On Alternate Timelines

In an alternate timeline, I don’t care very much about politics at all.

In that alternate timeline, Al Gore has Bill Clinton campaign for him throughout the 2000 election and rides his considerable popularity at the time and natural charisma on the stump (a characteristic Al Gore definitely lacked) to victory, as Gore wins his home state of Tennessee, he wins New Hampshire, and he wins Florida. He wins both the popular vote and the electoral college. It’s a close win in states like Florida, but uncontested. Nobody blames Nader. Nobody blames voter suppression. “Hanging chad” never enters the popular lexicon.

In that alternate timeline, his presidency is regarded in the media as mediocre. He greets the challenge of climate change forcefully and somewhat effectively, and his plans are called hostile to business and a job killer on Fox News. Meanwhile far left liberals criticize him fiercely for not doing more to address the challenge and call him a tool of corporations. Perhaps in this timeline he also takes the warnings of Richard Clarke about how Al Qaeda is determined to attack in the US very seriously, and law enforcement successfully stops the 11 terrorists from boarding 4 planes on 9/11/2001. We go about our days as normal in this timeline, perhaps later reading in the news about how a terrorist attack was thwarted. Or perhaps not. Regardless, no wars are started on phony and inflated intelligence, and four years later, after an administration that enrages Conservatives and leaves most Liberals largely unimpressed, he is defeated by a Jeb Bush/ George W. Bush ticket, and is a 1-term president.

I could go on and bring us to present day, but I won’t. The point is, for some people now overwhelmed and annoyed by how much politics talk has dominated our social media and daily lives, they wish they could just opt out entirely. And I do too. But my political identity was forged in three events from 2000–2003: The contested 2000 election and Supreme Court appointed presidency of George W. Bush, the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003. With each of these events, it was impossible not to imagine the alternative. Wanting to take it all back, wanting a do-over, wanting to imagine these things never happened — these were natural reactions, especially as a young teenager.

And so I became obsessed with these alternate timelines. After all, George W. Bush hadn’t really won the presidency outright, as far as I was concerned, he was appointed by the Supreme Court. So I imagined how things were going in the parallel Gore Administration. I still think on it now, especially 9/11, which is why I mentioned it above. I think about if 9/11 had happened under a Democratic president, how would Republican legislators have responded? Would they have supported the president? Or would they seek to blame the president for the attack, for taking his eye of the ball of our homeland security? I think about this a lot in light of the Republican reaction to and politicization of the attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya in 2012.

But then I’ll go back further. What if Dukakis hadn’t been such a wimp in 1988 and pushed back effectively against vicious attacks on him, his record, and his wife, and beaten a Vice President of an Administration embroiled in the foreign policy crisis of Iran-Contra? (Which, if you don’t know what it is, tl;dr it was worse than having a private email server, believe me.) What if Ted Kennedy hadn’t opposed Jimmy Carter in 1980 and the Democrats put up a more united front and somehow defeated Reagan?

And then the big one — the ultimate — the absolute historical, alternate timeline game changer:

What if Robert Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated? What if the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. hadn’t been assassinated? If even just one or the other lived?

These seismic shifts — they don’t get more comprehensible with time. If anything, it’s just the opposite.

And yet, time travel eludes us. We continue to wonder and day dream, and still nobody has gone back and killed Baby Hitler…yet.

Which brings us to this stupid goddamn year.

2016.

A devastating presidential loss to the most loathsome human being to ever seek the office as the leader of a major political party, with far reaching implications almost impossible to fully wrap our heads around. How could this happen? What could have been done? Can we take it all back, can we get a do-over, can we convince enough Electoral College electors to go against their state results and flip the election? (No, we probably can’t.)

And what if it had been Bernie? What if the DNC hadn’t rigged the primaries so Hillary would win and we could have had Bernie?

I’ve seen the sentiment above expressed literally dozens of times in the past week. And I understand it. Bernie got many people excited in politics for either the first time in a very long time, or the first time ever. There was no denying the level of enthusiasm, the youth engagement, the palpable and personal connection many felt to his message. He was and is an incredibly important and central figure in Liberal politics.

And the DNC wasn’t a big fan. And they said some shitty things. And they made a shitty debate schedule (originally, then added more debates, perhaps too late.) And they waited until February to ask the media to stop reporting Superdelegate counts with state delegate counts during the primaries, before most states had voted, but after a few had.

And generally, yes, the Establishment both at the DNC and nearly all major elected officials favored the Establishment candidate who had been an important Democratic politician for three decades and held all levels of office and raised countless amounts of money for the party and other Dem candidates, and whom many felt would be the most qualified nominee ever, over her main opposition, a lifelong uber-left gadfly who had refused to join the party for decades despite caucusing with them. Many expressed admiration for Bernie and were supportive of his movement while still ultimately opting to support Hillary.

