The Great Society: Idealism Meets Realism
For a century we labored to settle and to subdue a continent. For half a century, we called upon unbounded invention and untiring industry to create an order of plenty for all our people. The challenge of the next half century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization…. For in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society. The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time…. [T]he Great Society is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.
A scant half-year later Johnson would lead his party to one of the most lopsided victories in American electoral history, putting veto-proof Democrat majorities in both chambers of Congress. That would smooth the way for one of the busiest periods of Executive-Legislative cooperation in the nation’s history.
It would be all the more surprising, therefore, when just two, short years later the Democrats would suffer significant losses in the midterm elections; and that the President and his administration consequently would be in retreat on the same agenda that had appeared so inevitable just months earlier. Some of the initial successes would endure; others would be reversed; most would be challenged, at the very least, as the fleeting promise of the mid-1960s seemed to come undone.
The Great Society initially was a time of tremendous
optimism and enthusiasm. Eventually,
however, it became an era marked by social unrest almost unprecedented in the
nation’s history. New demands on behalf
of racial and ethnic minorities, women, the poor, and the elderly would be
answered by a backlash from others, especially white males, against
governmental activism on behalf of those formerly ignored minority groups. Add to that mix the tremendous divisiveness
introduced by the escalating war in
In several respects the Great Society can be seen as a continuation—intensification might be a better way to put it—of the spirit and tactics of the New Deal. Like the earlier period, the Great Society did not witness any serious threats to the dominant, corporate-capitalist order. Instead (again, as with the New Deal), political leaders in the 1960s sought to redress some of the shortcomings of the capitalist system in order to deliver its perceived benefits to more groups in society. The emphasis, in other words, would be on evolution rather than revolution, whatever some of the era’s more reactionary critics might claim at the time or subsequently.
Also like the New Deal—but, again, extending things a bit further—political leaders during the Great Society tended to de-emphasize the advice of political party officials, seeking instead to apply “scientific” (even if it was social-scientific) knowledge to social problems under the guidance of an ever-more-centralized federal government.
In some other, critical ways,
however, the Great Society differed significantly from the New Deal. Whereas FDR and his New Dealers in their
initial years faced a formidable obstacle in the guise of a Supreme Court
opposed to much of the Democrats’ agenda, the judicial environment that
confronted LBJ’s program was almost directly the opposite.
More important for the intermediate fate of its core programs, however, as well as for the long-term development of electoral politics, the Great Society was highly elitist in nature. Its primary support appeared to be drawn primarily from what some have termed a “New Class” of radical intellectuals, whose goals seemed to include throwing out the old ways of contesting politics—including the Democrat Party as it was then constituted. Weakening the party base by insisting on working apart from it, this collection of activists and technocrats alienated many of the traditional groups that had supported the party since at least the beginning of the New Deal. Only by ridding the party of its electoral “baggage”, those elites thought, could the true, democratic spirit of the New Deal be preserved and extended.
And extending the nation’s efforts on behalf of its people was precisely what the Johnson Administration intended to do. Seeking to capitalize on the memory of his slain predecessor in order to achieve victories in Congress, LBJ discovered that JFK’s planned, antipoverty programs had drawn heavily on the ideas contained in Michael Harrington’s book, The Other America, which pointed out that poverty continued to flourish even in the “affluent society’ that the U.S. had become. More important, Harrington’s work laid out a theory of a “culture of poverty” in which shortcomings in education, training, housing, health care, and related aspects of life all worked to reinforce one another in negative ways. Convinced that his dream of a “Great Society” could never be realized as long as those conditions existed, Johnson was determined to wage “war on poverty”.
Thus, between January 4 and
A Conservative “Social Revolution”?
As unprecedented as those efforts may have been in
an American context, they nevertheless failed to measure up to the level of
social services and public investments that had become commonplace in European
“welfare states”. In the modern,
industrialized democracies of
In addition to Johnson’s reluctance to raise taxes
in order to pay for the Great Society, there was the aggravating problem of the
black hole of spending that was attached to our escalating involvement in
It would be both unfair and inaccurate, however, to leave this discussion without acknowledging the considerable progress that was made as a result of that period of federal-governmental activism. In fact, millions of Americans came to live better, healthier, happier, more fulfilling lives because of the many initiatives undertaken under the banner of the Great Society. The elderly, the poor, the uneducated, the working classes, the disabled, and people of color all saw improvements in their abilities to latch onto the American dream of improving their own lives and those of their children.
No matter how well intended or effective such programs turned out to be, however, a large number of them suffered collectively from a single problem: by targeting particular groups—especially the poor, and even more particularly poor racial minorities (especially African-Americans)—they produced a backlash among middle- and upper-class Americans, especially (white) males, who felt they were being asked to pay too high a price to support people whom they saw as making insufficient efforts on their own behalves.
Thus was born the conservative backlash against the Great Society, almost as soon as the pieces of the expanded, social-safety net were put into place. Certainly most Americans, whites as well as blacks, were in favor of eliminating the overt racial discrimination that had defined Jim Crow for so many decades. What did not go over so well, however, were policies that went beyond the simple eradication of those legal barriers. Integration of local schools and neighborhoods, in particular, and the targeting of assistance programs toward African-American communities more generally, did not sit well with many moderate and conservative whites. That was particularly true of the union members whose collective-bargaining clout had allowed them to achieve a certain degree of economic security. Those blue-collar laborers (“hard hats” as they came to be known at the time, owing to the protective head gear they often wore on the job) had constituted the core of the New Deal-Democrat coalition. Interestingly, then, the social initiatives undertaken by the Democrats under President Johnson’s leadership ended up having a more divisive effect on their own ranks than on those of the Republican opposition.
The midterm congressional elections
of 1966 saw the Democrats lose 47 House seats, 3 Senate seats, and 8 governorships.
The days of unbeatable congressional majorities were a thing of the
past, and with them went Johnson’s enthusiasm for social experimentation.
Instead, he would become increasingly preoccupied with the war in
What those groups were reacting against
was a change—albeit a temporary one—in the political culture that was literally
If the issues of the 1960s reformers seemed to have been scuttled almost before they could be aired, however, we should be careful not to dismiss them out of hand as historically inconsequential. For as it turned out, the cluster of concerns that lay at the center of this most unsettling period in American political history would actually constitute the agenda for much of the ensuing, conservative/Reagan era. Race relations, feminism, foreign policy, welfare: the past lives on. The players have changed, but the game continues.