on the counterfactual issue: we always advise doctoral students and indeed each other that historians should be able to give an elevator pitch for any new project, and that this pitch should always answer the “so what?” question—i.e., you’re writing about the history of the glass-bead game of the Pacific islanders in the 1940s; so what?

“So what?” is of course always a challenge requiring you to counterfactualize twice over: it demands you to say (a) “but for” this event or phenomenon, x important thing would not have occurred and also (b) at a meta or historiographical level, “but for” my research, we cannot understand y important thing.

Believe me, I always worry about these things myself. Writing as I am about Bretton Woods, I get people saying either “That’s great!” and beaming, as if at a slow-learning child who has managed to write his name, or else looking dumbfounded completely. Why Bretton Woods, you can see them thinking—when you can’t see them thinking, what’s Bretton Woods?

Usually the answer has to do with the purported goals of the system—freer trade and stronger, better distributed economic growth—both of which were realized in the quarter-century or so that the system actually operated. But the connection between Bretton Woods and those trends is not easy to pick out of the data.

I think it’s more important to say, Bretton Woods was the first major opportunity to get the US to sign on to an international system in the post-1945 world. To have failed at the first hurdle—to have permitted Robert Taft and his ilk to scuttle the initial effort—would have increased the perception that isolationism still dominated the American temper, or at least the US Congress, and would have shaken the foundations of the whole postwar international project. So it was important to adopt Bretton Woods simply to set a pattern of postwar international cooperation; otherwise (note counterfactual) the forces of isolation would have been emboldened and strengthened.

Which raises a question: why did the Roosevelt administration decide to do Bretton Woods first? It was complicated, and difficult to explain. Perhaps Keynes’s answer was right: that it was precisely the intrinsic dullness of Bretton Woods that made it an ideal initial effort. “This is such a boring subject that no public enthusiasm can be roused by discussing the details, whilst it would be frightfully dangerous to be open to the challenge of sabotaging the first international scheme. Anyone with isolationist origins will think twice before doing so.” But this turned out to be an incorrect prediction; there was considerable opposition to overcome.

This morning in the graduate seminar we’ll be discussing Niall Ferugson’s Virtual History, which (per Andrew Gelman here and here) seems to me an agreeably rigorous thought experiment on the nature of causation in history. A cause is that x without which no y; to establish the causality of x one ought to be able to show that without it, no y, which means a comprehension of the counterfactual.

It strikes me as odd that some historians remain unhappy with this concept. Tristram Hunt suggested awhile back that this was because counterfactuals are inherently conservative; I think this is true only if you are wedded to a radical or progressive concept of history in which the end is foreordained. (See responses to Hunt here.) It is of course also possible that counterfactuals discomfit because, past a certain nearby point, there can be no evidence for them. Or perhaps for the same reason Gelman likes them—they are kin to a quantitative modeler’s mindset.

A woman starts a freelance writing service from home.  Her business struggles along.  On a whim, and to distance herself from her struggling business, she chooses a male pen name, James Chartrand.

Her business takes off, earning two to three times the income she earns under her own name.  She wins recognition, and now she’s outing herself as a pseud.

The phenomenon here is reasonably well attested.  J. K. Rowling published under her initial upon the advice of her publisher, if I recall correctly, because of the belief that a book by a male writer would be more appealing to the kids’ market.  Identical resumes with female names have been found to be presumed to be less qualified than their male counterparts.   What’s striking about this particular anedote is both that it’s removed from most of the external forces that would amplify or diminish prejudice and that the outcomes are so stark.  Two to three times as much money!

No doubt that part of the difference in success is simply that success follows success; once James Chartrand had a few nibbles and early successes, he became not merely James Chartrand, freelancer, but James Chartrand, successful freelancer with a proven track record, and she had the confidence that goes along with success.   Even if that were the whole story, however, it’s still interesting how a small difference in her client’s perceptions (it’s tantalizing to speculate what their thought processes were, but I suspect it was mostly nothing more than “this guy looks qualified enough” vs. “I’m just not convinced that her work is good, who else can we look at? ” rather than anything overt) is quite literally the difference between wondering whether she can feed her kids on her income and having enough money to purchase a house.

After reading this, Yglesias’s reviewlet of Funny People, as well as David Denby’s* recent rave, I wish that I could go see the film. Alas, I don’t go to the movies; I have kids. Anyway, it’s this line of Yglesias’s that caught my attention:

It also follows Knocked Up by offering a bracingly conservative vision of family life and obligation. It’s not a point of view I agree with, but it’s well articulated and done so in a way that’s divorced from the hypocrisy and petty moralizing of mainstream social conservatism.

What interests me here, beyond my own pathetic circumstances, is the question of how much more cultural traction conservatism would have if there were more legitimately talented conservative artists. I’m not saying there are none, mind you, but there really seem to be very few that can compete in an unfettered market of ideas, images, and songs with progressives/liberals/weirdos-like-Bjork.