Maybe this was the wrong call. But the bottom line is it was the call of not just the party establishment, but the Democratic primary voters themselves.

Because as much as we’ve heard about the Trump voter and the Bernie voter, there is still a group of voters bigger than each of those groups: Hillary voters. More people voted for Hillary than any other candidate in the primaries. And more people voted for Hillary than any other candidate in the general election (thanks again, Electoral College!)

Now, some would argue these voters just weren’t properly informed. Perhaps the MSM didn’t cover Bernie enough early in the primaries. Perhaps if there were more Democratic primary debates and they started earlier, more exposure to his ideas and message could have swung more primary voters to “Feel the Bern.” Perhaps if media coverage left out the Superdelegates who don’t actually cast their votes until the convention, people wouldn’t have seen Bernie as starting at such a disadvantage. Perhaps.

But it’s not definite. And not just because of the DNC or because of the Media, but because, to some extent, of Bernie and his campaign.

Bernie did horribly across the southern states. As active as his campaign was online and as many volunteers as it had mobilized, this was largely nonexistent in these states prior to the crucial Super Tuesday contests — a massive tactical error on his campaign’s part. Maybe he couldn’t have won those states where the Clintons have longstanding political ties no matter what, but he certainly could have closed the margins, which would have been a help given the structure of Democratic primaries to award delegates proportionally based on this voting margin. The post mortem of the primary showed a clear picture — Bernie failed to connect with many minority voters, especially older minority voters, who are a very important segment of the Democratic Primary electorate. Period.

“But maybe if he talked about her emails…” Maybe. But he indicated he didn’t want to do that. That’s a tactical decision on the candidate himself.

“But we saw from Wikileaks how the DNC really felt about Sanders. Surely they were stacking the deck against him.” True, what we saw from the hack of the DNC emails revealed some really disturbing and inappropriate characterizations and ideas floated around from some hacks at the DNC. And I don’t want to ever waste a breath defending the idiot that is Debbie Wasserman-Schultz.

However, as despicable as these emails and individuals may have been, it’s important to put in context that the majority of these emails in the #DNCLeaks were from May, 2016. At this point in the primaries, Bernie was already basically mathematically eliminated. But he continued campaigning to drive enthusiasm and give all his supporters a chance to cast their primary vote. I admire him for that and think it was the right move. And I wish the dumb DNC staffers hadn’t vented over email about how this guy they felt they had accommodated well enough (I disagree) was making their jobs tougher by going after their organization. He had a right to do that, they had a right to vent and expect privacy (doesn’t justify what they said), and his supporters had a right to look at those revelations and see their suspicions confirmed about a party predisposed to denigrate, silence, or condescend to a candidate who had awakened their political passions like no candidate since maybe Barack Obama, or even for the first time ever.

But words aren’t actions. Words in intra-DNC emails showed no indication to connect to actions you can definitively say were done to Hillary’s advantage and Bernie’s disadvantage. The DNC as a national organization does not run these primaries, the state governments and state parties do. Perhaps (and probably) the DNC was, on the whole, if not officially, then rhetorically and culturally, opposed to him. Yes, Donna Brazile acted abhorrently, but did Hillary’s receiving a few debate questions in advance late in the primary contests effectively influence the entire primaries to the point where all 55+ contests were wholly “rigged”?

Because guess what other candidate, who had not always been a member of their party, faced a similar situation this year when running against their party’s Establishment?

Donald J. Trump.

And with that, let’s get into these alternate timelines:

In an alternate timeline the RNC emails are hacked. We see a clear early picture of Reince Priebus and the GOP establishment apoplectic at what this Trump guy is saying and how he’s damaging their best candidates, all for his vanity candidacy that he’s just doing to sell books and not because he actually wants the job. Dozens and dozens of emails insulting Trump and complaining about his campaign that put the worst of the DNCLeak emails to shame. Donald Trump is inconsolable when he reads these leaked emails. Even after he’s secured the GOP nomination, he wages war against the party, as he can’t take any slight. He’s vindictive and even less willing to listen to more establishment heads like Reince Priebus and Chris Christie (whose team had sent its own harsh emails that were leaked.) They aren’t able to keep him on message at all in the final month of the campaign, and he sputters and flails even more wildly.

In another alternate timeline, the timing of the Access Hollywood tape and James Comey letters are reversed — first we learn of “new Hillary emails” only to find out a week later they contain nothing new, then immediately after that saga is done we hear our next president talking about how he can “Grab [women] by the pussy” without asking and “they let you do it” because he’s rich and famous — 10 days before the election. Seriously, just think about it. What if that sequence of events had flipped? The result is likely very different than what we saw on November 8.

