Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Monday, November 28, 2016

Donald Trump's Counterfactual Fantasy Tweets

Want to know one more thing that Donald Trump has in common with Vladimir Putin?  A fondness for counterfactual reasoning.

In a post on this site a few months ago, I noted how Russia's leader endorsed historical "what ifs," arguing that they could help bolster popular empathy for the Russian historical experience.

Now Trump has explicitly employed counterfactual reasoning in his latest controversial tweets about the recent election, arguing:

"In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally."  (In other words, if people had not voted illegally, he would have won the popular vote."

More explicitly counterfactual was his claim that:

"It would have been much easier for me to win the so-called popular vote than the Electoral College in that I would only campaign in 4 states instead of the 15 states that I visited.  I would have won even more easily and convincingly (but smaller states are forgotten!).

This echoes a counterfactual claim he made on November 15th, to wit:

"If the election were based on total popular vote, I would have campaigned in N. Y. Florida and California and won even bigger and more easily."

It doesn't take much interpretation to see that Trump's counterfactuals reflect a sense of insecurity about the legitimacy of his "landslide" win in the Electoral College.  Most counterfactual fantasies imagine the alternate past being better than the real past in order to compensate for some dissatisfaction with the present.

There is little doubt that the President-elect is seeking to spin his electoral performance in whatever positive way he can.  And since he cannot marshal any facts (there is no evidence of "illegals" having voted for Hillary Clinton to the tune of two million people), he has to resort to hypotheticals.

The brilliance of the ploy, of course, is that counterfactuals are unverifiable.  They are wholly rhetorical.  So chalk up another victory for the incoming rhetoritician-in-chief.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

"The Journal of the Philosophy of History" Explores Historical Counterfactuals

I am happy to help publicize the appearance of a special issue of The Journal of the Philosophy of History on historical counterfactuals.  The editor, Aviezer Tucker, was kind enough to invite me last year to contribute to the volume and I responded by writing an article entitled, “The Ways We Wonder What If?  Towards a Typology of Historical Counterfactuals.”

At the moment, the article is accessible only on The Journal of the Philosophy of History’s website.   Once I am legally permitted, I will provide a link to a PDF version of the article (but that will take a bit of time, I imagine).

Before saying a few things about the article, I should note that the issue contains a variety of fascinating essays, including:

·      Aviezer Tucker, “Historiographic Counterfactuals and the Philosophy of Historiography.”
·      Alexander Marr, “Applying D. K. Lewis’s Counterfactual Theory of Causation to the Philosophy of Historiography.”
·      Yemima Ben-Menahem, “If Counterfactuals Were Excluded from Historical Reasoning….”
·      Daniel Woolf, “Concerning Altered Pasts: Reflections of an Early Modern Historian.”
·      Cass Sunstein, “Historical Explanations Always Involve Counterfactual History.”
·      Daniel Nolan, “The Possibilities of History.”
·      Richard Evans, “Response.”

As for my article: as I point out in the introduction, the article draws much of its material from work I’ve done over the last three years for The Counterfactual History Review.  And as the abstract makes clear, the article “seeks to refine our understanding of historical counterfactuals by classifying them into a new typology.  After providing a systematic definition of counterfactuals, I divide them up into five different categories: causal, emotive, temporal, spatial, and manneristic. Within each of these categories, I identify eighteen different types of counterfactuals, which I classify with descriptive names and illustrate with specific examples from recent works of historiography.  The different types of counterfactuals vary in numerous ways, but they are all linked by their rhetorical elements.   These elements, in turn, help explain the present-day popularity of wondering how history might have been different.”

For those of you who are interested, the eighteen types of counterfactuals that comprise the larger typology are as follows:


1. The Cleopatra’s Nose Counterfactual
2. The Deterministic Counterfactual
3. The Reversionary Counterfactual


1. The Missed Oppportunity Counterfactual
2. The Close Call Counterfactual
3. The Silver Lining Counterfactual


1. The Rewind Counterfactual
2. The Fast Forward Counterfactual
3. The Clockstopper Counterfactual
4. The Rip Van Winkle Counterfactual
5. The Connecticut Yankee Counterfactual
6. The Transmigrating Soul Counterfactual


1. The Trading Places Counterfactual
2. The Transplant Counterfactual
3. The Geographical Counterfactual


1. The Polemical Analogy Counterfactual
2. The Nesting Doll Counterfactual
3. The Hybrid Counterfactual

Readers of this blog will recognize many of these types, which I’ve coined over the last several years in different postings.  They are still a work in progress insofar as I continue to tinker with them conceptually and typologically.  But one of these days, they will be included in an early chapter of my larger book on the history of counterfactualism. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

What If Mike Pence Had Attended 'Fiddler on the Roof' Instead of "Hamilton"? A "Transplant Counterfactual"

I’d like to give a shout out to my colleague, Adam Langer, the culture editor at the Forward, for his insightful article in the current issue of the paper, “What If Mike Pence Got Booed at ‘Fiddler on the Roof?’”