But if there were, what would happen? Would the culture shift noticeably? I’m guessing it would. The easy test, perhaps, is to consider other nations where there are gifted conservative musicians, filmmakers, and authors, whose work captures the public’s fancy. Do such places exist?** And if so, what’s it like there?

* Who I still do not like. And whose opinions I still do not trust. And yet…

** Remember, I’m an Americanist. Which is to say, provincial. And poorly dressed.

Matthew Yglesias has been working the counterfactual beat lately (as he points out, counterfactuals are essential to a sound theory of causation). (Previously on this blog.)

Which inspired me to htmlize and post one of my favorite counterfactual tables, table 9 from Stewart and Weingast’s article on “Stacking the Senate”.1 What if, Stewart and Weingast ask, instead of making state admissions the subject of party politics, the western states had been admitted by some politically neutral rule—say, when they exceeded the population of the average congressional district? They make assumptions about partisan tilt based on real-life territorial politics, and get the below table.
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My friend Julian Zelizer of Princeton:

there were really three different economic goals in the First Hundred Days. The first was the goal with which we are most familiar–to revitalize the economy and move the nation out of the Great Depression. When we evaluate FDR’s success in meeting this challenge, the New Deal does not look very good.

The question one should ask here is, “professor, what’s your counterfactual?” Which is to say, what would “very good” look like? If the economy is at around 25% unemployment and most of the people still working are working part time and productivity has fallen off a cliff, things are pretty darn broken. How fast should they get fixed?

In real life—not in the counterfactual—they got fixed at reasonably quick speed. Christina Romer says they got better at a rate so “rapid” it was “spectacular”; Gauti Eggertson notes that 1933-37 saw

the greatest expansion in output and industrial production in any four year period in U.S. history outside of wartime.

So “does not look very good” means what? “Falls short of Economic Jesus”?

I’m glad Julian’s not grading my work.

One of Josh Marshall’s “shrewdest readers” offers a contrarian reading of Hillary Clinton’s record. Shrewdest Reader reminds us that

After the 2000 election, she called for the abolition of the electoral college. “I believe strongly,” she said, “that in a democracy, we should respect the will of the people.” She argued then that “the total votes cast for a person running for president in our country should determine the outcome.” Sound familiar?

Shrewdest Reader then says that when, contrariwise, the Clinton campaign agreed to cut Florida and Michigan out of the nominating process, she had at that time “lost her bearings” but now, SR argues, she has returned to true course, because “the dictates of her conscience and of political expedience have at last converged.” Clinton “is finally giving voice to the grievances that she’s long held back,” and on the belief that she “could not have lost a fair fight for the nomination,” this has changed from a mere campaign: “This really has become a moral crusade for her[.]” Clinton is a true majoritarian, momentarily distracted in the intraparty rules disputes of 2007 from her principles, now returned to her true and noble purpose.

<BREEET> Two fouls: (1) omitting relevant evidence and (2) bad counterfactualizing.

(1) Omitting relevant evidence. Yes, Clinton in the autumn of 2000 called for abolishing the electoral college. Far from seeming the unalloyed “dictates of her conscience,” this too looks like “political expedience.” Clinton made this call well before Bush v. Gore, early in November of 2000. At that time, crying up the illegitimacy of the electoral college served a clear political function, urging the Congress, the Court, and various mucks to award Gore the presidency based on his national popular vote majority, whatever the Florida count turned out to say.

Clinton may indeed believe we should amend the Constitution to satisfy her deep majoritarian principles, but she hasn’t said much about it since 2000; she must have had other priorities.

(2) Bad counterfactualizing: Clinton “could not have lost a fair fight for the nomination.” Not entirely clear whether it’s SR, or SR ventriloquizing Clinton, but either way, it’s a load of cobblers’. In “a fair fight,” both candidates would know the rules in advance, plan their campaigns accordingly, and abide by the rules as they went. Had the party determined that Florida and Michigan were to count, you can bet Obama would have campaigned there. Had the party held a snap one-day nationwide primary vote for the nomination, you can bet both candidates would have designed very different campaigns than they have. But it’s just foolish to say that because Obama and Clinton have campaigned as they have and achieved these results under these rules, that they would have done the same under different rules. This is counterfactualizing of the sort that merits the reply, “yes, and if a frog had wings it wouldn’t bump its ass a-hoppin’.”

Seriously, Marshall, I’m going to have to hope this isn’t your Shrewdest Reader’s shrewdest analysis.

At 7:22 am on this day in 1865, Abraham Lincoln died. The previous evening, during the third act of a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater, John Wilkes Booth, enraged by the speech discussed here, had shot Lincoln in the head. A single bullet had entered through the rear of Lincoln’s skull and lodged behind his right eye. The wound had bled very little. As word of the assassination attempt spread throughout Washington, Cabinet members, Congressmen, and other officials had descended upon Ford’s Theater, where surgeons struggled to keep Lincoln alive. They failed, and the nation mourned. It mourns still.