And finally, yes, in an alternate timeline, the Democratic Primary is considered by all primary voters and supporters of both candidates to have been conducted fairly. Mainstream liberal pundits are less dismissive and condescending towards Bernie and his movement. Madeline Albright doesn’t trot out her cliche against Bernie voters, Gloria Steinem doesn’t say her dumb thing, people encourage the dialogue and truly awesome debate happening (seriously, those primary debates made me so proud to be a Democrat.) Perhaps he has a better ground operation in the South on Super Tuesday and does ultimately win the nomination.

And then Republicans would run against him.

I’m not one of these people that is sure the Republican opposition file on him would definitely do him in (Kurt Eichenwald, take a freaking Xanax, dude.) But acting like his winning the presidency would be a sure thing, even against a historically disastrous candidate like Trump, in my opinion is quite an assumption to make as well. Could he have won? Sure, but I also think Hillary Clinton could have won this race (if her campaign, just like Bernie’s primary campaign, hadn’t made some devastating tactical errors.)

But as horrible as our current timeline is, there is an alternate timeline where Bernie did win the nomination — and then lost the presidency to Trump as well. It’s sadly not as impossible as his most loyal fans would have you believe. Fear of “government takeover of health care” was an incredibly successful motivating message for Republicans in 2010 after the passage of the Affordable Care Act. I wouldn’t rule out that message being successful this year, at a time when many people are justifiably incensed to see their premiums raised an obscene degree due to the ACA, against a candidate who would literally be proposing a government takeover of the health care system, 1/6 of our economy. Maybe the sting of calling someone a “socialist” has dulled after it was repeated ad nauseum against Obama, but could it be effective enough somewhere like Florida with their Cuban population that was crucial to deciding that state this year? Hell, Trump wouldn’t even have to change his message much from “You’ve been around for 30 years, what have you done??” given that Bernie Sanders never seriously held down a steady job that wasn’t as an elected government official in his life.

And then, if Bernie were the nominee and lost the general election, what happens in that timeline? This is an alternate timeline where the Chapo Trap House podcast is what the Keepin’ It 1600 podcast is in our current timeline, having to issue Mea Culpas and grapple with how their candidate that they were sure was the right candidate could fail against such a walking disaster of a human being.

Perhaps if Democrats were going to lose this general election, it would have been preferable ultimately to lose with the more genuine candidate who had inspired such fervent devotion among previously disaffected voters. But you’d be naive to think the more centrist and moderate Liberal voices wouldn’t then be pursuing the same recriminations against Bernie that many on the far left are arguing now against Hillary (and many of these same centrist voices are currently pursuing, stupidly, against third party voters.) And then what progressive ideas and commentators would get purged from what is considered politically viable in that reality?

And there is yet another alternate timeline, for many on the Left perhaps the most coveted timeline, where Bernie wins both the nomination and the presidency.

And then what? How many allies would he have? What would Congress look like? Who would he appoint to key cabinet posts? What would he get passed and how? In general, how does that presidency go? Would it ultimately set Progressive agenda items forward, or back? Better or worse than Al Gore in 2000? Or John Kerry in 2004? Or Hillary Clinton in 2008? Or Mitt Romney in 2012? Or any of the other infinite alternate realities we’ll never know?

Because if there is one inarguable statement that can be made out of this mess of an election and mess of a year it is this: Nobody knows anything. Even if you are patting yourself on the back for correctly saying months ago that there are sections of the country where people will straight up never buy Hillary Clinton or go vote for her, there’s also truth on the side of the traditional Democrats who argue that demographic changes in the country are in the long term more favorable to Democrats (assuming they can effectively communicate how their legislative agenda addresses these various communities’ concerns and priorities.) There’s a lot to be learned about failures in messaging, in policy, in priorities (hey, let’s dial back the Celebrity Surrogate stuff approximately 5000%, thanks), but what there’s no room for in our current environment are certainty and shutting voices out — even voices that may have been disastrously wrong.

Because what scares us isn’t that we’re currently in the Darkest Timeline. What terrifies us is that we’re powerless to choose our timeline and have to move forward in the circumstances we’re given. And what we thought we knew and the path ahead have never been more in doubt. So let’s resolve in this moment to stop the endless cycle of circular Liberal actions — either self congratulating or self incriminating. No more circlejerks. No more circular firing squad. By all means we should look inward, we should be harshly critical of ourselves and our actions. But we should also look out — to possibilities, to voices, communities, messages that had been written off. Nobody knows anything. It’s scary. It’s also potentially empowering.

Nobody knows anything. And we can go anywhere from here. Let’s all do our best to be an active part in it, and not just online. Get out there. Do it.

Go Create The Best Timeline.