Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Best Counterfactual Claim of the Day: Paul Waldman on How Comey and Lynch Made Trump President

“Saying that things would have been different if one particular event hadn’t happened isn’t saying that nothing else mattered.” 

This sentence qualifies as the best counterfactual insight of the day.

It comes from Paul Waldman in a new article in The Washington Post, entitled “How James Comey and Loretta Lynch Made Donald Trump President of the United States.”

The article examines the role of both political actors in the 2016 election and comes to the conclusion that their behavior confirms the importance of individual agency in historical events.

Waldman writes:

“Political events with sweeping consequences are determined by individual human beings and the decisions they make. That may not sound surprising, but it’s a profound truth that we often forget when we look for explanations in broad conditions and trends (which are still important) or theories about dark and complicated conspiracies that don’t exist.”

He explains:

“…Both Comey and Lynch were consumed with fear that they’d be criticized by the Republican outrage machine. Comey worried that if he didn’t immediately go public with the fact that the FBI was looking at these emails, then Republicans would say he was covering up an investigation in order to help Clinton. And Lynch worried that if she ordered Comey to adhere to department policy and not go public, then Republicans would say she was covering up an investigation in order to help Clinton.”

“So both of them failed to do their jobs, Comey with an act of commission and Lynch with an act of omission. You can sympathize with the pressure they were under and say that hindsight is always 20/20, but the fact is that they failed, and it was because they didn’t have the courage to do the right thing.”

The adverse impact of their actions on Hillary Clinton’s campaign is well known.

So how important was the causal role of Comey and Lynch in the election’s overall result. 

Significantly, Waldman anticipates potential criticism of his argument by insisting:

“We shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that blame or responsibility is zero-sum. People have been saying things like, “Russia/Comey didn’t force Hillary Clinton not to spend more money in Wisconsin!” which is true but irrelevant. Clinton certainly made mistakes during the campaign, as every candidate does. But in a race that was decided by 77,000 votes spread across Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, there are many factors that can be said to have swung the election. Saying that things would have been different if one particular event hadn’t happened isn’t saying that nothing else mattered.”

Waldman’s words of wisdom are not only relevant for the ongoing debate about why Clinton lost to Trump.  They also provide a response to critics who claim that counterfactual reasoning is overly monocausal and reductionistic  (ie. “Cleopatra’s Nose” counterfactuals).  Waldman’s observation allows us stress the role of contingency and still avoid the stigma of employing simplistic reasoning. 

It’s nice to have your counterfactual cake and also be able to eat it.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A Geographical Counterfactual: Did Michigan's and Florida’s Borders Help Trump Defeat Clinton?

Yesterday’s New York Times ran an interesting article by Nate Cohn that nicely shows how counterfactual sheds light on the forces of historical causation.  The article seeks to determine which factors were crucial for explaining the gap between Hillary Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s diverging performances in the Electoral College and popular vote in the 2016 presidential election. 

After discussing several factors, Cohn ends up advancing a simple answer for Trump’s victory: “The Electoral College’s (largely) winner-take-all design gives a lot of weight to battleground states. Mr. Trump had an advantage in the traditional battlegrounds because most are whiter and less educated than the country as a whole.”

Notably, Cohn partly arrives at this conclusion through counterfactual reasoning, asserting that the role of battleground states was partly about the rule of chance – or what he calls “the quirks of history.”

In order to support this point, Cohn first dispenses with the claim that Trump's victory was the result of “small state bias.”

“The Electoral College isn’t just a check against regionalism. It also reflects our federal system by awarding an electoral vote for every senator and representative. The result is that small states get more sway, since senators aren’t awarded by population.”

“Wyoming, the least populous state, has one-sixty-sixth of California’s population. Yet it has one-eighteenth of California’s electoral votes.”

“In general, the Electoral College’s small-state bias does hurt the Democrats. In fact, the small-state bias tipped the 2000 election. Al Gore would have won the presidency, 225 to 211, if electors were just awarded by representative, not by senators and representatives.”

