What If?

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Another modest conclusion to be drawn from “what if” speculation is that, with the American Presidency, as with most institutions, the earliest stages allow the greatest alternative leeway. The twentieth-century Presidency may appear to have undergone amazing ups and downs. The consequences for particular individuals, within bereaved or disgraced families, have been catastrophic, and the drama has filled television screens and front pages. Yet the sundry disasters seem not to have had any fundamental effect. That must be in large part due to the essential cohesion of the American polity. But it also suggests how much national institutions have settled into permanent shapes from which almost no calamity can budge them.

This is by no means the only lesson to be learned from counterfactual history, of course. Much depends on the scenario one devises. The closer the hypothesis comes to the present day, the nearer we are to futurology or to science fiction. The farther we cast such conjectures forward in time, the more staggering our extrapolations may be. Grandma could in a sci-fi universe be equipped with wheels and behave like a Greyhound bus. But so long as we confine ourselves to counterfactual history , we are concerned first with what did actually occur and only then with what else might have happened. And in that realm, Grandma never could have rolled.