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The Roads Not Taken

Which do you think was the most consequential election in American history? I am focusing on recent history here; I know that there were crucial elections before that, although with the benefit of historical perspective, most of them seem to have come out the way that was most likely, in accordance with their respective eras. There are few of which we would say, “If only this candidate had beaten the other one in this very close election, things would have been so much different for America.” Even something like Truman’s stunning victory over Dewey in 1948 probably didn’t change things that much, and Eisenhower won two terms after that.

But there were three elections in the last twenty years which truly changed the fate of the country, and all of them for the worse. 2000, 2008, 2016. One of the reasons for that is that the Republican Party has become so extreme and totalitarian, that losing to them now, causes a cataclysm. It sets off a series of changes to our entire government, political system, the Supreme Court, and even people’s daily lives, though some of them may not realize it.

And as part of that, the Republicans simply have refused to lose; they now do everything legally and illegally possible to make sure they will win. And what is happening now, with voter suppression, extreme gerrymandering;; claiming that any election they lose is due to fraud; trying to violently overthrow the elected government, is really almost an inevitable part of this. It did not come out of nowhere, it is not even a quantum leap, though it might seem so to some of the media who wittingly or unwittingly participated in the earlier parts of it.

“Alternative History” is a fascinating fictional genre. It has also been a theme of historians, such as the esteemed Civil War scholar Mackinlay Kantor, who wrote a novel, “If the South Had Won the Civil War.” I never read it, but I think that he hypothesized that eventually the Union would have come back together.

And then in the realm of fiction, we have the great novel by Philip K. Dick, “The Man in the High Castle,” which imagines that Germany and Japan had won World War II, and that they co-ruled America, with Germany controlling the East Coast, and Japan the West Coast; with the Nazis plotting to destroy Japan and take over all of it.

There is “The Plot Against America,” by Philip Roth, which imagines that Charles Lindbergh, running on an isolationist platform, and charisma, defeated Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, and started to turn America toward Nazism and elimination of Jewish people. The echoes of that story which resonated in 2016 in our world, are too unsettling to ignore. Both are great works of fiction, dealing with an alternative history which was not that hard to imagine. In Dick’s book, there is the hint that his alternative history and the one we know, might both have been existing at the same time. The man in the high castle suggests that, and says, “Believe,” as if this might be the way to make the good history triumph.

Assuming, as we do, that the history we think that we are living in, is the actual one, we can look at 2000, 2008, and 2016 as immensely crucial. Which one was more so? That can be debated, if one has the stomach for it, since they all turned out badly, though of course some would argue that 2008 was just fine.

In 2000, we had Al Gore, who, as typical for Democratic candidates, was not “exciting,” or strongly liberal, but who was, as Bill Clinton, very intelligent, decent, and on the right side of almost all issues, including his major issue of fighting climate change. He had been Clinton’s Vice President; and Clinton had left office with about a 65% favorable rating, and with America having record prosperity and also peace abroad. A slam-dunk win scenario for Gore, one would have thought.

Against Gore, the Republicans ran George W. Bush, the son of George H.W. Bush, the former president. GWB didn’t even want to be in politics, but ultra-rich Republicans in Texas convinced him to run and win for governor and then president. Bush did not know much about government; one of his answers in a debate about policy was, “leaders lead.” Bush was in some sense the typical Republican candidate, an affable person whom people could be persuaded or tricked into voting for. My father once said to me that the Republicans could run a kitchen appliance for president, and have a chance, and that has turned out to be even truer than he imagined.

So the Republican political machine and the media went to work to somehow convince people that they preferred Bush to Gore. The media started with some nonsense about the Gore campaign raising campaign funds at a Japanese Temple, quelle horreur. Then of course they tried to make the election a referendum on “morality in government,” with reference to Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. They implied that somehow Bush would bring back good old-fashioned American morality. They were aided in this by the infamous Donna Brazile, who ran Gore’s campaign, and convinced him not to allow Clinton to campaign for him even in Arkansas and Tennessee, where he had won twice, and where Gore eventually lost.

There was really no cogent reason for anyone who was not a staunch Republican to vote for Bush. There was nothing going wrong in the country. So Republicans latched onto morality, and then that Gore seemed to have some difficulty in knowing what color of suits would look best on him. And then, in true Republican fashion, they seized on the first presidential debate, where Bush made a comment or two which Gore thought was absurd, and so audibly sighed. “Oh, my gosh, he is so rude!”, cried the media. “We don’t want that!” And this was the story for weeks.

Sighing when your opponent says something outlandish or wrong is not ideal manners, but it is hardly horrible behavior. Actually, I have thought that Reagan’s “There you go again,” which the media has fawned over as brilliant, was just about as rude; Reagan not even giving Carter’s statements any respect, but essentially saying, “Ignore them, he is just repeating more lies.” “There you go again” is not a coherent or respectful response, but somehow it was brilliant, said the media, while sighing was horrendous. But that’s the media for you.

