Magazine January 27, 2020, Issue

The Forgotten Failures of the Great Society

Secretary of State Dean Rusk, President Lyndon B. Johnson, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara at the White House, February 9, 1968 (Wikimedia )
Great Society: A New History, by Amity Shlaes (Harper, 528 pp., $32.50)

Amity Shlaes has written a powerful book. It is the most interesting and substantive account of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon’s “war on poverty” to date — and just in time. In Great Society: A New History, she notes that “just as the 1960s forgot the failures of the 1930s, we today forget the failures of the 1960s.” Shlaes has written 510 pages of argumentation, with detailed description and telling digression that traces the arc from the unbridled hopes of the early Sixties to the enormous administrative expansion of the “second New Deal” to the missteps in implementing it that became all too apparent in the Seventies.

The book opens with the roles played by socialist author Michael Harrington, famed for writing The Other America, a book on Appalachian poverty, and Tom Hayden of Students for a Democratic Society in forming the ethos of the ’60s. And then, by way of largely but not entirely biographical accounts, it shows how figures such as United Automobile Workers president Walter Reuther, Los Angeles mayor and Great Society critic Sam Yorty, Johnson-administration anti-poverty czar Sargent Shriver, policy intellectual Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and economist Arthur Burns shaped the Great Society and its aftermath. The advantage of such an approach is that it doesn’t neglect the “great men” of the time, while adding depth. Shlaes tells us that LBJ and Nixon conducted themselves as if they were “domestic commanders in chief.” But the book also incorporates the broader social and economic currents that centralized American life.

Walter Reuther was of a then-familiar type that many today find difficult to understand. As the militant leader of the United Automobile Workers, he wanted Scandinavian-style socialism for America, but he was also an ardent anti-Communist. In the early 1960s he hoped for a youth movement to help his cause. To that end he sponsored a conclave at the UAW’s retreat in Port Huron, Mich. It was there, with Michael Harrington in attendance, that Tom Hayden wrote the Port Huron Statement. Inspired by the direct action of the young black integrationists of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who courageously insisted on being served at segregated southern lunch counters, the Port Huron Statement made the case for what it called “participatory democracy.” But Hayden’s aim, as he acknowledged, was to advance radicalism by “call[ing] socialism liberalism.”

President Kennedy, dependent on the support of southern segregationist senators, was ambivalent about pushing for black civil rights. But after his death, his vice president and successor, Lyndon Johnson, worked with the president’s widow to depict Kennedy as a martyr to civil rights. In short order, Johnson pushed through the landmark 1964 civil-rights bill. And that year in Ann Arbor he gave a speech on what he called “the Great Society.” “The Great Society,” he exclaimed, “rests on abundance and liberty for all” and “demands an end to poverty and racial injustice.”

“But that,” explained LBJ, presenting himself as the successor to FDR, “is just the beginning.” He laid out a vision of a quality-of-life liberalism. The Great Society, said President Johnson, riding on a raft of unparalleled prosperity, is a place

where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness; . . . where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community; . . . where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods. 

LBJ carried this effulgent imagery into the 1964 Democratic convention. But there it ran up against fervid calls for the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democrats to be seated as delegates instead of the state’s all-white segregationist entry. Some liberals tried to square the circle but failed. In the short run, it didn’t matter because in the 1964 presidential election LBJ won a smashing victory against the wide-eyed Westerner Barry Goldwater (a subject Shlaes downplays). With 68 Democratic senators and 295 members of the House seated in 1965, LBJ enjoyed veto-proof majorities that enabled him to pass the Voting Rights Act, which dramatically increased black voter participation.

The optimism of Johnson’s vision was dented by the hostility of figures such as Los Angeles mayor Sam Yorty and Texas governor John Connolly, both Democrats. They voiced strong doubts about the centralization of power inherent in Great Society programs to fight poverty, improve education, and provide subsidized housing. Yorty and other mayors, including Richard Daley of Chicago, cast a gimlet eye on the way Sargent Shriver’s federal Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) funded organizations operating in their cities outside mayoral control, such as the lackluster Job Corps. Worse yet for the mayors, Shriver was disbursing money to black militants who denigrated LBJ’s Great Society as insufficiently radical.  

In March 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an obscure deputy undersecretary of labor, published what came to be known as the Moynihan Report. He warned that “the United States is approaching a new crisis in race relations.” Moynihan saw that “the gap between the Negro and most other groups in American society is widening.” The cause, he explained, was the crumbling of the black family. Moynihan, hardly a racist, was pilloried for his insights and driven out of government.

LBJ, pushing aside the Moynihan Report, marked the Voting Rights Act with a grandiose speech on civil rights at Howard University in June 1965:

You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “You are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. . . . This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom [of opportunity] but . . . equality as a right and equality as a result. 

