When History Seems Governed by Chance

[This piece ran as a newspaper op/ed in early July, 2023.]


My life’s work has focused on the large systemic forces that have played a major role in shaping the human world. My point has been that we need to understand these forces in order to bring them under control, and that we need to control these forces in order to be able to create the kind of human world we would choose.

One indication of how powerful I claim these large, systemic forces been that I frequently use the word “inevitable” to describe many of the major directions in which human history has unfolded.

But that’s only one side of the picture.

History also provides plenty of examples of relatively small things – things that don’t look inevitable at all, that seem matters of good or bad fortune — that have had huge consequences. “If only….. Things might have turned out so differently!”

Consider the assassination of President Lincoln. Not inevitable, for there were plenty of quite possible alternative scenarios in which Lincoln would have survived that night.

The question arises: How different might our history have been if — during those hugely consequential years following the trauma of the American Civil War — the nation’s leader had been Lincoln (judged by historians as our greatest President) rather than Andrew Johnson (judged to be one of the very worst)?

Although there is no way of knowing, I can intuitively envision a hugely consequential, better path the nation might have taken under the President who pledged “malice toward none, and charity for all.”

“Malice toward none” might have gone a long way toward bringing the nation back together, rather than entrenching hostility of one region toward the other.

Perhaps Lincoln would have had limited success in “binding up the nation’s wounds.” But what we do know is that the path the nation took after his assassination led to those wounds festering, even into our times.

Lincoln would have applied his outstanding leadership skills to bring about an effective transition between a social order based on slavery and one based on equal citizenship for all races. And we know that the path the nation took failed at that transition, as racial oppression re-established itself in the Jim Crow South.

Out of the post-war disorder in the North, “the Party of Lincoln” came under the substantial control of the Forces of Greed with the great expansion of industrial corporate capitalism in the decades following the Civil War. And that corporatist Republican Party had almost complete control of the U.S. government over those decades.

Maybe Lincoln could have infused more of his profound moral vision into the Party he led, counterbalancing the greedy forces that used their power for less humane and just purposes.

Paths – better paths – the nation might have taken, but for one man being able to get into a theater box wielding a gun.

Not necessity, but more like a throw of the dice.

Not long ago, in America, we witnessed a clearly impactful “just by chance” occurrence in America. It’s clear that — if it weren’t for the small thing of a woman down in Palm Beach, Florida, making an unintentional mistake in designing her county’s 2000 ballot — the war in Iraq would never have occurred.

  • The ballot design resulted in a few thousand people who were trying vote for Al Gore marking their ballot for Pat Buchanan.
  • Had there not been that confusion, Gore would have clearly won Florida.
  • Which means that Gore – not G.W. Bush – would have become President.
  • As events made clear, that meant the United States would never have launched the Iraq war.

Hugely impactful.

The consequences of that war, and thus of the ballot confusion, included profound damage

  • to American politics and cultural cohesion,
  • to our international reputation, and
  • to the system of international law that the United States – greatly its credit — had done so much to establish.

A still more recent example of the serendipitous sending things on a different course involves the Covid pandemic. Purely by chance, the pandemic struck the world the same year as Donald Trump was seeking re-election. The evidence from the American electorate suggests that –had it not been for that chance stroke of synchrony – Trump would likely have had a second term.

(The 2020 Election was close enough in a few battleground states that a smallish shift in the electorate could have given Trump their Electoral votes. But Trump’s handling of the pandemic was so obviously defective in so many ways noticed by so many people, that it seems reasonable to believe he lost those states, and thus the election, because the pandemic struck that year.)

And the consequences of Trump winning a second term – for American democracy, as well as for the response of “the free world” to Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine – are dreadful to contemplate.

So the bottom line is that the way the human world unfolds is the product of both

  • necessity – which drives things to develop in predictable ways. (Like large social-evolutionary forces that have mandated that civilization overall will develop in certain directions.)
  • and randomness. in which what look like “chance” events – an assassination, a confusing ballot, the chance timing of a pandemic —  can determine which of highly divergent paths into the future the human world might take.

Both can be true: “It had to be” and “It might have been.”

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