To be sure, there have been a few genuinely world-altering events that seem to have happened in an instant. The men who dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 were deploying technology that had taken decades to develop. Nonetheless, in carrying out that act, these US airmen did effect an almost immediate transformation in the nature of warfare and in attitudes towards it. Many momentous changes, however, have taken centuries to work through. Consider the terrible outbreak of plague in the 14th century known as the Black Death. Europe suffered disproportionately, losing perhaps 50 per cent of its total population. One result of this, however, was that the living standards and wages of many of those who survived seem to have improved. This, it has been suggested, led in time to a marked increase in Europeans’ food consumption and demand for consumer goods. And this rise in demand may well in turn have contributed to the increasing number of European trading voyages across the world’s oceans in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. Even traumatic shifts in human history can have mixed and sometimes useful consequences.
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Populists, a widespread breed at present, often like to represent particular territories and sets of people in terms of an unchanging and finite set of characteristics, either out of boosterism, or as a means to marginalise and condemn. Thus, Sarah Palin, one-time Republican governor of Alaska, used to refer to her supporters as ‘real Americans’, as though such unadulterated beings existed, and as though her opponents were somehow not ‘real’. By the same token, the leading populist party in Finland used to call itself the True Finns, as though other Finns were not part of an essential Finnish nation.
Given the current bitter polarisation of political allegiances, it is important to remember that national groupings have never been homogeneous and are rarely static. Of course, there are some persistent habits and patterns of thought and behaviour in all long-standing states. But countries and their populations are not just mixed in terms of ethnicity, politics, religion and much more, they also change over time, sometimes rapidly and radically. Swedes today are very different from Swedes in 1940. So whenever you hear people saying ‘the British people are …’, followed by a list of asserted characteristics, or ‘Americans have always been …’ etc, a sense of history will help to summon up a tonic dose of scepticism.
What are the triggers of dramatic episodes of change? Savage outbreaks of disease can be a trigger; so can significant alterations in climate, like the so-called Little Ice Age that began in the 17th century. Some leaps forward in technology, such as the invention of printing in China, have precipitated long-drawn-out, transcontinental changes; so have economic crises, and major shifts in the nature of belief and ideology, such as the Reformation. But perhaps the most recurring and paradoxical trigger of change in human society has been war.
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Unsurprisingly, the countries that were invaded or defeated tended to be the ones that underwent the most fundamental changes. Germany, Japan and France all gained new constitutions after 1945. By contrast, neither the UK, which was seemingly a victor power, nor the US, which was certainly a victor power, changed its political system in the wake of the Second World War. Instead, in both countries, victory served for a while to burnish and strengthen the existing political order.
Over the centuries both the United Kingdom and the United States have indeed been almost too successful in their recourse to war, and this has had mixed repercussions for their political systems and democracy. In the United States, success against the British in the Revolutionary War led to the drafting of the American constitution of 1787, a brief but remarkable document.
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This conspicuous success rate on the battlefield helped to cement the political system established in 1787, which has been subject to only a limited number of amendments. The US now possesses the oldest written constitution still in operation in the world, which is an achievement to be sure, but also by now a source of some difficulties. The 1787 constitution said nothing about the operation of political parties. This lacuna was manageable so long as the main US parties were similar in outlook and prepared to abide by certain ‘gentlemanly’ conventions. Today, these conditions no longer apply, and gridlock has ensued. Similarly, the second amendment, passed in 1791, allowing US citizens access to arms, was manageable when most firearms were muskets that took minutes to load. Obviously, this is no longer the case. So while it may be tempting to attribute current political dysfunction in the US to particular personalities, some of the root causes are long-term, structural and connected to America’s experience of war. Military success has helped to foster constitutional stasis and complacency.