Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Editorial: The Results of Alternate History Elections

Yesterday was Election Night in Canada. Well, it will be yesterday when this is published, as I'm writing this on Monday. Yay for future writing!

Anyway, even though Justin Trudeau of the Liberal Party lead a Red Sweep of the Election (and I added this as soon as I heard the CBC Projection), I'm not here to talk about the actual election, as shocking as the release of the results were. Instead, I want to spend a few minutes talking about elections in Alternate History, or rather, the different outcomes that can come out of it. Mostly because, as a politics geek that also does alternate history, I try my best to put together the actual elections in my timelines, and I want to see other people do it as well.

But here is the list of the elections that you usually see in Alternate History scenarios...

And select which of the following points you like most!

1: The "Meh, Same as OTL" Elections

These are the ones where someone doesn't even bother rewriting history, unless it's just to place a different name in place of the different candidates. If feeling really ambitious, sometimes the colours of the parties on the nice big map is reversed as well, just to confuse everyone. There are a lot of first time alternate histories that devolve into this, though hints of it can be seen in bigger works. 

This is usually a sign that the Alternate Historian just doesn't give a damn about politics, but wants to flesh out their world. Maybe they are more focused on the culture, wars, or sports of their TL, which is fine. But the problem is, they are just copy-pasting the results for Wikipedia without understanding why it happened, and giving few answers as too why. And, as my first year politics professor at University told me, everything is political. Why one movie is banned while another one is allowed to be shown? Politics. Why a nation, or a coalition of nations decides to bomb and invade another? Politics. And why does one team have a brand new sports stadium, or is moved to another city? Once again, politics.

"Everything is Art. Everything is Politics." -Thomas Mann

If it's a "secret history," then it makes sense. Of course, that's not what I talk about in this blog, it's alternate history. Even taking the butterfly effect into account or not, there will be some different outcomes in elections if things go differently. Could Abraham Lincoln have won a second term if Atlanta wasn't captured just a few weeks before? Would Dwight Eisenhower be able to be nominated, much less win the presidency, if he wasn't the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe? Could Winston Churchill be named Prime Minister if the UK never entered World War Two? In all these cases, I feel the answer is no. So, just take a few minutes, do a little of research on Wikipedia, and try to make the Political leader in charge at least be somewhat realistic, or at least try to tie it into the timeline better.

2: The "Straw Man/Mary Sue" Elections

Basically this is when the elected official that is the primary focus of the work either leads the country into disaster or into a golden age based on their policies, and is pretty much used by the author in order to show how their preferred or opposing candidate would run the nation. This is usually two sides of the same coin, and almost always devolves into political bias, and it's pretty easy to tell the author's bias. An Independent in 2000 on the AltHistory Wiki is an example, as well as A World of Laughter, A World of Tears where Walt Disney is elected President of the US when Eisenhower isn't able to run in 1956. Believe me, it really does not end well. The West Wing might be a TV example, though not to the same degree as their other ones mentioned here.

Though, Aaron Sorkin has pretty much made this a liberal fantasy. According to every conservative person ever.

I'll be honest, I hate these kinds of elections/politics in alternate history, even though some of these, World of Laughter especially, are very well written. It's just how implausible most of them are, where the recently elected official, usually the President of the US, is able to put into practice all of the stuff he wants to do soon in office, the Congress passes it all, and the repercussions are either leading the country to total ruin, a new tyrannical dystopia, or starting a new utopia of whatever colour stripe the author is.

If anyone follows American politics, especially of the last 15 years, it should be pretty clear that it just can't happen like that. President Obama managed to get the Affordable Healthcare Act through Congress before a massive Tea Party inspired backlash managed to put the Republican party in control the House of Representatives and the Senate. Ever since then political gridlock has held the government in the US hostage. It's fair to say that if a very liberal Democrat got into office, no matter real life or alternate history, that the Republicans could mount similar tactics to what has happened today, and vice versa. And it's really rare where political programs not only work as advertised, but even better. For all the great things the New Deal did, most of them actually really didn't do much in the long run besides immediate relief, and many were struck down by the Supreme Court or Democrats that thought Roosevelt was going to far.