It is a great example of a “transplant counterfactual,” a thought experiment in which a historical figure is transplanted from a real historical situation to an alternate one in order to show how what might have happened in history sheds light on what actually happened.

Langer writes:

“Picture this: It’s a lovely evening at the Broadway Theater and “Fiddler on the Roof” is nearing its finale. Soon, the little village of Anatevka — beset by pogroms and the disruption of tradition — will be little more than a memory. Some will try to adhere to the old ways, others will try their luck with America and assimilation.”

“The lights go down, then come back up. Applause clatters through the theater, then Danny Burstein, the actor playing Tevye, steps forward and tells the audience that Vice President-elect Mike Pence is in the house. Burstein silences the boos, then reads from a prepared statement:”

“‘We, sir, we are the diverse America, who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir,” Burstein says. “But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.’”

“What would the reaction have been?”

“Would the president-elect have immediately taken to Twitter to call “Fiddler” overrated and to demand an apology from the actors playing Anatevka villagers?”

“Would “Sopranos” actor and E-Street band member Steve Van Zandt have gone on Twitter to censure the “Hamilton” cast for violating the sanctity of the relationship between audience and art and demand they apologize to Pence?”

“Would NeverTrumper Bill Kristol have mocked the “Hamilton” cast’s “lefty self-righteousness and self-importance?”

“Would a #BoycottFiddler movement have erputed on social media?”
Langer goes on to answer all the questions in the negative.  He explains that while Fiddler is “a full-body embrace of assimilation and the American Dream,” Hamilton has “the effrontery to present unapologetically a vision of a wholly diverse America.”

He goes on to speculate:

Still, it’s interesting to think what might have happened if the same scene had played out at “Fiddler?” What if the president-elect had berated the cast and audience of the show for perceived harassment? What if there really was a #BoycottFiddler movement? What if Breitbart News declared the “Fiddler” cast to be “whiny Jews?”

“A new sense of fear would right now be coursing specifically through the Jewish community, the same way it is coursing through African-American, immigrant and LGBTQ communities; it would be the same fear that is both chilling and galvanizing artistic communities throughout the country as we see grim portents arising from a president-elect who demands safe spaces for himself and his followers and none for anyone else.”

“Maybe an uproar over “Fiddler” never would have happened, but maybe we should act as if it had.”

The reason?

At a time when so much contemporary culture is being politicized (and when we have no idea how the incoming administration will use its powers to try and silence dissenting views), it is time, Langer concludes: “to treat an attack against one work of art as an attack of all works of art.”

For American Jews, Langer’s counterfactual is a timely one.  It provides clear evidence of the need for Jews to show solidarity with likeminded groups in the world of the arts.  Even if the criticism of Hamilton does not immediately or directly affect Jewish interests, it is in the interest of Jews to see it as doing so.

For the counterfactual past can become the real future.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Another "Missed Opportunity" Counterfactual: Could Bernie Have Beaten Trump?

Another predictable counterfactual is now making the rounds: "What if Bernie Sanders had been the nominee instead of Hillary Clinton"  This is the question now being asked by Frederick deBoer's article,  "Hillary Clinton Lost: Bernie Sanders Could Have Won," in The Washington Post.
DeBoer simply asks: "In her place, could he have beaten Trump?"

This "missed opportunity counterfactual" has some plausibility to it.  Sanders' popularity was high, with higher (10 percentage points) favorability and lower (15 points) unfavorability ratings.  At least in Michigan, Sanders probably would have beaten Trump.  His support among working class whites was considerable. (After all, he defeated Hillary Clinton there in the primaries).  Moreover, the Post declares, "We can only guess how much better he would have performed...in Ohio and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin."  Since turnout mattered in this election (Clinton got six million fewer votes than Obama did in 2012), these points are valid.