So an election which should have been a relatively easy win, turned into a very close one. And ultimately, Gore won. But of course he didn’t. The key state was Florida, where another GHW Bush son, Jeb, was governor. Bush got his Secretary of State in Florida, Katherine Harris, to delay the automatic vote recount required when the first count was within a very small margin.

The delay was to give Republican operatives a chance to travel down to Florida, and pound on the doors, demanding that the recount be stopped, in what the media fondly referred to as the “Brooks Brothers Riot,” Then the delay led to the intended result, which was to give the United States Supreme Court the chance to step in, stay the decision of the Florida Supreme Court, which had mandated a full vote recount, and then write a pathetic, irrational, non-comprehendible decision which said that there was not enough time to count the votes, something about “safe harbor” in the Constitution, so Bush wins, and this decision has no precedential value (because it was nonsensical), and so is only limited to this one case.

That was the first of it; Republicans using any aspect of power they had, to fix the results the way they wanted them to be. There is not a person out there who would contend that Bush would have prevailed in a recount. All that about “hanging chads?” Those were ballots which the Republicans running the state were trying to disqualify, because they knew that if all the votes were counted, Gore would win. He was already gaining substantially in the recount, when it was summarily stopped. He ended up “losing” by less than a thousand votes; and would have won by twenty thousand or so, had the Republicans and their operatives not used their brute power to fix the result.

So that travesty got us two terms of Bush. Could Gore have avoided the attack on September 11? Very possibly, as Bush ignored the written memos warning of such an event. We ended up with Roberts and Alito on the the Supreme Court. Bush cut taxes on the wealthy, and did everything that Big Oil wanted, further destroying the environment. He tried to cut Social Security and Medicare, but was thwarted. Eventually the laissez-faire and social darwinism led to the housing bubble, and then the housing crash, which, if one can believe big business-oriented economists, almost destroyed the world economy.

With all of that, the worst effect is that it gave Republicans the feeling that they could win, if they were willing to trample every principle of fair elections, and if they used the Supreme Court as an ultimate weapon in their effort. They didn’t win the popular vote, they didn’t win the electoral vote, but they got their candidate into the White House.

Then we move to 2008. The momentous part of the election was not Obama beating McCain with the economy collapsing. It was Obama being handed the Democratic nomination over Hillary Clinton, who had won almost all the primaries, and gotten the most votes nationally. That was done by the Democratic National Committee, chaired by the now even more infamous Donna Brazile, and by other powerful Democrats, who simply wanted Obama to be the nominee.

Why did they? Freud said that human behavior is overdetermined. meaning that there are more psychological motives for someone do to something, than were needed for him or her to do it. I would focus on the fact that Obama was a projective, idealized conception of what many Democrats had fantasized about; a man of mixed ancestry who identified as Black; who was an excellent speaker, and seemed to believe the fantasy that he was “The One,” the embodiment of JFK, RFK, and MLK, sent to take the party to a magical place of fulfillment, with the inspiring slogan of “Hope and Change.”

Obama was actually a middling student, who was gifted a change in schools from Occidental to Columbia, then graduated Harvard Law School, where he became a Lecturer, not a Professor, for a while, then went into Chicago politics to work as a Community Organizer, then to the Illinois State Senate, where he voted “Present” a record number of times. That should have been the tipoff for anyone who looked into it; he was told not to vote Yes or No on all sorts of things, so he would have no voting record to attack. It also embodied Obama’s personality as a good-natured, easy to get along with person, who would not fight for any particular principle, nor would he be of any help to the Democratic Party, outside of himself.

For whatever reasons, Obama was urged into the race, and then anointed as the candidate, because of the optics, the legend, the heroic fantasy. Hillary Clinton had fought the battles against the Republicans for years, and had served as a very popular Senator from New York. She actually had a record, whereas Obama did not, and many voters preferred the tabula rasa projective candidate.

Their problem was that Hillary won the primaries. But the Obama campaign used the caucuses to pile up delegate wins which dwarfed some of Hillary’s delegate wins in big states where she won by 8-15%. They used a variety of tactics, including throwing out Hillary ballots, locking the doors to the room where the delegates voted. Beyond that, Brazile was amazingly able to get half the delegates in Florida, where Hillary routed Obama, thrown out, And then she invalidated the Michigan primary; Obama was told to take his name off the ballot, because he would get badly beaten there; and then later the DNC apportioned the delegates, giving Obama a large amount of delegates, almost equal to Hillary’s there, even taking away some of hers, and giving them to him.

They got away with it. They got the nomination for Obama, and he won the election, as Hillary surely would have, in the middle of that economic crisis. Obama won two terms, while the Democrats were being destroyed in the midterms, losing immense numbers of House and Senate seats, governorships, and state legislatures. Obama essentially governed as a George Romney-type Republican, striving for the “grand bargain” where Social Security and Medicare would be cut, in exchange for some rise in the upper tax rates.

