The genre known as alternative history asks “what if?” What if the Spanish Armada had sunk the English fleet? What if the Confederacy had won the American Civil War? If JFK had not been assassinated? If Hitler had?
In the hands of a skilled strategist or storyteller, “alt history” is more than just a parlor game. It can show the far-reaching consequences of small events, making us appreciate our own time or lament what might have been. You can find alt history in everything from military analysis to thrillers like Robert Harris’s 1992 novel, “Fatherland,” to science fiction like “The Terminator,” “Back to the Future,” or the current time-bender, “Looper.” Alter one or two events in the past, the formula goes, and the present becomes a very different place.
Washington political reporter Linda Feldmann explores two distinct futures that could branch from the Nov. 6 US presidential election. (You can read them here and here.) A second term for President Obama or a first term for former Gov. Mitt Romney would start with unique advantages and face unique challenges. But then things get interesting.
International crises could suddenly rise up – bad ones, as in the 9/11 terror attacks; good ones, as in the 1989 collapse of communism – forcing a president to improvise. A president’s personal style also plays a part. As Gail Russell Chaddock notes in a companion piece (page 29), Jimmy Carter failed to establish rapport with congressional leaders and achieved little domestically, despite a Democrat-controlled House and Senate. On the other hand, inveterate cold warrior Ronald Reagan found himself face to face with a genial reformer in Mikhail Gorbachev, which led to a historic thaw in US-Soviet relations. So count on this: The next four years will look nothing like what we imagine.
Opinion polls indicate the 2012 presidential race could be as close as the 2000 race. An amusing alt-history essay in Newsweek not long ago described what might have happened if 2000 had gone the other way: A falling-out might have occurred between President Al Gore and his mavericky No. 2, Joe Lieberman, resulting in Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton stepping in as vice president. And while we’re at it, Mr. Gore could have named Bill Clinton as secretary of State. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court vacancy left by Sandra Day O’Connor could have gone to a constitutional scholar and Illinois junior senator named Barack Obama. But for a few hanging chads, then, the 2008 race might have pitted Hillary Clinton and (get ready, what follows is an even bigger leap) running mate Bill Clinton against a resurgent George W. Bush and brother Jeb.
Sure, it’s parlor game nonsense – but only because we know what the present looks like. Decisions we make every moment – big ones like where to invest time or money, small ones like whether to return a phone call – affect the future. But we never know how. The cold war might have sped to a conclusion anyway in a second Jimmy Carter term. Spanish-ruled England might have reasserted its independence a few years after the Armada landed (perhaps while retaining the best paella recipes). JFK’s second term might have been mired in Vietnam.
The road ahead is always diverging. Way always leads on to way. It’s important to ask “what if?” at every fork. And it’s probably best to time travel with an open heart and wary eye.
John Yemma is editor of the Monitor.