“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.
“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.”
“…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.