counterfactuals and historical logic

One of my favorite articles to teach in graduate theory is Richard Ned Lebow’s “If Mozart Had Died at Your Age,” (paywall, sorry) which very cleverly lays out a counterfactual theory in which Mozart not dying at 36 changes the aesthetic, thereby the philosophical, thereby the political, history of Germany and therefore the world.

Now we have another example, somewhat (though not a lot!) more pedestrian, in the question of what the world might have been like had the Supreme Court not taken Bush v. Gore. Sandra Day O’Connor has commented that perhaps the court shouldn’t have taken the case, and Mediaite dares to ask: how might history have differed? Check it out – parsimony or contingency? You decide.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

3 thoughts on “counterfactuals and historical logic”

  1. In one sense, the correct answer is “nothing would be different because GWB still would have been president.” Actually though, in this counterfactual the transition would have been delayed and it’s interesting to imagine all sorts of ways that would have played out. Possibly you would have still had Clinton appointees or large-scale vacancies in confirmable positions as late as 9/11. Definitely you’d have people still getting settled in their new positions.

    That said, we can recast the spirit of the question as would history have been materially different if Florida election commissioners had pre-tested their ballot designs to make sure they were legible and/or Florida law didn’t allow so many crank candidates on the ballot as to make them hard to legibly design. Seems like the answer to this version of the question would be in some ways definitely not (Medicare part D probably would’ve happened under Gore as well) and in other ways probably not (Gore would’ve invaded Afghanistan and probably would have committed to a nation-building strategy earlier there, but stuck to Clinton-era gunboat diplomacy on Iraq). Whether there would have been effects on the court depends on whether we’re also assuming re-election or that in 2004 the presidency would’ve reverted to the GOP (after what would’ve been three Democratic terms with an uncharismatic incumbent and possibly a partisan backlash to Medicare part D as signed by a Democrat).

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  2. You are aware that in the pilot episode of Portlandia, Carrie Brownstein describes the city as “an alternative universe, it’s like Gore I, the Bush administration never happened.” (And also as the place where you can put a bird on something and call it art).

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