I agree that arguing about which twenty-first century national election was “the most important” is a bit of an intellectual parlor game. The answer really depends on your prior theory of history. If you think political developments are highly contingent, then your answer will always be the least recent election: consequential changes to an electoral outcome at T1 are highly likely to lead to significant differences in the all elections T1+n. If we alter, say, the outcome of the 2010 election than we also alter the outcomes of 2012, 2014, 2016, 2018, and 2020.
So for the argument to even begin to make sense we need to, first, believe that some elections are “critical junctures,” second, specify which change in pathway we’re talking about, and third, explain why we expect the change at Tn will produce positive feedback – and therefore that subsequent elections won’t change the path.
It helps that there’s a leitmotif running through the current debate: “what is the most recent election that could have altered our current trajectory of democratic erosion?”
This seems to make things relative straightforward. We have, after all, an obvious mechanism for a more small-d democratic pathway: a more moderate U.S. Supreme Court, one that decides the opposite way in, at the very least, Rucho v. Common Cause.
Getting to a materially different Court, however, turns out to be… complicated. In principle, 2004 does it. Even if O’Connor puts her husband ahead of strategic retirement, presumably Rehnquist still dies in 2005.
But can we assume that the Democrats control the Senate in this alternate timeline? If they don’t, will Bill Frist blockade a replacement for Rehnquist? For what it’s worth, I think the answer to both is “probably not.”
To get to a Democratic Senate in 2004 we have to assume not a “least-change” counterfactual where Kerry narrowly wins, but conditions that are different enough to reverse a very good year for Senate Republicans. Nonetheless, 2005 is very early in Kerry’s hypothetical term and the Republican caucus was more moderate than the one that blocked Garland in 2016.
So it seems like we’re on a new path, right? Not so fast. Does Kerry win re-election in 2008 or is he crushed by the Great Recession? Do centrists on the Court retire strategically between 2005 and 2008, or do they make overly optimistic assumptions about their ability to do so later on? It’s really not that hard to envision the Court flipping again sometime between 2009 and the present. In the interim, would there have been a series of pro-democracy cases that would, in turn, be difficult for a right-wing majority to overturn?
Even a scenario in which timing works out in the Democrats favor, it is possible that a future Republican leadership decides to expand the Federal judiciary and the Supreme Court, packing the latter with Federalist Society hacks. For reasons that I won’t elaborate here, I think that’s a realistic possibility.
In fact, we probably shouldn’t be thinking in terms of different electoral outcomes. There’s only one class of counterfactuals in which we clearly wind up on a stable pro-democracy pathway. What do they have in common? The GOP doesn’t radicalize. U.S. democracy will never be stable when at least one of its major parties isn’t committed to free and fair elections.
Election-focused counterfactuals probably distort our understanding of the problem; most notably, they accord no agency to the Republican party and its centers of power. Election-centric counterfactuals treat GOP radicalization as either the effect of a specific electoral outcome or as a given.
Regardless, we are where we are. The GOP is dominated by an authoritarian-minded demagogue. Too many of its media darlings are de facto fascists. And we’re about to see another group of states raise the question: “Why do we even bother including Article IV in copies of the U.S. Constitution.” As the New York Times reports:
Republicans are locking in newly gerrymandered maps for the legislatures in four battleground states that are set to secure the party’s control in the statehouse chambers over the next decade, fortifying the G.O.P. against even the most sweeping potential Democratic wave elections.
In Texas, North Carolina, Ohio and Georgia, Republican state lawmakers have either created supermajorities capable of overriding a governor’s veto or whittled down competitive districts so significantly that Republicans’ advantage is virtually impenetrable — leaving voters in narrowly divided states powerless to change the leadership of their legislatures.
So I suppose we should enjoy our counterfactual electoral outcomes while they still have some thread of plausibility.