The “what if?” game

Every four years, they tell us that the upcoming election is vital—that the future of the nation and of the world depends upon the choices made by the voters. Every year a choice is made, and “time keeps on slipping into the future.” But, while historians tell us what happened and why and what it means, greater fun comes from finding answers to the question, “What if?” What if some of the key elections of the recent past had gone the other way? How would our nation and our world be different today?

What if Thomas Dewey had been elected President in 1948 instead of Harry Truman? What different courses might the Cold War have taken under Dewey’s leadership? How would Dewey have handled Korea? Would the 1950s economy have been robust with Dewey in the White House at the beginning of the 1950s? Would television have developed differently in the Dewey administration? What about rock and roll?

What if Richard Nixon had been elected President in 1960 instead of John Kennedy? How would Nixon have handled Cuba and Vietnam? Would civil rights have been approached differently by the Nixon administration? How would Nixon’s personality as President have been different if he had not been shaped by losses to President Kennedy and Governor Brown, let alone by the turbulence of the 1960s?

If Albert Gore had been elected President in 2000, how would he have handled the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001? What kind of war on terror would Gore’s administration have pursued? What national policies would Gore have stressed that were not stressed or contemplated under President Bush?

If Hillary Clinton had been elected President in 2016, would the economy have done as well in 2018 and 2019? How would her administration have handled the virus crisis of 2020? Would the mood of the nation be more calm, less calm, or about the same this summer with President Hillary Clinton in the White House seeking reelection?

How many international events would have been exactly the same under any President? How many presidential responses, beginning with the same events, have taken different paths? Is there a “deep state” that oversees national policies and decisions no matter who is said to be in charge of the country? Or does divine power speak through the voice of the people, raising certain leaders to power at particular times to handle the circumstances that God foreknows?

Historians study and describe the things that have happened. That information is exhausting already; it does not provide much left-over time to play “what if?” Trying to imagine the divergent paths of recent history, though, helps the rest of us to see the significance of the choices that voters face this year. Assuming that two roads diverge, and we can only travel one of them, does the path we choose really make all the difference? J.