“But the small-state bias was almost entirely irrelevant to Mr. Trump’s advantage. Mrs. Clinton won plenty of small states — she won seven of the 12 smallest. Mr. Trump, meanwhile, won plenty of big states — in fact, he won seven of the 10 largest.”

“As a consequence, the result would have been virtually identical if states had not received electoral votes for their senators. It would have even been the same if the electors had been apportioned exactly by a state’s population.”

Cohn then proceeds to the heart of his argument; Trump’s victory can be attributed to “the Electoral College’s most straightforward bias: The battleground states count the most.”

“Mrs. Clinton did well in noncompetitive states and “wasted” popular votes that didn’t earn her any more electoral votes, while Mr. Trump did just well enough in competitive states to pick up their electoral votes….”

“Mr. Trump won a lopsided electoral vote tally from those states by narrowly winning four of the five states decided by around one point or less: Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania (Mrs. Clinton edged him out in New Hampshire). Outside of those five states, the electoral vote was basically tied, with Mr. Trump edging out Mrs. Clinton, 231 to 228 (and leading by the margin of small-state bias)….”

“….The “solid red” and “solid blue” states where Mr. Trump failed to make gains include a clear majority of the country’s Electoral College votes, population and actual votes. The regional anomaly was the Midwest, and it just so happens that in a winner-take-all system Mr. Trump’s strength in the Midwestern battleground states yielded a lot of Electoral College votes….

“But the demographics alone don’t quite do justice to Mr. Trump’s victory in the Electoral College. In the end, he won the battleground states by just a one-point margin — but claimed three-fourths of their Electoral College votes.
He won four of the five closest states, winning 75 of 79 votes at stake….”

Then Cohn comes to the most counterfactual part of his essay when he stresses the issue of contingency.

Asserting that “Mr. Trump had some very good luck,” Cohn proceeds to show that Trump’s defeat of Clinton in the battleground states was hardly preordained and adds that

“There’s nothing about the distribution of Mrs. Clinton’s votes in the battlegrounds or nationally that meant she was destined to get as few electoral votes as she did.

Just take Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan — three contiguous states spanning the Upper Great Lakes. Mrs. Clinton actually won the region by a narrow margin, but she won just 10 of the 36 votes at stake….”

“Ultimately, state lines are pretty arbitrary. Yes, when those lines were determined, there were reasoned considerations like population and access to rivers and resources. But statehood and state lines, often poorly surveyed in the first place, were hotly disputed in the 19th century. Many states were created in response to political considerations, especially the balance between free and slave states. In other times, it could have gone very differently.”

“Consider two of the bigger nonpolitical state boundary questions of the 19th century: the fate of the Florida Panhandle and the “Toledo War.”

“The Toledo War was a long dispute between Michigan and Ohio over a tiny strip of land along their border, which happens to include the city of Toledo. Ohio had the upper hand for one reason: It earned its statehood first, and therefore blocked Michigan’s petition — which included the strip. In the end, Congress proposed a deal: Michigan would relinquish its claim on the Toledo strip and, in exchange, would get the Upper Peninsula.”

“The Florida Panhandle and the Florida Peninsula were governed as separate regions — West and East Florida — under Spanish and British rule. They were effectively separated by hundreds of miles of treacherous swamp and forest”

“Ultimately, West and East Florida were combined into one state. This was mainly coincidental: Alabama earned statehood before the Florida territory was annexed. West Florida repeatedly tried to join Alabama, starting as soon as the state was annexed and lasting all the way past the Civil War. Many of these efforts — which included referendums, congressional petitions and direct negotiations between Florida and Alabama — nearly succeeded. But they ultimately did not.”

“If these minor border issues had gone differently, Mrs. Clinton would probably be president. The Florida Panhandle is heavily Republican: Without it, the rest of Florida votes Democratic. Both halves of the Toledo War worked out poorly for Mrs. Clinton. Not only would she have won Michigan with Toledo, but she would have also won Michigan without the Upper Peninsula: Only the full trade gives Mr. Trump a narrow win.”

“Interestingly, the same changes would have flipped the 2000 election, and perhaps the 1876 election, to the same result as the national popular vote (though I don’t have county-level results for Florida in that election). The pronounced regionalism at play in 1888 would have made it harder to change the outcome by tweaking state lines.”

