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The Butterfly Effect: Reflections on Chance and the "It Might Have Beens" of History

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The central image in the popularization of chaos theory has to do with a butterfly: the movement of air caused by a butterfly's beating its wings in the Amazonian junge, we're told, can subtly alter local airflows that in turn might influence larger airflows and, ultimately, produce some dramatic climate effects all over the world. This has been called "the butterfly effect." (It's famous enough that "the butterfly effect" yields well over two million hits on Google.)

In the year 2000, we saw another kind of butterfly effect.

For the election that fall in Palm Beach, Florida, a minor office-holder designed the ballot. Because of its shape, it was called a "butterfly ballot." It had the unintended effect --unintended we may assume, as the office-holder was a Democrat-- of confusing a great many people who wanted to vote for Al Gore into marking their ballots instead for Pat Buchanan. The number of votes that Gore lost because of this confusion was considerably more than enough to have reversed the declared outcome in Florida.

While there are many factors that can be identified that, had they been a bit different, Gore would have come out of that election as president, it nonetheless can be said: if that "butterfly ballot" had been designed better, Gore would have won.

In other words, that tiny little "butterfly" out of Palm Beach County, Florida, has had the historically momentous effect of giving us the Bush presidency.

"What if" are an endlessly intriguing line of speculation. Lately, a film has been released that explores what would have happened if the Confederacy had won the Civil War. And Philip Roth's novel The Plot Against America explores another alternative history, one where Charles Limburg is elected president in 1940, as World War II is beginning, instead of FDR.

One of my favorite instances of envisioning what the world would have been like "if" is that memorable sequence in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life in which the angel shows the main character, George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart), who is on the verge of suicide, what the world would have been like had he never been born. They walk through this alternative world, and with the subtraction of all the things that George Bailey had done in his life, and thus of all the ways those actions had ramified in the world, the character learns how important his contribution has been. I don't buy that the Donna Reed character, sans her relationship with George Bailey, would have become the mousy and fearful woman we see in this alternative world, but the dramatic effects of this alternative world are otherwise effective, at least with me.

When it comes to the effects of the Butterfly Ballot in Palm Beach County, it is hard to over-dramatize how profoundly the two alternative paths likely diverge. Had just this tiny glitch been avoided, we'd likely be in an entirely different world.

Had that butterfly ballots's wings beat differently, no Iraq war. Quite possibly no 9/11.

No Patriot Act, at least not with its long-standing, pre-9/11 police-state wish list.

No alienating of our traditional friends around the world, fearing America as a lawless and rogue nation.

No great exascerbation of the tensions between the Islamic part of the world and the West.

No tax cuts transferring trillions from future generations to the already fabulously rich.

No wanton dismantling of environmental protections.

No degrading of our public discourse into fear-mongering and pervasive lying and propaganda.

Of course, this world is not the world of Hollywood movies. It is not as though the alternative world, with no Bush presidency, would be heaven on earth.

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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