As any professional (or amateur or former) historian can tell you, causation is a tricky business, often fraught with more moral or political judgment than scientific analysis.
Slavery, for example, is widely thought to be “the” cause of the Civil War, but that view arguably assumes something that shouldn’t be assumed. The desire to protect the institution of slavery was at the core of the decision of the various Southern states to secede, but it was the Northern refusal to allow peaceful secession that precipitated the actual outbreak of hostilities. Slavery may have caused secession, but did secession cause the war, or was the response to secession the cause? These questions cannot be answered by accumulating more facts.
Similarly, the revisionist school of Civil War historians in the mid-20th century frequently blamed the often moralistic abolitionists for making compromise impossible, but there is no objective, scientific way to say their extreme response to evil was the cause of war rather than the extreme evil to which they were responding. To say they were “the” or even “a” cause of war is to say they shouldn’t have acted the way they did, but that is a matter of moral and political judgment, not fact.
I was reminded of the Civil War, as I frequently am, by our current partisan civil war, and specifically by the passage below from the current dean of establishment punditry, David Broder.
Broder cited new polls from Republican pollster Bill McInturff finding “striking” numbers: voters oppose the Democratic health bills by 52% to 40%,
with more than twice as many strongly opposed as are strongly supportive.
By a similar margin, 54 percent to 42 percent, they support the Republican argument for starting over and focusing on smaller pieces of legislation embodying bipartisan agreement, rather than merging the more comprehensive reform bills passed by the House and Senate….
Moving on to the health care summit, Broder continued:
A bit later in the day, during the session at Blair House, Obama cited other polls showing broad support for provisions in the pending bills that would change insurance rules to tear down barriers for those with pre-existing illnesses and remove the caps on benefit payments.
But armed with McInturff’s evidence that those who have been following the debate most closely and those most likely to vote in November are swinging to the Republican side of the argument — just as they did in 1994 — the GOP legislators at Obama’s summit resisted his efforts to draw them onto common ground. [Emphasis added]
Wait a minute here. Who’s resisting whom? Did Broder forget that he had just finished saying that it was the Republicans who wanted to focus on “smaller pieces of legislation embodying bipartisan agreement,” and the Democrats who wanted “comprehensive reform”? How, then, did the Republicans all of a sudden become the villains who “resisted [Obama’s] efforts to draw them onto common ground”?
Easy. They weren’t acting the way Broder would have had them act, just as the abolitionists didn’t respond to the evil of slavery in the calmer manner preferred by the revisionist historians.