On Thursday in Austin, Texas, President Obama delivered the keynote address at the LBJ Presidential Library’s Civil Rights Summit marking the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. His theme was social progress through government action. “What President Johnson understood was that equality required more than the absence of oppression,” the president said. “It required the presence of economic opportunity. . . . A decent job, decent wages, health care — those, too, were civil rights worth fighting for. . . . He understood that government had a role to play in broadening prosperity for all those who would strive for it.”
The summit also marked the beginning of a string of semi-centennial commemorations of Johnson’s legislative achievements. The events will rehabilitate LBJ’s image in the coming years and present him as a champion of progress and social justice — equal rights for black Americans, economic relief for the nation’s poor.
The purpose of such an image for LBJ would be to supplant his better-known reputation as the president who escalated the war in Vietnam and declined to seek a second term. But now, as NPR plainly declared, “there’s an effort underway to reassess the 36th President of the United States and to put some of the focus back on an issue that improved the lives of millions of Americans.”
That effort, it turns out, is largely one of the media themselves. In “How LBJ Saved the Civil Rights Act,” a long piece for The Atlantic, Michael O’Donnell casts Johnson as the tireless and courageous hero of the bill: “Days after Kennedy’s murder, Johnson displayed the type of leadership on civil rights that his predecessor lacked and that the other branches could not possibly match. He made the bold and exceedingly risky decision to champion the stalled civil-rights bill.”
At the summit, Politico’s Todd Purdum moderated a panel on the relationship between Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. and averred that, despite Johnson’s staunch opposition to previous civil-rights bills when Johnson was Senate majority leader, when he was vice president “his convictions hardened” to the point that he thought “that the issue had to be addressed if the country had any hope of living up to its founding creed.”
(Whether that was LBJ’s primary motive is a matter of some dispute. Kevin Williamson outraged liberal media in a 2012 piece in which he attacked “the popular but indefensible belief that the two major U.S. political parties somehow ‘switched places’ vis-à-vis protecting the rights of black Americans, a development believed to be roughly concurrent with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the rise of Richard Nixon.” Williamson contended that LBJ’s motive for championing civil rights wasn’t to fulfill the founding creed but to reorganize the Democratic party’s political base.)
But the point of the LBJ celebrations this year and next is not to canonize Johnson as defender of black Americans. It is to hold him up as a champion for progress, albeit imperfect, and declare that the struggle for civil rights isn’t over and that the memory of LBJ should inspire us to carry on his work. In his remarks at the summit Tuesday, Jimmy Carter lamented that “we’re pretty much dormant now. We accept self-congratulations about the wonderful 50th anniversary — which is wonderful — but we feel like Lyndon Johnson did it and we don’t have to do anything anymore.” The feeling was echoed by Representative John Lewis (D., Ga.), a veteran of the civil-rights movement, who scolded today’s youth for their lack of concern. “You’re just too quiet,” he said. “You need to make some noise.”
But noise about what, exactly? A perusal of the summit’s program offers some clues, with panel discussions on whether gay marriage is a civil right, whether amnesty for illegal immigrants is a civil right, and where the struggle for women’s rights now stands (“Women: How High Is the Glass Ceiling?”). From that, one could be forgiven for having the impression that the current struggle for civil rights is primarily about expanding the definition of rights, recasting them as government-conferred benefits, and pushing for more-robust federal action to secure them. As the president said, it’s not enough anymore to have an absence of oppression; we must be doing something to make Americans more equal, to create an economy in which “success is shared.”
In its defense of the Affordable Care Act, the White House has lately been employing the rhetoric of civil rights and equality rather heavy-handedly. On April 1, the administration announced that 7.1 million people had enrolled in health coverage through the exchanges, exceeding the goal set by the Congressional Budget Office for the six-month enrollment period. In his remarks, the president not only declared the repeal debate to be over but also implied that the health-care law is now part of the long and inexorable progress of civil rights. “In the end, history is not kind to those who would deny Americans their basic economic security,” he said. “Nobody remembers well those who stand in the way of America’s progress or our people. And that’s what the Affordable Care Act represents.”
That’s also, presumably, what the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and the Great Society programs represent. Whether it’s increasing the minimum wage, combating income inequality, or passing immigration reform, contemporary progressives consistently tie their legislative agenda to a narrative about the struggle for civil rights. This isn’t just to lend their proposals moral authority but also to justify the enlargement of government power that always seems to accompany them. Johnson “grasped like few others the power of government to bring about change,” the president said.
With the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Great Society, LBJ tried to use that power for good. In this reading of Johnson’s legacy, to oppose the current administration’s policy agenda — whether it be ACA subsidies or a higher minimum wage — is retrograde and pessimistic. At worst, it might even be oppressive, but it’s at least lazy and unambitious. “It’s perhaps easy to conclude that there are limits to change . . . and we’d be better off if we roll back big chunks of LBJ’s legacy, or at least if we don’t invest too much of our hope in our government,” the president said Thursday. “I reject such thinking.”
And little wonder. Trusting government to solve big problems, to make progress, has been the cornerstone of the Obama administration’s domestic agenda. The president’s insistence on progress via government power is a glimpse of the teleological conundrum of modern progressivism: One can never stop because the work is never done. No matter how close to that Hegelian end point you get, you never quite get there — which means, practically speaking, that you can never stop enlarging the power and scope of government as the primary means to achieve equality and social justice.
It also means we’re going to be hearing a lot about LBJ for the next couple of years.
— John Daniel Davidson is a senior health-care-policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and a 2013 Lincoln Fellow of the Claremont Institute.