The wheelchair told him to do it.
3. The "Nazi Party" Election

This is a very extreme form of the election I mentioned above, and basically it involves a party with a few questionable policies but a charismatic and forceful leader taking advantage of a political or economic crisis to not only run in an election, but win. This would then be followed by dismantling democracy, jailing dissidents, pushing propaganda on the rest of the populace (along with a brutal secret police) and plotting how to glorify the nation, or have it catch up with a competitor.

I call it this because this is exactly how Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power in Germany. And in alternate history I have no problem with this kind of scenario, but only if it's done right. Harry Turtledove's Timeline 191 series did this for the Confederate States of America, with Jake Featherstone and his fascists, racist Liberty Party winning the elections to not only the Presidency by the CS Congress. So, while some of the things felt a bit suspicious (like trying to get the Supreme Court to vote itself irelevent... what?) over all it's a fairly good example. I still have to see if maybe Turtledove's Joe Steele, which is still sitting on my bookshelf unread as I write this, handles it just as well.

Oh this will be a nice book. I'm sure of it...
But in many circumstances how it comes about is complete baloney. The background to such an event has to make sense: economic disaster, a resentful nation with a humiliating peace treaty, and/or a political gridlock and division that makes the other problems even worse when no one can deal with it. It's not possible for a nation that has a strong democratic tradition, with a respected constitution and government structure, when everything is going alright (well, mostly alright; nothing is perfect after all) to then suddenly allow a dictator to come to power, even if legally through elections. It's only in the most desperate moments: a losing war, an even worse Great Depression, a general feeling of misery and anger, that allows demagogues to come to power.

4. The "Screw the Smaller Elections, Just the President Matters" Election

This is the one where the writer just doesn't give a crap about the hundreds of congresspeople, Members of Parliament, or whatever title is given to the representatives of the people that are voted. No, the only vote that's important is the guy at the top: the President, the Prime Minister, the Big Cheese. After all, that's the guy that get's the nuclear briefcase, the big house, and the ability to basically shut down all TV stations to just say hi.

"My fellow Americans... how are you? Why won't you call? Don't you still love me???"
These AH's focus on the Head of Government (or Head of State) as the primary source of power in a nation. While some nations might be like that (*coughPutincough*), most democracies try to balance it out between the Legislative, Executive and Judicial branch, preventing one person from dominating the government.

This is different from the previous point I made, mostly in that while the nation may still be democratic, but the writer only focuses on the top leader. I can see why some people would do this, but I think it's also important that, even if the focus is on the leader of the party, that at least the numbers of the representatives who will be elected and have to work with the President.

5. The "I've Done My Homework" Election

Theses are really hard to pull off, and usually you will only see these take place in made up nations, not real ones. When working on one like this, the big colorful maps with all the ridings, electoral districts, or Electoral College votes plotted out, the math done, and believable candidates with platforms that make sense, politicking, debates, etc. etc...

After all, no one would ever believe it if you did something like this in fiction...
The only problem with these ones is how hard they can be to put together. First, in an alternate history, maybe populations have shifted, or new states or provinces are there, and others aren't. But a very dedicated, map fanatic Alternate historian will go so far as to make their own electoral maps, election rules, and run the election. Of course, if the rules are changed they could make it easier on themselves and do away with the maps all together, and instead focus on proportional representation or other forms of voting. Because, let's face it, saying a party got 35% of the vote is easier than making up hundreds names, numbers and candidates, all for one alternate history.

As much as I like these AH Elections, I still want to see an actual story, not just focused on the election. You could make 338 articles on every riding in Canada, or the 650 some in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom... but we only have so much time and energy.

6. The "Elections? What Are Elections?" Election

1984 writ large. It's not just Oceania that doesn't have a democracy, but every nation in the world. It could come in different flavors: communism, fascism, military dictatorship, technocracy. Basically elections aren't even necessary, and will most likely never be held, or restricted to only certain people. Frankly, this is just a story driven one, as even North Korea has to stage elections, though it's a "everyone will vote for the one candidate or you will be shot" kind. You will not see these in real life, no matter who brutal the dictatorship.

Seriously? You don't even try Big Brother? Wow...
This has just been a short look at some of the different ways elections are handled in Alternate Histories. While each of the ways mentioned above have their place, in most places I want more Number 5 kinds, but those are pretty tough to make, so even just a Number 4 would be okay... Number 3 and 6 if they fit into the story. I really, really want 1 and 2 to be completely done away with, but it will be hard to remove those.

At least we have elections to determine this!

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