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.