“I hate the American Empire,” declared the novelist-patriot Gore Vidal, “and I love the Old Republic.”
Whether the remnant can recover the latter from the rotting husk of the former is an open question, but in idle hours one muses on what might have been had we taken forks in the road that led down more peaceful paths. Chronology be damned, these include:
George W. Bush selected commissioner of Major League Baseball in 1998. He was a horrendous president, perhaps every bit as bad as Woodrow Wilson, but in matters baseball, the Butcher of Baghdad was on the side of the angels, and I don’t mean the Anaheim ballclub. As an owner of the Texas Rangers, he was pro-grass, anti-dome, and anti-playoff expansion. From this admirable traditionalist streak, so entirely lacking in his catastrophic presidency, we can infer that today MLB Commissioner Bush would be anti-robot umps, anti-soul-crushing analytics, and anti-extermination of minor league teams.
Though a czar is as unnecessary in baseball as it is in a country, George W. Bush would have been about as good a baseball czar as we could have hoped for—and as a lagniappe, half a million Middle Easterners would have lived much longer lives.
Michigan boys Russell Kirk, the Bohemian Tory, and Tom Hayden, New Left firebrand and author of the 1960s student manifesto The Port Huron Statement, attend a Detroit Tigers game together in 1968.
Well, why not? Students for a Democratic Society president Carl Oglesby contended that “the Old Right and the New Left are morally and politically coordinate.” By “New Left” he didn’t mean hate-spraying Red Diaper babies, with their nail bombs and turgid tracts, but rather Middle American kids (Oglesby was a working-class Ohioan) protesting the war, conscription, the education bureaucracy, and the do-not-bend-fold-spindle-or-mutilate corporate state.
If the humane pre-neocon Right was right to fear Leviathan, it was left to the Left to propose abolition of those two serial violators of lives and liberties, the FBI and the CIA. Russell Kirk, a practicing localist and philosophical anti-militarist whose friends included the dissident Democrat Eugene McCarthy, might have found common cause over a hot dog, a beer, and the Mickey Lolich–Denny McLain Tigers with baseball nut Tom Hayden, whose later veer toward left populism emphasized the integrity of small businessmen and farmers against “depersonalizing” institutions.
Yes, I know, Hayden is, uh, problematic, but Richard Nixon (whom Kirk visited in the White House) isn’t? Barry Goldwater would have gone to the game. “When the histories are written,” Mr. Conservative told his friend and aide Karl Hess, “I’ll bet that the Old Right and the New Left are put down as having a lot in common and that the people in the middle will be the enemy.”
Elbridge Gerry sticks to his guns at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. I owe this one to my old professor William Riker, father of positive political theory. In What If?, the Nelson Polsby-edited volume of “social-science fiction,” Riker speculated upon the consequences had Massachusetts delegate Gerry consistently opposed the Connecticut Compromise, which provided for state equality of representation in the Senate.
Had Gerry not switched sides, the compromise would have failed, the convention probably would have broken up, and the thirteen states would have continued under the mild oversight of the Articles of Confederation. Grandiose plans would have been shelved, but then as Massachusetts Anti-Federalist James Winthrop said, “Large and consolidated empires may indeed dazzle the eyes of a distant spectator with their splendour, but if examined more nearly are always found to be full of misery.”
Professor Riker (a pro-Constitution, large-f Federalist, by the way) limned a Constitution-less North America that looks like South America: a congeries of smallish republics, variously commercial and agricultural, that would play little role in world affairs.
“I know for certain,” wrote Riker, “that the relatively smaller and weaker American nations would not have been able to participate in European wars.” Absent U.S. involvement in what we would still be calling the Great War, there “would have been no occasion for Hitler and the Second World War,” and by carving up European Russia the Germans would have unwittingly prevented the rise of Soviet communism.
No Hitler, no Stalin, no Cold War: that’s a helluva what if, isn’t it?
American citizens throw a wrench into the imperial works by electing presidents William Jennings Bryan in 1896, Champ Clark in 1912, Robert Taft in 1940, George McGovern in 1972, Pat Buchanan in 1996, Ron Paul in 2008… Oh, sorry, I must have dozed off. No harm in a reverie. You may say I’m a dreamer, but these apparitions of what might have been are rather less frightful than the American Empire that my friend Gore Vidal so eloquently loathed.
Bill Kauffman is the author of 11 books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t My America.