Perhaps it’s just because I recently finished reading War and Peace for the first time, but I find myself reading the various post-mortems for the Romney campaign (and the Republican campaign of 2012 more generally) through the lens of Tolstoy’s understanding of history.
Tolstoy, you’ll recall, framed War and Peace in part as an argument against the so-called “Great Man” understanding of history, whereby singular individuals (like Napoleon) are the heroes of history, shaping it by the application of their singular “genius.” Tolstoy’s contrary position was that so-called “great men” were, rather, the right people at the right time to fill the spots that historical necessity required. Napoleon didn’t have any genius, unless it was for getting the job of being Napoleon; the world-shaping wars unleashed by the French Revolution required a commander, and the progress of those wars was not due to any exceptional generalship on Napoleon’s part but on whatever laws (which exist even if we cannot discern them) shape the actions of the millions of soldiers and sailors involved in those campaigns, because it was the accumulation of their individual actions, which could not be guided from a distance by Napoleon, that made for victory or defeat.
You don’t hear much from historians about “great men” these days; you are much more likely to hear about how supposed broad historical forces (whose laws remain obscure) were reflected in changing hem-lines. But in our political writing, we still behave as if somebody out there were actually making decisions, and as if those decisions actually shaped reality, as opposed to reality – necessity – making those decisions, and the actions of individuals mostly determining who gets the honor of claiming to have made them.
In the heat of a campaign, it feels like Romney’s “47%” comment or Obama’s lackluster performance in the first debate was a decisive moment, capable of shaping the outcome of a close election. But both moments were significant because they revealed truths that were already known – that the Republican Party was wedded to a profoundly condescending attitude toward much of the citizenry, and that the Obama Administration didn’t have much of a second term agenda. To call those moments decisive is to suggest that, somehow, these truths would have remained invisible if those moments hadn’t happened, when it seems much more likely that, if those moments had not occurred, necessity would have provided other moments of clarity.
In the heat of the campaign, Romney’s “dreadful inevitability” as Daniel Larison called it, seemed to demand some desperate effort to derail the train that so many thought from the beginning was doomed. But in retrospect, the inevitability and the dread were of a piece. Romney was the nominee because he expressed something essential about what the Republican Party was, at that moment. Even his profound phoniness was an authentic expression of the contemporary American right.
In the heat of a campaign, it feels like the choice – whatever the choice – is momentous. And I don’t mean to suggest that the choices are irrelevant. But necessity will have its way. Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 primaries over Hillary Clinton suggested that we’d see a more restrained foreign policy, and in domestic policy a greater emphasis on climate change than on health care reform. But Clinton became Secretary of State, Bush-era precedents were entrenched, and America intervened in Libya. And we got Obamacare but no cap-and-trade bill, because that’s where his party’s priorities lay – and those priorities were shaped by a constellation of forces that would not be changed by a change of personnel in the Speaker’s office either.
A key reason Republicans and Democrats alike give for voting for their guy is that the President gets to pick Supreme Court nominees. But the kinds of people who get to be the decisive votes on the Supreme Court are the kinds of people who recognize the political risks in striking down a major piece of domestic legislation, and so Chief Justice John Roberts voted to uphold Obamacare.
We assume that George W. Bush shaped history decisively by making a series of spectacularly bad decisions – his budget-busting tax cut, Medicare part D, not preventing the 9-11 attacks and then responding to said attacks by invading Iraq. But we don’t know what would have happened in an Al Gore Administration. One can easily imagine an alternative history in which Gore, blamed roundly for the 2001 recession, is bludgeoned by the Republican Congress into signing a big tax cut in a desperate attempt to stave off disaster in the midterms – only to reap the whirlwind anyway. If the 9-11 plot is foiled, al Qaeda keeps trying – eventually, something horrible happens, and America responds by blaming the Gore Administration and electing President John McCain to lead us into war against Iraq. And so on.
I’m not advocating fatalism – and neither was Tolstoy. I am suggesting, however, that statesmanship is more like surfing than like sailing. A ship is making for a particular port, chosen by the captain, and the prevailing winds determine how swiftly he will get there, and by what route. A surfer, on the other hand, rides the waves to shore, and the waves will determine his destination, not his will. The question is how elegantly he will ride them, and whether he will be wiped out before he gets there.