Election 2012: Choose a future, any future

If you have diligently read the position papers, listened to the speeches, and watched the debates, by now you know a lot about both candidates for president. That's good citizenship -- but it doesn't necessarily mean the next four years will unfold the way you think.

Vincent Yu/AP
A woman in the far-eastern port of Vladivostok, Russia, walks by a soviet-era monument.

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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Election 2012: Choose a future, any future
Read this article in
https://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/From-the-Editors/2012/1015/Election-2012-Choose-a-future-any-future
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe