Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Revisiting the Election of 1860

Seth Masket claims to be busting the myth that Abraham Lincoln only won in 1860 because the Democratic Party split. Yglesias approves. Loomis does not.

The mythbusting goes like this: If you add up all the votes against Lincoln in 1860 in each of the states, Lincoln still wins the electoral college; the Democratic Party did split, but because that split was regional, only 1 Democrat gets the vote in most states. And the Constitutional Union Party got a few votes, but not enough to turn the states from Lincoln. Therefore, even if the Democrats united under Stephen Douglas, Lincoln wins.

That is the historical counterfactual equivalent of lazy punditry right there.

I don't know if Lincoln would have won against a united Democratic Party in 1860 or not. I teach the Civil War, but I'm not an expert on state politics in the antebellum years so I don't have a great sense of how the swing states (especially New York, which is the one that truly mattered) would have gone. I can make a couple of points.

1. There was significant nervousness among many moderate northerners about Republican abolitionism. This caused a fair number of future Lincoln voters to go Buchanan in 1856. What happens between 1856 and 1860? The South way overplays its hand and blows up the nation. If that doesn't happen, do all those voters go for Lincoln or Douglas? My gut tells me Douglas has a real shot.

2. What bugs me about all of this is not the expected result that Lincoln would win. It's the lazy approval that goes along with it. Life and politics aren't so simple as A+B=C today. And they weren't in 1860 either. There's an entirely different set of factors that could have come into play for many voters under a united Democratic Party. Simple answers are rarely answering any questions. That's for 2010 or 1860. And I worry that people willing to settle for simplicity in their analysis for the past might fall victim to easy explanations of causation today.