I was having lunch with Ralph Nader, shortly after the 1992 elections where Ralph made his first Presidential run. I asked him about the experience. He replied it was awful, and not to be repeated. What if he had applied his own advice to a Presidential candidacy in 2000, where there was plenty of evidence that withdrawing would have swung a clear, Electoral College majority for Al Gore, and no contest about Florida’s hanging chads?
Speculations in the universe of “what if?” have captivated humans since Eve considered that succulent apple. So, what if the outcomes of the early 21st century had been affected by that one, pivotal , electoral change?
In the aftermath of 911, it’s better than fair that without Neo-cons in the White House, Afghanistan and the Taliban allies of Bin Laden would have had our full attention. Gore’s focus on climate change and renewable energy would have lessened our perceived need to involve ourselves in the contentions of oil-rich oligarchies. We would not have fabricated WMDs and struck Iraq. The escalating mess in the Middle East would have been left to Saddam, Sunnis and Shia, Iran, Syria and Jihadists to sort out.
With a Democratic administration, Bush’s massive tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy that increased economic disparities would have been avoided, as well as the loosening of oversight of the financial industry that spurred the housing bubble to its near catastrophic burst.
Obama, Hillary and Trump? For sure, in 2001, it would have taken a wild card joker to predict the first black President, and Donald Trump even more improbable. Far more likely would have been two terms of Gore.
Back to this time stream, in 2006, as a CERES Coalition Board Member, I was at the UN for the bi-annual conference of the Investor Network on Climate Risk. I had a chance to raise the Nader speculation with Gore, but thought better of it. God knows how many times he must have worked that question around in all its permutations. There he was, iconic Global Warming Cassandra with his Nobel Prize playing social entrepreneur with all the cred of his former vice-presidency, yet lacking the levers to execute changes he knew were necessary.
Poor us. Even the most routine situations include the potential for life or death. In these days of Coronavirus, proximity to a passing sneeze or cough could be as fatal as stepping on an IED in a Syrian village. The odds will differ, but life is substantially filled with gambles. Minimizing risk or maximizing rewards require anticipation of circumstances often beyond our control, but we try.
Think of a diagram with a vertical and a horizontal line. Top of the vertical line is the future, bottom is the past. Extreme left of the horizontal is the micro of the personal, to the right leads to the macro of systems and events on a universal level. Where they meet in the middle is the nexus of choice.
CHOICE POINT: INDENTURED SERVITUDE VS. SLAVERY
In 1641, there was a critical transition in the supply chain that brought laborers to North America. The English colonies had relied on indentured servitude, which was time bounded and contractual. Indentured workers who had come to America from Europe as an alternative to poverty or prison put in their 4-7 years, were rewarded with freedom, often land and a cash parting. Color and race were simply part of the labor mix, rather than the designation as property, and slavery as the dehumanizing rationalization for long-term exploitation.
Greed for cheap and plentiful labor was a powerful force, but if slavery had been rejected by the English, and indenture continued as the dominant source for construction and agricultural labor, there would have been several likely outcomes:
- The mass importation of Africans would not happen. Some ships and captains might contract with employers to prospect for indentured laborers from Africa, but there simply wouldn’t be sufficient financial reward without the extended value of slavery (including the breeding of future owned generations).
- The cost of labor in the southern colonies would increase, perhaps to the point where small farming would not give way to the large-scale plantation system until the mid-19th century with the mechanization of cotton production.
- The impact on the north American independence movement in the 1770s is harder to gauge. Taxation by the British crown and issues of governance would still be problems, but the coherence of the colonies might be even stronger without tensions surrounding slavery. The Louisiana Purchase and expansion to the West would still be likely, but however it played out, without slavery and the southern wealth it depended on as a divisive force, there would be less reason for a Civil War.
- America’s original sin would be restricted to its treatment of Native American tribes. The relatively small African-American presence would probably be just another constituency, with intermarriage diluting color over time. Whether there would have been any effect on the treatment of Chinese and other Asian immigrants, or a later Latino influx, expecting a United or un-United States to be free of prejudice is unrealistic. Yet there should at least be some choice points for removing the 400 year curse of African-American exploitation and brutality .
It could be said that our nation’s cultural and political struggles enshrined in the labor movement, the women’s movement and civil rights are what have forced American society to its highest aspirations and deepest despair.
Expecting a magical transformation to a democratic republic on this continent free of prejudice and greed is about as likely as Adam and Eve choosing to pass on that luscious apple. Nevertheless, the fruit of our orchards can be tended in many ways, some leading to better outcomes than others.
Projecting ahead to the choice points we are facing today is a set of “what-ifs” that will hopefully drive enough of us to the polls in November – there to reshape outcomes for a future that remains in our hands, and which, if not perfect, is at least better.