Thoughts On Newt Gingrich's Facebook Series, "What If: History That Could’ve Been.”
As a lifelong liberal democrat, I share zero political views with Newt Gingrich.
But I have to be fair and credit him with offering a reasonable, non-partisan endorsement of alternate history.
Last year, Gingirch debuted his Facebook video series, “What If: History That Could’ve Been,” which features short video-clips on various topics suggested by Facebook users.
I’ll hold off on assessing the plausibility (and objectivity) of specific episodes, such as “What if Hillary Clinton had defeated President Trump in 2016?” (touted by Gingrich as the site’s most popular premise). Instead, I’d like to simply comment on Gingrich’s reasons for recommending the use of “what ifs.”
In a promotional text for the show, Gingrich begins by writing:
While it is creative and fun to describe alternative histories, it also serves a useful purpose. It moves us from simply memorizing facts to really thinking about them. It is a way to study history dynamically, rather than statically.
I’m not sure what studying history “statically” means, but anything that is done “dynamically” sounds appealing, so I guess we’re on solid ground so far.
Many people grow to dislike studying history because they are taught a dry, boring, fact memorization system that feels dead and sterile – and provides no meaning or context for our lives.
Static writing aside (“grow to dislike” – ugh), the idea that history is about memorizing facts is certainly a classic complaint. So how does counterfactual history address that problem?
Gingrich doesn’t really answer the question, but continues by noting:
Yet, when history is studied actively, it is dynamic, alive, and teaches a lot about our decisions, our own lives, and today’s challenges.
He then cites the possibility that Napoleon Bonaparte might have won the Battle of Waterloo and concludes that the process “of actively exploring alternative outcomes leads to a much deeper understanding of the moving parts in history. It leads to a better sense of what we should be thinking about when we make decisions. It teaches us to look for the linkage points between different patterns.
I don’t want to speculate on what Gingrich means exactly by “the moving parts of history,” but I think he is trying to say that exploring counterfactual outcomes helps us understand the forces of historical causality.
No objection there.
He goes on to discuss his upbringing as “an Army brat and living in then-war-torn places like Orléans, France and Stuttgart, Germany” and marveling at the histories of figures such as Joan of Arc and Charles de Gaulle. He makes the unobjectionable – and actually refreshing -- point (in an era where the commander-in-chief does not appear to know any history at all) that “My years in Europe where my father was serving in the Army convinced me that history has an impact on all of us.”
He goes on to add that “It also convinced me that strong, determined people can have a remarkable impact on history.” This point will strike some as inherently conservative, as it endorses Thomas Carlyle’s famous “great man” theory of history. But it need not necessarily be conservative. Simply watch any episode of the Amazon Prime alternate history series, The Man in the High Castle, to recognize the radical potential of individual resistance against tyranny).
Gingrich concludes with what is probably his clearest and most valid point: I believe in the power of asking “What If?” If you start exploring what could have been, you will find yourself much more deeply engaged in studying and learning from history. Your own imagination will be enriched and your ability to solve problems will be expanded.
Finally, it is hard to disagree with his claim (though not to wince at his stilted prose) that “understanding our history is critical to creating a strong, successful future.”
Where we part ways is in determining what “understanding our history” actually means in practice. If “understanding” is merely a fig leaf for a politicized, partisan interpretation of the past, then Gingrich ignores the time-honored (if imperfect) ideal of historical objectivity and undermines his own project.
Needless to say, politicized interpretations of the past are just as common in conventional historiography as they are in counterfactual history.
That said, it’s no surprise that Gingrich’s “What if” videos reflect his arch- conservative views. I fundamentally disagree with his apocalyptic conclusions about what would have happened if Hillary Clinton had defeated Donald Trump for the presidency (among other things, according to Gingrich, she moves the Supreme Court “decisively to the left,” encourages it to promote “social engineering,” and busily works to establish the “most corrupt” administration in American history).
This video leads me to conclude that I needn’t waste too much time watching the dozens of other clips on the site. While there may be some exceptions, I trust that most of them are cut from the same political cloth. (Hmmmm....I wonder where “What If [Barry] Goldwater Had Won” is heading?)
Among the few others I watched, however, I noted one other problem: some of the episodes’ underlying premises are implausible from the get-go. For example, in “What If America Wasn’t a Republic?” Gingrich explores the possibility of George Washington becoming an authoritarian leader of the United States in the “Cromwellian tradition.” This is what we could easily call a “straw man counterfactual,” one that doesn’t merit much contemplation because of its basic implausibility. It looks appealing at first glance, but then quickly is exposed as unrealistic. I suppose that when you crowd-source your questions, you’ll get some chaff with your wheat.
In light of these shortcomings, Gingrich’s series probably won’t appeal to anyone but hardcore alternate history fans. His conclusions will be rejected by most Democrats.
That said, I welcome his promotion of counterfactual history. While it will be hard for many people to overlook the identity of the messenger, the message – that counterfactual history is a worthy enterprise (when done well) – is worth hearing.