John Judis's Counterfactual Reflections on World War II and the Federal Government Shutdown

In his latest New Republic essay on the Federal Government shutdown, John Judis offers an interesting counterfactual validation of World War II’s positive effects upon postwar American history.

In his essay, Judis describes the role of Republicans in eroding America’s social contract – the belief in the importance of a strong central government. 

After discussing the role of John Calhoun’s anti-government radicals and their pursuit of nullification in the early to mid-19th century, he describes “the rise in 1937 of a conservative coalition of conservative Southern Democrats and rural Midwestern Republicans to block and repeal the New Deal through parliamentary maneuvers and investigations.”  This reactionary movement temporarily faded from view, however, “because in 1941 Americans went to war against Nazi Germany and Japan. World War II unified Americans. In modern wars, the national government has to call upon all its citizens to do their part and to submerge their differences. Business made peace with labor; blacks served alongside whites. And that spirit of national unification lasted for 15 years after the war. It helped to give rise—although not without conflict—to a social compact between business and labor, an end to racial segregation and the preservation and expansion of New Deal programs like social security.”

To reinforce this point, Judis adds the rhetorically powerful observation that “If World War II had not intervened, it’s very likely that the conservative coalition would have grown stronger, and would have been able to stop the expansion of, if not undermine, social security.” 

As it happened, the consensus broke down in the turbulent 1960s as Southern Democrats switched to the Republican Party and drove the GOP into its present-day reactionary stance. 

Judis’s prediction is that the GOP will continue to behave in this fashion and “the largest effect is likely to be continued dysfunction in Washington, which if it continues over a decade or so, will threaten economic growth and America’s standing in the world, undermine social programs like the Affordable Care Act, and probably encourage more radical movements on the right and the left. Think of Italy, Greece, or Weimar Germany. Or think about what the United States would have been like if World War II had not occurred, and if Europe, the United States, and Japan had failed to pull themselves out of the Great Depression.”

Judis’s “what ifs?” underscore how important World War II was for the United States’s early postwar stability.  It is indeed arguably the case that without its unifying impact upon the country, we would be much worse off today.  It's awkward to have to admit that we benefited so dramatically from a war that cost 55 million people their lives worldwide.  But it seems undeniable.