Problems in Modeling Complex Dynamic interactions: The Political Realignment of the 1850s

Robert W. Fogel

NBER Historical Working Paper No. 12
Issued in January 1993
NBER Program(s):Development of the American Economy

The aim of this paper is to break open the stochastic component of a maj or political change and to show that what seems like the product of purely chance events is the particular conjunction of processes, each of which is definable in a systematic way, that provide collectively a favorable context in which purely chance events operate. It is only in a particular context that the purely chance events became decisive in bringing about a particular political outcome. Section 1 emphasizes that Lincoln's margin of victory in 1860 was so small that anyone of numerous chance events could have resulted in his defeat. Sections 2-4 outline the intergenerational, cohort, and period changes and events that created a context favorable for the political realignment of the l850s. Section 5 describes the key chance events of 1855 -1856, the absence of any of which could have prevented the formation of a major national Republican party in 1856, as well as the chance (or at least exogenous) events of 1857-1859, the absence of which could have led to splits in the Republican party that would have insured the victory of a proslavery candidate for the Presidency in 1860. Section 6 deals with the problems and advantages of turning the theory of the political realignment of the l850s implicit in sections 2-5 into an explicit, testable mathematical model. Section 7 explains why it is impossible to produce a general theory of political realignments that would have significant predictive power.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/h0012

Published: Economics & Politics, Vol. 4, No. 3, pp. 215-254 (November 1992).

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