“To be clear, you can also make plenty of changes that would benefit Republicans. You could reunify West Virginia and Virginia, to take an easy one.
The point is that the main bias of the Electoral College isn’t against big states or regionalism; it’s just toward the big battleground states. If they break overwhelmingly one way, that’s who wins. This is not exactly a high-minded Hamiltonian argument. There aren’t many justifications for letting a few close states decide a close national election. But that’s basically what the system does, and there’s nothing about those states that ensures they provide a representative outcome.”

These observations veer into the category of “Cleopatra’s Nose” counterfactuals, insofar as they imply that ostensibly minor factors can lead to major outcomes.  They are also excellent examples of a “geographical” counterfactual that emphasizes the causal power of physical space.  (I posted a comment a while back on the excellent book and TV series, How the States Got Their Shapes).  To be sure, Cohn would certainly deny claiming that Clinton’s defeat was the “fault” of where state borders were set in the 19th century.  However his “what ifs” are useful for helping to determine the relative weight of the many factors that explain the 2016 election’s outcome.   Counterfactuals, he shows, are critical for understanding causation. 

Sunday, December 18, 2016

A Looming Fourth Reich? On Counterfactuals, The Man in the High Castle, and Right-Wing Populism

Here are some more reflections – this time in Vice -- on the relationship between the current cultural wave of counterfactualism and the rise of right-wing populism.

Here’s the introductory teaser:

“The Amazon Prime show The Man in the High Castle [moves] onto a second season of exploring that ever-present – and increasingly pertinent – question of what may have happened if Hitler had won the war. We asked counterfactual 20th century historian Professor Gavriel Rosenfeld, about whether he thinks Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and Marine le Pen really are ushering in some kind of Fourth Reich, or if we are all just overreacting a bit.”

The link to the interview can be found HERE.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Initial Thoughts on The Man in the High Castle in Newsweek

I'm posting a link to some of my thoughts on season 2 of The Man in the High Castle that just appeared in Newsweek.  Click HERE for the original piece.

I hope to post some more extensive comments after I binge watch the series this weekend. Grading final exams may pose a problem, but hopefully I'll persevere.

Happy watching everyone.....

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

"If Trump Had Lost the Electoral College, How Would the GOP Have Responded? Lithwick and Cohen Admonish Democrats to Wonder "What If?"

Dalia Lithwick and David Cohen offer a classic “trading places counterfactual” in an op-ed in today’s New York Times.

Criticizing the Democratic Party’s passivity in the face of irregularities in the recent election, the authors attempt to rally the democratic base to show a backbone by counterfactually contrasting their limp response to the likely response of Republicans had the roles been reversed.

They write:

“Contrast the Democrats’ do-nothingness to what we know the Republicans would have done. If Mr. Trump had lost the Electoral College while winning the popular vote, an army of Republican lawyers would have descended on the courts and local election officials. The best of the Republican establishment would have been filing lawsuits and infusing every public statement with a clear pronouncement that Donald Trump was the real winner. And they would have started on the morning of Nov. 9, using the rhetoric of patriotism and courage.”

“How can we be so certain? This is what happened in 2000. When Florida was still undecided after election night, the Republicans didn’t leave their fate in the hands of individuals or third-party candidates. No, they recruited former Secretary of State James A. Baker III to direct efforts on behalf of George W. Bush. They framed their project as protecting Mr. Bush’s victory rather than counting votes. They were clear, consistent and forceful, with the biggest names in Republican politics working the process.”

By contrast, the authors continue,

“….the Democrats are doing nothing of the sort. Instead, they are leaving the fight to academics and local organizers who seem more horrified by a Trump presidency than Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. The Republicans in 2000 threw everything they could muster against the wall to see if it stuck, with no concern about potential blowback; the Democrats in 2016 are apparently too worried about being called sore losers. Instead of weathering the criticism that comes with fighting an uphill, yet historically important battle, the party is still trying to magic up a plan.”

