The Great Society: Idealism Meets Realism


            On May 22, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed the graduating class at the University of Michigan.  Among his remarks were the following words:


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 Vietnam, and all the ingredients were there for a time of near-revolution in American politics.


Moving Beyond the New Deal


            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.  A Court that would become known for its liberal tilt was all too willing to accommodate the similarly liberal initiatives of the Great Society.

            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 October 23, 1965, his administration submitted 87 bills to Congress—and he was able to sign 84 of them (96%) into law![i]  The range of social initiatives was breathtaking in a nation whose culture fostered a suspicion of governmental activism and a reliance on individual initiative.  Among the major areas addressed by Great Society initiatives were:


  • National health insurance for the elderly (Medicare) and the poor (Medicaid)
  • Federal aid to education, including grants for poor and subsidized loans for middle-class, college students
  • Increases in Social Security benefits, and changes in the program to shift some of the burden away from lower- and toward higher-income recipients
  • The Civil Rights (1964) and Voting Rights (1965) Acts
  • Economic redevelopment of urban (inner-city) and rural (Appalachia) America
  • Training for teenagers to improve their employment prospects (Job Corps; Neighborhood Youth Corps)
  • Retraining for unemployed workers (Manpower Development and Training Act)
  • Preschool education (Head Start)
  • College-preparation assistance for talented but impoverished teens (Upward Bound)
  • Nutritional assistance in the form of food stamps and school lunch programs
  • Legal assistance for the poor
  • Use of neighborhood-based groups (Community Actions Programs, or CAPs) to administer federal antipoverty programs


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 Western Europe, public assistance for families and individuals in such areas as health care, jobs training, income maintenance, and education was available more or less universally.  That is, citizens in those countries didn’t have to jump through bureaucratic hoops to demonstrate that they qualified to receive such benefits.  Rather, those allowances went to them automatically as part of a broader, public attitude that saw such programs as beneficial to the society in general.

In the United States, on the other hand, tax revenues were less available to pay for such benefits.  (Contrary to the impression of most Americans, taxes in this country are lower than in other, comparable nations.)  As a result, the scope of most public-assistance undertakings had to be limited accordingly.  Only certain individuals, families, or groups, rather than all Americans equally (the elderly have always been the exception in this regard), qualified for most forms of assistance.  As will be discussed shortly, those who didn’t qualify for the various forms of aid came to resent paying for them.

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 Vietnam.  Desiring both “guns” and “butter” but unwilling to risk the anger of his fellow citizens by raising their taxes, LBJ was forced to rein in his visions.  Thus was America’s best opportunity to join the ranks of the most socially progressive nations short-circuited. 

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.




Failing to Close the Deal: Popular Backlash Against the Great Society


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 Vietnam.  Furthermore, progress on the social front became all the more difficult as three groups—women  National Organization for Women blacks Black Power and young radicals Student Political Activism—became more and more vocal in their demands for progress toward equality.  And the more that Johnson and his Democrat allies in Congress tried to appease those newly militant groups, the more they alienated southerners, ethnic Catholics in the Northeast and Midwest, and blue-collar workers, all of whom became electoral “free agents” who would figure into the coming era of political change.

            What those groups were reacting against was a change—albeit a temporary one—in the political culture that was literally unprecedented in U.S. history.  For a brief time in the 1960s, “opportunity liberalism[ii], the notion that income security should be linked to effort and especially to employment (a la the “Protestant work ethic”), was replaced in much of the public’s mind by “entitlement liberalism”, or the idea that some groups in society (particularly the poor) “remained victims of social injustice and thus were entitled to the unconditional [generosity] of the federal government.”  For all the reasons laid out in the immediately preceding paragraphs, that era was short-lived.  By the following presidential election (1968) those issues had torn the New Deal coalition apart, allowing the Republicans to regain control of the White House.  Save for a brief interruption from 1977-1981, they would not loosen their grip on the presidency until Bill Clinton’s successful campaign.

            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.


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[i] Irwin Unger, The Best of Intentions (Doubleday, 1996), ch. 3.

[ii] The language here belongs to Gareth Davies and is taken from his book, From Opportunity to Entitlement: The Transformation and Decline of Great Society Liberalism (University Press of Kansas, 1996), p. 4.