War? What is it good for? Specifically, what effect does it have on domestic American politics? Political scientists have “underexamined [wars] as casual factors in American politics” argues David R. Mayhew, Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale University. With long, undeclared wars of very limited mobilization the new normal in this century, Mayhew’s thesis is well worth reviewing.
Mayhew takes the War of 1812 (1812-1815), Mexican-American War (1846-1848), Civil War (1860-1865) and both World Wars (1917-1918, 1941-1945; dates of direct American involvement) as his cases. Durable changes in issues and policies, electoral alignments and coalitions, and party ideologies have all resulted from these major agenda-setting events.
The War of 1812, which we are barely remembering during its bicentennial, is Mayhew’s model. Two big policy changes came out of the war: Congress’s establishment of the Second Bank of the U.S. and a protective tariff to shield industries, especially the makers of cotton textiles. Less codified by actual law, but given strong impetus in society by American failures during the war, was a new sense of the necessity of “internal improvements,”–what we’d call infrastructure today. The combination of these three factors became known as the “American System,”–“a stronger post-war political economy backed by a stronger state.” The American System lasted roughly a quarter century.
Mayhew goes on to summarize the revolutionary changes of the war with Mexico, which included increasing the size of the U.S. and setting the stage for the slavery/free soil debate and the Civil War, which transformed the nation profoundly. The two World Wars had huge domestic effects, the second in particular by largely making the America (and world) many of us grew up in.
So how will the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan–and now Iraq/Syria again–influence our future? History is a map of the past but no clear guide to the future, even if George Santayana’s “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is usually quoted in cases like this. This is probably why historians and political scientists are rarely politicians.