Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Sunday, February 21, 2016

From the Archives: Harry S Truman's Counterfactual Critique of Polls

Because it's election season and we're all beholden to polls, we should recall Harry S. Truman's great counterfactual put-down of polls (which I came across today):

"I wonder how far Moses would have gone if he'd taken a poll in Egypt? What would Jesus Christ have preached if he'd taken a poll in Israel? Where would the Reformation have gone if Martin Luther had taken a poll? It isn't polls or public opinion of the moment that counts. It is right and wrong and leadership--men with fortitude, honesty and a belief in the right that makes epochs in the history of the world."

(From Truman's diary, 1954, Post-Presidential Papers).


I suppose we can classify this "what if?" scenario as an example of a "transplant counterfactual."  It's not the classic version of the scenario, in which a historical figure is re-situated in a different historical era.  But it does imagine present-day technology (and populist expectations) being transplanted into the past as a method of showing how the ability of world historical figures to lead their followers forward would have been limited.

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