Obama did not fight for Merrick Garland to be put on the Supreme Court. He did not tell the populace that his Intelligence agencies had given him unassailable evidence that Russia was interfering in the 2016 election on behalf of Trump. Mitch McConnell threatened that if he did, he would accuse Obama of interfering with the election in a partisan way. Obama had a 53% approval rating, and McConnell had 30% or so, but Obama would not risk any of his cachet, and so let the Russians interfere and work with Trump in many ways, including Wikileaks’ carefully edited and selected emails, which were not from Hillary; and Trump’s data manager sending polling data to Russia so it could be used in targeted fake news stories put on Facebook. All of that went on, and Obama did not say a word about it.

Had Hillary been nominated in 2008, she would have been President. She would certainly have been the target of immense hatred from the Right, but she was used to it and prepared for it. She was actually quite a popular senator, including among New York Republicans,; she had a 70% favorable rating overall. She would have fought for a better health plan than Obama’s watered-down ACA. She would have done much more to help the Democratic Party on the state and local level, as she was doing in 2016. The Democrats would never have been turned into a minority party in so many states.

How it would all have turned out under a Hillary presidency is of course unknowable. But given that Bill Clinton left the White House with the country booming economically, and with mostly peace abroad, it is very likely that her policies would have led to comparable results, even with Russia having turned from a nascent democracy to totalitarian oligopoly.

I would much rather have had her as President, and we would likely not have seen the Tea Party, nor would we have seen Donald Trump on the political scene. That may well be because Obama is Black, and thus the target of racist hate from some sections of the country. But that was the reality, which does not go away because of noble intentions to transcend it. And Hillary would never have said that White Pennsylvanians were mostly bitter people clinging to their guns and religion.

On the other hand, she did say that many Trump supporters fell into the basket of “deplorables.” She was never as naive and idealistic about the nature of Republicans as Obama, and then Biden, have been. She was the person who talked about “a vast right-wing conspiracy,” and she was of course right, and prescient, because she had spent a lifetime in politics, beside her husband, and had actually fought the battles.

And then we come to 2016, which we all know so much about. And much of the Democratic Left would not support Hillary, because Sanders tried to poison them against her. And she had served as Secretary of State, so the Republicans blamed her for every policy of Obama’s. Trump was another projective candidate with no record. Trump’s campaign and the Russians colluded to literally target specific voters in key states, with the benefit of algorithms from Cambridge Analytic. No one had ever done that before. Hillary won the popular vote by 2.8 million, and ostensibly lost the electoral vote by the 77,000 votes in the three key states.

We all know what the result of Trump getting into the White House has been. Not just the depredations, the grifting of billions of dollars, the abandoning of even a pretense of support for environmental policies or the working class. A horrifying pandemic which he lied about, said was a hoax, and then said it would disappear, while hundreds of thousands died. Massive unemployment, and consumer debt. Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett on the Supreme Court.

And of course the cults of Maga, and QAnon, where people have been brainwashed into believing that Hillary led a pedophile cannibal ring; that medical science is fake; that every time the Democrats win an election, it is due to fraud; that America needs a dictator. This damage is irremediable,. America let the equivalent of a madman-led zombie mob into the house, and now the remaining sane and decent people are trying to somehow get them out.

Which of these three elections was the most damaging to the dream of American democracy and good works? Of course, all of them together combined to get us to the place we are in, and one followed the other in somewhat retrospectively predictable fashion. But I would say that 2008 was really the most significant. Hillary was a stronger candidate in 2008 than in 2016, almost impregnable. Republicans would mostly have hated her, but not all, particularly after she helped create a single-payer health system.

She would have taken on the gun lobby, she is fearless. Trump would never have had the opportunity to launch a political career. Republicans would of course still be out there, but I doubt in the cult shape they inhabit today. I think that one of the Democratic Party’s greatest mistakes was in nominating Obama, not because he is not a very decent man who can give great speeches, but because he was not equipped by nature or political experience to fight the Republicans; and because for whatever reasons. he was far more invested in his personal and political popularity, than in the Democratic Party, on the national or state level.

The American poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote in the poem “Maud Muller” in 1854, “For of all sad words of tongue or pen/ The saddest are these: What might have been!” So we are left with “if onlys,” which do no satisfying good. If only they had counted all the votes in 2000. If only Hillary had been nominated and elected in 2008. I don’t know what would have happened in 2016, the players would have been different. Biden would not have been nominated, and very likely, neither would Trump have been.

Alternative histories require further imagination as one tries to think of them spooling out over time; most written ones do not go beyond the time in which the story takes place. “The road not taken,” as opposed to a path either deliberately chosen, or brutally thrust into, haunts us. And in the case of our politics, we can rather easily and vividly conceive what it could have been like, had the intelligent and rational and foresighted people been the ones who prevailed in trying to create the present and future.