“As Monday’s Electoral College vote approaches, Democrats should be fighting tooth and nail. Instead, we are once again left with incontrovertible proof that win or lose, Republicans behave as if they won while Democrats behave as if they lost. What this portends for the next four years is truly terrifying.”

Lithwick’s and Cohen’s conclusion shows how imagining alternative pasts can provide timely guidance for the future.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Was Jane Jacobs Responsible for Donald Trump’s Victory? Another “Cleopatra’s Nose” Counterfactual

I’ve always been a big fan of Jane Jacobs’ crusading work as a historic preservationist.  So I was surprised to see various observers indirectly blaming her for Donald Trump’s victory in the Electoral College.

As the economist Matthew Kahn argued in a recent post:

“I have a new explanation for Trump's win that does not involve Weiner or talking about Deplorables or emails.   California's zoning codes caused the win. If California had Texas style housing regulations, then 80 million people would live in California and the state would have 100 electoral votes.  The state would still vote Democrat (because of the composition of these new voters) and Clinton would have won….

“Ironically, as I show in this 2011 paper,  California's progressive cities have blocked housing supply and thus rationed out the middle class from moving here.   Such individuals have to live somewhere and the net result was more electoral votes in the Midwest.”

“Note that the same point can be made for Oregon and Washington state. These progressive states could pack in millions of more people and thus have more  electoral votes but they have chosen to be "inelastic.”

So what is the relevance of Jane Jacobs?

In a subsequent post, Noel Maurer spun Kahn's article by adding the headline: "Did Jane Jacobs Swing the Election for Trump?"

Maurer's point is as follows: while Jacobs’s pioneering efforts to oppose modernist urban renewal schemes ended up preserving countless 19th century buildings (many of then apartments) from the wrecking ball in the 1960s and 1970s, she simultaneously prevented cities from becoming more densely settled. Low slung 19th century buildings, after all, can accommodate far fewer people per block than fifty story high-rises.  Had Jacobs not succeeded in preserving America’s historic housing stock, therefore, states like California (and beyond) would be more densely settled and have more electoral votes that would benefit Democrats.

To be sure, Maurer challenges Kahn's claim that California could possibly boast 80 million people.  He acknowledges, however, that “47 million Californians” would be imaginable.

As he writes:

“Zoning restrictions certainly prevented the population of the Westside from doubling or tripling, [but] it is less certain that it kept the population of the entire Southland from growing. Fewer people in Santa Monica, more in Riverside County."

He then turns to the figure of 47 million figure and observes:

“Growth restrictions became significant around 1970 and began to bite by 1980. Well, if California had grown at the same rate as Texas since 1970, it would have 48 million people today, not too far off the Delong counterfactual. (If it had grown at the same rate since 1980, California would have 45 million people)."

“Now, to really figure out if this swung the electoral college you would have to guess at where the extra nine million people came from. Some might be from states that received Californian outmigration; others might be immigrants who would go to California rather than elsewhere. But we will ignore that for now.”

“Well, 37 million people got California 55 electoral votes in 2010; 45 million (remember, the 2010 population would be below 2016) would have gotten it 65-66 electoral votes.”

“No, not really enough to swing the election.”

“But if you assume that New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts would also be much bigger, then you start getting somewhere….”

So how to evaluate this argument?  Should we be cursing Jane Jacobs’s name?

To be sure, blaming Jane Jacobs for Donald Trump’s election rhetorically makes a great headline and ensures that the claim gets attention.  Like Blaise Pascal’s famous remark about Cleopatra’s Nose changing the course of ancient Roman history, it appeals to our fascination with how minor causes can have major effects.     

But it obviously errs in positing a monocausal explanation for an overdetermined event.  There were plenty of other reasons why Trump won, the subtraction of which might just as easily have changed the outcome.   California’s population (or lack thereof) cannot be seen as a variable that, in and of itself, was sufficient determine to the election’s outcome.

At the same time, the fact that this past election hinged on a mere 80,000 votes in three states explains the desire to isolate the key factor (or factors) that might have made things different.

