Most of the alternative history that I’ve seen concerns long-ago events—“what if Gavrilo Princip had missed?” I was a lousy historiography student, and I don’t know where the profession comes down these days on ineluctable tides vs. contingencies, but I’m partial to great-man theories (now I’ve blown my chance at an invitation to Howard Zinn’s dinner party). Obama and Clinton aren’t yet and may not be destined to be great wo/men of history, but it’s hardly inevitable that they’ve come even this far. Scott Simon wonders what if Clinton had run for the Senate in Illinois in 1998? Or if Obama had headed to New York after law school? We might all be in the grips of an Evan Bayh vs. Mark Warner race to the finish.
Update: It seems that little depended on Gavrilo Princip’s marksmanship:
In “Hit or Miss? The Effect of Assassinations on Institutions and War,” Olken and Jones looked at the effects of political assassination, using a strict empirical methodology that takes into account economic conditions at the time of the killing and what Olken calls a “novel data set” of assassination attempts, successful and unsuccessful, between 1875 and 2004.
Olken and Jones discovered that a country was “more likely to see democratization following the assassination of an autocratic leader,” but found no substantial “effect following assassinations—or assassination attempts—on democratic leaders.” They concluded that “on average, successful assassinations of autocrats produce sustained moves toward democracy.” The researchers also found that assassinations have no effect on the inauguration of wars, a result that “suggests that World War I might have begun regardless of whether or not the attempt on the life of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 had succeeded or failed.”