[The below writing is provisional, necessarily brief, and probably unclear; I did it with a 3-year old hanging on my back. — mg]
My graduate school adviser, David Mayhew, had an article over the weekend in the Washington Post — entitled Which Was The Most Important U.S. Election? — that I’d recommend reading. The basic premise is that all elections are billed as the “most important,” and while that obviously can’t be true, some elections are more important than others. Mayhew then goes on to nicely discuss a variety of criteria by which to judge past elections — the importance at the time, durable policy shifts that resulted, durable political cleavages that resulted, the independent effect of the campaign, and of course the most fascinating to think about, what if the other guy had won? Well worth reading.
It’s this last point, the counterfactual point, that I want to take up briefly. Because I think it’s the one that bedevils most of this sort of analysis. At one level, the counterfactuals are impossible to figure, because we don’t have any grip on the path-dependence; as Mayhew notes, if Polk loses to Clay in 1844, the Mexican War may never happen, meaning the southwest might not have become part of the U.S. in time to create the territorial slavery crisis of the 1850’s, which might have dramatically altered the trajectory of anti-slavery in the North and perhaps the entire structure of the demise (or not) of southern slavery. Who the hell knows? Same thing in 1968. If Humphrey had wound down the war by the end of 1970 and didn’t resign in the face of impeachment over criminal political activity, it’s not clear how the nation would be different today, but reasonable to think it would be. Consequently, we only have the vaguest notion of the alternative realities against which we compare the known outcomes.
But at a second level, I think the counterfactual issue raises an even more daunting problem: it confuses our sense of what is important as opposed to what is consequential. This is an artificial distinction, I suppose, but here’s what I mean: when I say something is important, I mean that it has an independent effect on what happens. When I say something is consequential, I am saying something less: that the alleged thing did not affect what ends up happening so much as it contributed to when or how it happens. Here’s an example: you don’t eat your lunch until 3pm because you were busy at work. Then, when dinner is on the table at 6:00pm, you aren’t hungry and don’t eat much. We can pretty clearly say that being busy at work was important in reference to your dinner performance. But take the opposite situation: you skip lunch, and so at 5:00pm you are quite hungry for dinner. We could say that skipping lunch was important in the outcome but actually it’s just consequential. Whether or not you skipped lunch, at some point, you were going to get hungry anyway. Note that this is not true in the other situation — you were not eventually going to be too full for dinner; eating lunch at 3pm is precisely important to that outcome.
This may all seem trivial, but I assure you it is not. Let’s switch to the elections I always use to illustrate this point: 1860 and 1800. Everyone seems to think that 1860 is the most important election in U.S. history; I have always contended that it was simply the most consequential: the outcome of the election — a GOP victory followed by the gulf states seceding followed by a standoff over federal property followed by an armed conflict followed by the upper south seceding followed by a war — was probably not specific to 1860-61. It was the equivalent of getting hungry for dinner. If Fremont had won in 1856, there’s every chance that the entire play would have been produced four years earlier, in the winter/spring of ’57. Similarly, even if the most optimistic Unionist scenario had occurred in the wake of the 1860 election — a Douglas or Bell victory that somehow managed to reduce the tension between the fire-eaters and the anti-slavery men — it’s almost impossible to envision a path forward that would have diffused the fundamental conflict over slavery. As with 1856, a GOP victory under, say, Seward in 1864 might very well have produced the same spiral into war.
And so those who claim 1860 as important should not, in my view, be attributing much of that importance to the Lincoln and/or GOP victory, per se. Consequential as hell, no doubt. It lit the fuse that led to Sumpter in April, 1861. But that fuse was ready and waiting to be lit, and any GOP capture of the Presidency after 1854 was highly likely to strike the match (See this post of mine for some discussion of why the Presidency was the key worry of the South). And so 1860 looks important where 1856 does not, but that’s just a matter of outcome and consequence, not of actual importance. In effect, 1860 was consequential because Lincoln won, whereas 1856 was not consequential because Fremont lost. But ex ante, both elections were of similar potential importance/consequence: a GOP victory was likely to lead to southern secession and possibly war. That it happened in one and not the other does not strike me as reason to assign one election as important and the other as not. (This is not to say 1860 was not important on the other Mahewian dimensions; it’s merely that the counterfactual aspect is not particularly compelling.)
This temporal effect — which preferences 1860 simply because that was the GOP victory — is even more insidious when there is a negative result. For after all, the war came, so we know that something was important in the late 1850’s and early 1860’s. But what happens when the war doesn’t come? This, in my mind, is what happened in 1800. In that election, the Jeffersonian forces defeated the incumbent Federalists, who had been steadily creating a more and more authoritarian and non-democratic central government (most well-known by the Sedition Act and the various Alien Acts passed in 1798). Two pieces of the election were notable: first, the Jeffersonians won, which led to the non-renewal of the Sedition Act; second, the Federalists did not challenge the legitimacy of the elections or otherwise refuse to give up power. I would argue that both of these were important, rather than consequential, events. There was nothing inevitable about the ending of the Sedition Act or the peaceful transfer of power to an opposition group. It wasn’t a question of when those things were going to happen, but if they actually were going to happen at all.
Thus, that the Jeffersonians won the 1800 was nothing like the GOP winning in 1860. But the key difference is that in 1800, the dog didn’t bark: the Federalists handed over power, the Sedition Act expired, and the United States went on to build a very solid limited national democracy over the following generation. But it could have very easily gone the other way: a Federalist victory or a refusal to give up power in 1801 could have either sunk the U.S. in its tracks as a nation, or wholly undermined the democratic character of the nation, perhaps setting us back a generation or more as a modern liberal state. And so we view 1860 and 1800 exactly backwards: the former is billed as a important election because it happened to usher in an almost inevitable set of events, while the latter is not particularly recognized as important because a set of vitally contingent events ended up not in disaster, but instead came out roses. In other words: the consequences of 1800 were happy, despite being the result of an incredibly important contingent election, while the consequences of 1860 were profound, despite being inevitable except as to date and time, which hinged on a similarly contingent election.
None of this, of course, denies that the 1860 was the most fascinating moment in American history. As I’ve written before, we may never see American politics in quite such disarray every again.