The focus on California’s population, moreover, does cast attention on the very real problem of how the clustering of democratic voters in urban areas (especially on the coasts) has weakened the Democratic Party’s strength in the interior of the country and hurt its fortunes in the Electoral College.
In the final analysis, however, the main reason for rejecting the Jacobs-Trump linkage is the absolute incompatibility of the two New Yorkers’ architectural views.  The construction of Trump Tower from 1980-83 caused controversy because it required the demolition of the iconic art deco Bonwit Teller department store located on the site.  (In a gesture of impatient philistinism, Trump infamously refused to save some of the building’s famed deco sculptures despite being enjoined to).  The fact that the real estate developer triumphed over the historic preservationist makes it all the more galling to attribute the success of the former in any way to the latter.

Monday, December 5, 2016

What Ifs of Jewish History: A Great Hanukkah/Christmas Gift!

So I won't attempt to answer the question, "What if the rebellion of the Maccabees had failed to defeat the Seleucid regime of King Antiochus IV in Judea in the years 167-160 BCE?" But with Hanukkah and Christmas around the corner, isn't it worth asking yourself whether any of your friends or family members would appreciate the gift of an intriguing book for the holidays?

I am a pure amateur at marketing, advertising, and generally monetizing anything having to do with counterfactual history.  But given the fact that What Ifs of Jewish History has just appeared in time to make a wonderful Hanukkah/Christmas stocking/kippah stuffer (sorry for the mixed metaphors), I thought it wouldn't hurt to see what happens when I mention the book on The Counterfactual History Review in conjunction with other commonly-Googled phrases, such as "Hanukkah gift," "Hanukkah presents," "great books for Hanukkah," "great Christmas books, "great Christmas presents," and so forth.

I don't know whether or not the algorithm gremlins at Google will list What Ifs of Jewish History among the hits that web users will get when searching for great holiday gifts.  But I figure it's worth a try.

Come to think of it, the Maccabee question would be a great ancient history question to include in volume II of What Ifs of Jewish History (should there be enough interest in volume I, that is).

For my part, I just ordered a few holiday gifts for myself:  James Gleick's Time Travel: A History and Philip K. Dick's Eye in the Sky (which I've never read).

Happy holiday shopping to all, and to all a good read....

Thursday, December 1, 2016

More Hitler Counterfactuals -- This Time With a Trumpian Subtext

In the context of Donald Trump’s recent presidential victory in the electoral college, counterfactual claims have been proliferating in the mass media.  (See some of my posts from last month).

In a new story in The Guardian, in which historians were asked about the parallels between Trump’s election and the rise to power of Adolf Hitler, Volker Ullrich (who recently published a book on the German dictator) offered a variety of “missed opportunity counterfactuals” that express the familiar fantasy of somehow averting his political ascent.

The article makes clear at the outset that “Hitler’s rise was neither an accident nor inevitable, and could have been prevented very early on.”

It proceeds to quote Ullrich noting:

“There were many situations where he could have been stopped. For example in 1923 after the failed Munich putsch – if he’d served his full prison sentence of several years, he wouldn’t have made a political comeback. Instead, he only spent a few months behind bars, [having been released after political pressure] and could rebuild his movement.”

The western powers made the same mistake with their appeasement politics, indecision and indulgence. “In the 1930s Hitler strengthened, rather than weakened, his aggressive intentions,” Ullrich says. “So you could learn from this that you have to react faster and much more vigorously than was the case at the time.”

"Ullrich also contends that if Hindenburg, the president of the Reich, had allowed Chancellor BrĂ¼ning, of the Centre party, to remain chancellor to the end of 1934, rather than responding to pressure from conservatives to dismiss him in 1932, “then the peak of the economic crisis would have passed and it would have been very questionable whether Hitler could still have come to power.”

"At the same time, Hitler’s ascent was no mere fluke. “There were powerful forces in the big industries, but also in the landowning class and the armed forces, which approved of a fascist solution to the crisis.”

While many of these questions cannot be answered with any certainty, what is certain is that Donald Trump ended up beating Hillary Clinton by a total of 80,000 votes in three key states. 

As his administration unfolds in the years to come, we can only hope that this tiny number does not end up being retrospectively viewed as a major point of divergence in American history.