Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Great Society — that burst of legislation under President Lyndon B. Johnson that ushered in civil rights and voting rights for black Americans, Medicare and Medicaid, and the War on Poverty and a host of other welfare programs. Although he is best remembered for his escalation of the Vietnam War, Johnson’s Great Society is his more enduring legacy. It inserted the federal government into the lives of all Americans in new and permanent ways, changing the terms of our national debate about the proper role and scope of government.
That role is of course the subject of much debate today, and the half-century mark of the Great Society has therefore been accompanied by an effort on the Left to bolster LBJ’s reputation as the father — at least one of them — of American progressivism and civil rights, especially as civil rights have increasingly come to be understood as government-conferred benefits. Commentators and historians have tended to emphasize Johnson’s role in the Great Society more than that of the lawmakers in Congress who actually passed the bills, and for good reason: The Great Society was Johnson’s agenda through and through. He considered himself to be following in the footsteps of his political hero, FDR, and fulfilling the promise of the New Deal for a new generation of Americans.
But for all that’s been written about Johnson, not enough has been written about the other players and forces at work in the passage of the Great Society. This new book by Princeton historian Julian E. Zelizer challenges the conventional wisdom that the Great Society was primarily the work of one man. The key to its enactment was not the president himself or the popularity of liberalism, argues Zelizer, but “the specific changes between the summer of 1964 and the November elections that created unusually good conditions in Congress for passing domestic bills.” The Great Society was the result of a convergence of factors that created an opening Johnson had the cunning and skill to exploit.
That’s a fine thesis, as far as it goes, and Zelizer has written a thorough and engaging book. He carefully sets the legislative events in their proper context, showing, for example, how the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, which generated news footage of Alabama state troopers attacking peaceful protesters with nightsticks and electric cattle prods, placed pressure on lawmakers to act on voting rights.
But in recounting the social and political changes that made the Great Society possible, Zelizer perpetuates one of the great myths of modern American politics: that, beginning in the 1960s, Democrats became the party of civil rights and Republicans began a slow transformation into the party of obstruction and “white backlash.” The conventional wisdom, according to this myth, holds that the rise of Richard Nixon and the eventual Republican capture of the South were made possible by racist southern Democrats’ defecting after Johnson backed civil rights.
As tidy and intuitive as this tale must seem to contemporary liberals, it’s a fantastical ruse. At the heart of Johnson’s embrace of civil rights was not a sudden, urgent concern for the welfare of blacks, but the reorganization of the Democratic party. He understood, in ways few of his contemporaries did, that a grand political realignment of his party was necessary in a post-war, post–New Deal America. The rising suburban middle class in the South increasingly considered the GOP, not Democrats, the party that best represented its economic interests, and Johnson knew they would tend to vote Republican as their lot improved. Making an issue out of civil rights — and poverty, and education, and health insurance for the elderly — was a crucial part of Johnson’s strategy to extend New Deal–style benefits to a broader constituency.
The problem for Johnson was that he introduced the Great Society at a time of unprecedented economic prosperity. In contrast to the New Deal, which was a response to an unprecedented economic crisis, the Great Society was sold as a normative measure, not an emergency one. Johnson declared the War on Poverty at a time when poverty had been in decline for decades and unemployment was less than 5 percent. Although he didn’t put it in these terms, the idea behind the Great Society was to increase and spread government dependence.
This truth is hidden behind the conventional narrative about Republican racism. Of course racist southern Democrats opposed civil rights in the ’60s, and of course there were also some racist Republicans. But Republicans who opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act did so, generally, not for racial reasons but over concerns about the size and reach of the federal government into state, local, and private affairs. Republican opposition to the bill tended to be inspired by Senator Barry Goldwater’s principled stance against federal overreach, not southern Democrats’ beliefs about racial inequality. That Strom Thurmond joined the GOP after the bill passed should not impugn Republicans whose views had little in common with those of southern segregationists.
Zelizer has a chapter titled “How Barry Goldwater Built the Great Society,” in which he argues that when the Republican party nominated Goldwater in 1964, it was “taking a stand against the expansion of the federal government that had been occurring since the 1930s.” That’s true, but Zelizer conflates this kind of conservatism with resistance to civil rights, which it manifestly was not. Goldwater’s running mate, New York representative William E. Miller, was a co-author of the 1957 Civil Rights Act that Lyndon Johnson, then the Senate majority leader, had worked so hard to gut. Goldwater’s vote against the 1964 bill may have been misguided, but it wasn’t motivated by racism. Democrats, on the other hand, who opposed civil rights did so because they rejected racial equality on its face.
Although one would think it germane to the legislative history of civil rights, Zelizer glosses over previous attempts by Congress — during the Eisenhower administration — to pass civil-rights legislation. Johnson watered down the 1957 and 1960 civil-rights bills to placate southern congressmen while seeking recognition from civil-rights advocates for passing a bill. As Johnson put it himself: “These Negroes, they’re getting pretty uppity these days, and that’s a problem for us, since they’ve got something now they never had before: the political pull to back up their uppityness. Now we’ve got to do something about this — we’ve got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference.”
As Kevin Williamson has convincingly argued in these pages: “Supporting civil-rights reform was not a radical turnaround for congressional Republicans in 1964, but it was a radical turnaround for Johnson and the Democrats.” Indeed, the GOP platform in 1964 called for “full implementation and faithful execution of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and all other civil rights statutes, to assure equal rights and opportunities guaranteed by the Constitution to every citizen.” It also demanded improvements to civil-rights laws to “end the denial, for whatever unlawful reason, of the right to vote,” and expressed “continued opposition to discrimination based on race, creed, national origin or sex.” As Zelizer’s narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that almost every major bill in Johnson’s Great Society was shepherded through the legislative process and ultimately passed by a bipartisan coalition of Democrats and Republicans. Neither the Civil Rights Act of 1964 nor the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would have been possible without the support of congressional Republicans. And yet Zelizer still manages to suggest a conflation of conservatism, racism, and Republicanism.
For the most part, Zelizer avoids the kind of blatant advocacy that can mar works of political history. Yet in his final pages he tips his hand and concludes that the Great Society “improved the lives of millions of citizens by creating a robust safety net, and it affirmed the principle that intervention by the federal government was a good way, perhaps the best way, to guarantee rights, to help the disadvantaged, and to improve the quality of life for all Americans.” The remarkable history of the Great Society, we’re told, shows how the skill of Johnson and his colleagues met with a unique historical moment and “broke the hold of conservatives” on Congress. Only by understanding how “forces of conservatism” were overwhelmed in Johnson’s era, Zelizer writes, “will we ever have a chance of breaking the current gridlock in Washington.”
It’s a shame that this is Zelizer’s takeaway. Gridlock in Washington is stronger now than ever — and some think that’s a good thing, a final restraint on government. But the lessons of past bipartisan cooperation on issues such as civil rights and voting rights are distorted and lost, as they are to some extent in Zelizer’s account, when they’re grafted onto a flawed historical narrative about the modern Democratic party. You can’t blame advocates of the Great Society for wanting better heroes, but a decent respect for the history of civil rights demands a more honest account than Zelizer has given.
– Mr. Davidson is a writer in Austin, Texas, and the director of the Center for Health Care Policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.