Yet, this begs all kinds of other questions: one is whether a Sanders candidacy would have led to an even lower African American turnout; this is certainly a possible outcome, given the longstanding support for the Clintons among black voters.  (Perhaps, though, that lower turnout would have been offset by a higher millennial turnout, which is certainly conceivable).

More to the point, a Sanders candidacy would have led to a different GOP strategy of character assassination -- one that dredged up Sanders' leftist past in all of its eccentric glory.  Had he won the nominee over a more centrist Clinton, he may still have lost and we'd be arguing over the Democratic party's decision to go with a far left candidate when a centrist would have been the "safe" bet.

Finally, the Democratic Party's nominating process (with all the super delegates pledging early for Hillary and taking the wind out of Bernie's sails) made it quite difficult for anyone but Clinton to get the nomination.  Her nomination (read: coronation) may have been inevitable.

Whether this will have consequences for the Democratic Party's 2020 nominating process is unclear.

Until Trump's victory, many GOP insiders were probably vowing to follow the Dems and put the party elites back in control of the nominating process -- what with a Trump candidacy appearing doomed until the actual election was held.  Now, Democrats may be tempted to take a play out of the GOP playbook and bring the people back into the decision making process.

Popularity does count, after all; if you can't get your own people out to vote enthusiastically, you'll be doing a lot of counterfactual Monday morning quarterbacking in the future.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Trump Victory Counterfactual

(Sigh) I feared I’d be posting some counterfactuals regarding the results of the 2016 presidential election.  And, as if on cue, Nate Silver has just obliged by providing a fascinating claim:

He writes in this new post:

"So here’s another question. What would have happened if just 1 out of every 100 voters shifted from Trump to Clinton? That would have produced a net shift of 2 percentage points in Clinton’s direction. And instead of the map you see above, we’d have wound up with this result in the Electoral College instead:

"Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida flip back to Clinton, giving her a total of 307 electoral votes. And she’d have won the popular vote by 3 to 4 percentage points, right where the final national polls had the race and in line with Obama’s margin of victory in 2012. If this had happened, the interpretation of the outcome would have been very different — something like this, I’d imagine:

- Republicans simply can’t appeal to enough voters to have a credible chance at the Electoral College. While states like Ohio and Iowa might be slipping away from Democrats, they’ll be more than made up for by the shift of Arizona, North Carolina and Florida into the blue column as demographic changes take hold. Democrats are the coalition of the ascendant

- The United States was more than ready for the first woman president. And they elected her immediately after the first African-American president. With further victories for liberals over the past several years on issues ranging from gay rights to the minimum wage, the arc of progress is unmistakable.

- American political institutions are fairly robust. When a candidate like Trump undermines political norms and violates standards of decency, he’s punished by the voters.

"In light of Trump’s narrow victory, these arguments sound extremely unconvincing. But they’re exactly what we would have been hearing if just 1 out of 100 voters had switched from Trump to Clinton. So consider that there might be at least partial truth in some of these points."

"Likewise, if Clinton had just that small, additional fraction of the vote, people would be smugly dismissing the arguments in the first set of bullet points — even though they, too, would have been just 2 percentage points away from seeming incredibly prescient."

(Earlier in the article Silver presented the following four bullet points:

- The Democrats’ supposed “blue wall” — always a dubious proposition — has crumbled. Indeed, with Hillary Clinton’s defeat, Democrats may have to rebuild their party from the ground up.

- But the Republican Party is also forever changed. The GOP has learned that there’s a bigger market for populism, and a far smaller one for movement conservatism, than many of us imagined. The Party of Reagan has been supplanted by the Party of Trump.

- The divide between cultural “elites” in urban coastal cities and the rest of the country is greater than ever. Clinton improved on President Obama’s performance in portions of the country, such as California, Atlanta and the island of Manhattan. But whereas Obama won Iowa by 10 percentage points in 2008, Clinton lost it by 10 points.

- America hasn’t put its demons — including racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny — behind it. White people still make up the vast majority of the electorate, particularly when considering their share of the Electoral College, and their votes usually determine the winner).

“Interpretation of the polling would also have been very different. If Clinton had done just 2 points better, pollsters would have called the popular-vote margin almost on the nose and correctly identified the winner in all states but North Carolina.”

Silver’s counterfactual underscore how precarious the conclusions are that we draw from contingent events.  While they may seem perfectly obvious in retrospect – indeed, while they often seem predetermined or foreordained – they are anything but. 

Perhaps this can provide some motivation for all of us to realize how important our participation is in the political process.