I’m agnostic about counterfactuals. Sometimes, they seem to offer a way to test theories. At others, they strike me as little more than a conceit or a sideshow, a diversion my students find endlessly fascinating, and therefore an annoyance in the context of my courses. But when it comes to Lincoln, I can’t help but consider the counterfactual: what if he had lived? How different would Reconstruction have been with Lincoln watching over its progress? Might there have been land reform in the South? Or would Lincoln have been more lenient even than Johnson in service of reconciliation? Beyond that, how different would the Republican Party’s history have been had Lincoln lived into his dotage, an elder statesmen protecting his own legacy? We have no answers for these and a host of other questions [insert yours below]. But each of these queries fascinates me. I fight my inner romantic when I consider the implications of Lincoln’s death and what the nation lost on this day in 1865.

Eric, whose pet counterfactual revolves around Lincoln living and Seward dying — with the martyred Seward looking over his shoulder, Lincoln would have had added moral authority and motivation to remake the South — turned me on to Niall Ferguson’s edited volume on counterfactuals. Ferguson’s introduction is wide-ranging: from Peggy Sue Got Married and Back to the Future to Michael Oakeshott and E.H. Carr to Augustine and John Calvin to Newton and Descartes to Hegel and Kant to Marx and Mill with stops along the way. As he skips across discursive time and space, Ferguson responds to E.P. Thompson’s contention that counterfactuals are “Geschichtswissenschlopff, unhistorical shit,” arguing that respect for contingency and chaos demand that we engage with counterfactuals. “Virtual history,” in this view, “is a necessary antidote for determinism.” That seems fair enough. But the book lacks a chapter on Lincoln, or the Civil War — a font of counterfactuals — more broadly. So it’s left to us to answer the simple question: what if?

I reviewed Power and Plenty in TNR here. Findlay and O’Rourke use social-science modeling and the counterfactual method to good purpose:

Even if elements of this story seem familiar, Findlay and O’Rourke tell their tale exceptionally well and give lively attention to alternate possibilities: What should have happened, according to theory? What could have happened, in the realm of plausibility? They find they can cede little to neoliberal economists: Power was generally necessary to secure plenty. “Adam Smith and his liberal followers to the present day, however, would, and have, argued that much of this [state] expenditure was wasted, unnecessarily crowding out more productive private investment. The assumption of course is that the markets and raw material supplies … would have existed regardless”–which, history suggests, they would not have. Had your empire not secured them, your neighbor’s would have, with lasting bad consequences to you.

The sentiment I most liked that didn’t make it into the final draft: it’s a thing of joy if you’re a fact-nerd like me.

Speaking of counterfactuals, “Neu-York” (yes, via MetaFilter; sue me) if conquered by the Nazis. I would have lived on Salbei Weg (Sage Street) — if of course my Jewish relatives had escaped extermination and I had been born some kind of halfsie converso.

NewYorkistan, though, is still the best. I scanned and framed this immediately it appeared, which you remember was soon after September 11. Although it might also look like a conquered New York, I believe it is not, but rather a vision of the city as a feuding melange of tribes — a comparatively peaceable mirror of its enemies.

Rockefeller by Sargent

The picture of a saintly gentleman seated in harmless pose to your right, by the painter John Singer Sargent, represents a brilliant example of the portraitist’s art: the subject is John D. Rockefeller, Sr., more usually depicted as a grasping oligarch, who on this day in 1870 incorporated the Standard Oil Company under the laws of Ohio with a declared capital stock of one million dollars.

Standard Oil remains a standard tale of how to build a vertical monopoly: begin at the processing stage; move forward through transportation to retail, then backward to securing raw materials. Also, a bit more excitingly, it includes the story of how to defend and expand such an empire, from the elegant use of venue shopping to seek the most favorable state in which to incorporate (the Trust was established in New Jersey), to the sinuous and (according to the New York Times) “continuous and habitual violation of the law through the acceptance of secret rebates from railroads,” to the blunt and allegedly routine use of thugs and saboteurs.

Ida Tarbell’s History of the Standard Oil Company pits the Standard Oil firm against the early oil pioneers, her heroes: “There was nothing too good for them, nothing they did not hope and dare. But suddenly … a big hand reached out from nobody knew where, to steal their conquest and throttle their future.”

But as Charles and Mary Beard pointed out in their brilliant Rise of American Civilization, the oil pioneers were pretty grasping, too — just not as daring or efficient as Rockefeller. “One of their own number, after battling for years in their behalf, spoke of them as a ‘cowardly, disorganized mob.'” So the Beards posed the counterfactual (see, you thought it was just Niall Ferguson): “Would the public, the politicians, and the consumers have been more fortunate in the hands of a grand consolidated producers’ union composed of Miss Tarbell’s heroes than under the imperial sway of the Standard Oil Trust?”
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