Six weeks later, Watts, L.A.’s ghetto, well-to-do by black standards but nonetheless oppressed by the city’s dragnet policing, exploded into violence. In a feat of self-destruction, rioters and looters engulfed their own neighborhood in flames for six nights. The rioters made a point of targeting whites, and they made ample use of Molotov cocktails. When it was over there were damages totaling $40 million, 34 dead, and over 1,000 injured.

Johnson was puzzled as to why such violence had taken place. But he plowed ahead, insisting that both the War on Poverty and the war in Vietnam could be won, despite the mounting casualties, by narrow-gauged technocratic means. In the midst of the economic boom, LBJ forcefully asserted that the U.S. could afford both guns and butter. There were, however, Shlaes notes, further troubles on the horizon — inflation loomed, and, although barely noticed by the UAW’s Reuther, non-union Toyota cars began rolling off the assembly line of an American factory. Toyota’s nimble production line wasn’t hampered by the bureaucratically negotiated, barely disguised class warfare of Detroit’s auto factories. 

LBJ, “who had never been a governor or a mayor,” notes Shlaes, pushed ahead, as he had done successfully in the Senate, with a pressure campaign to carry out his agenda. In Vietnam that meant increased bombing; at home it led to renewed support for Sargent Shriver’s Community Action programs — all to little positive effect. What followed was the Long Hot Summer of 1967, in which 159 cities were caught up in a racial insurrection. In Newark, where Tom Hayden had done his best to stir up racial animosities through a community-organizing program initially funded by Reuther’s UAW, 26 people died in five days of mayhem. The National Guard had to be called in to halt the violence. But worse was to come. Shortly after Newark, which was led by a corrupt and incompetent mayor, cooled down, Detroit, led by a liberal Democrat responsive to black concerns, erupted in the worst violence any city had seen since the Civil War. Here, too, policing was at issue. The Detroit riots were so intense that 43 people died and LBJ had to call in the 101st Airborne to quell the savagery from both police and rioters. In April 1968, in the wake of civil-rights leader Martin Luther King’s assassination, 110 cities, most notably Washington and Baltimore, erupted in riots. Baltimore would never recover.

Shlaes touches only briefly on the Kerner Commission on the riots. The primary author of the commission’s report, New York mayor John Lindsay, set the tone for the coming decades with his bombastic but widely quoted conclusion that, despite the Great Society programs, “Our nation was moving toward two societies, . . . separate and unequal.” Lindsay singled out white racism as the sole cause of this supposed split. It was as redress for racism that Columbia professors Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, who are unmentioned, called for pumping up the state welfare rolls. Their aim, which achieved some success in New York, was to precipitate a fiscal crisis as a means of forcing the federal government to step in with expanded federal welfare programs.

To pay for both guns and butter, says Shlaes, LBJ “bullied” William McChesney Martin’s Federal Reserve into easing the money supply and thereby letting loose the dogs of inflation. But in 1968, after two summers of widespread rioting, LBJ was dismayed by a military stalemate in Vietnam and an unexpectedly strong primary challenge from anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy. Battered, an exhausted Johnson decided not to run for a second full term.

LBJ’s successor, Richard Nixon, thought of himself as a foreign-policy president. Shlaes observes that on domestic policy he continued most of the Great Society programs, such as OEO’s Office of Legal Services. The lawyers of Legal Services, initially enlisted to serve low-income individuals, began  filing sweeping class-action suits.

Nixon, she explains, sought to outflank the liberals by hiring “disgraced” Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He was to design a plan that would replace welfare, and the numerous social-worker bureaucrats who administered it, with a guaranteed annual income for the poor. It was better, Moynihan argued, to write checks than to administer mores. But Moynihan got tangled up with the power of the public-sector unions he helped create in the early 1960s while at the Labor Department. Further, Moynihan faced a formidable foe in another counselor to the president, Arthur Burns, who argued that Moynihan’s ambitious Family Assistance Plan to ensure a guaranteed income was too clumsy and expensive to work. In 1970, Burns, referring to Kennedy’s New Frontier and LBJ’s Great Society during confirmation hearings to become chairman of the Federal Reserve, noted that the “budget had grown more  in the past nine years than it grew in the two centuries before.” A combination of inflation and foreign competition brought the boom to an end; what followed was rising unemployment accompanied by more inflation. A new term, “stagflation,” was coined to describe the situation, which the once-standard Keynesian economics could not explain.

Shlaes sums up by telling the reader that “the results of our experimentations in expanding government were not generous.” There were, she explains, “profound sources of the unexpected tragedies of the Great Society endeavor,” which had looked upon the private sector as little more than a “milk cow.” Worse yet, she argues, the “1960s experiment and its 1970s aftermath suggest”  that the “social democratic compromise” of the Great Society came “close enough to socialism to cause economic tragedy.”

Moynihan came to acknowledge the misbegotten character of his plans for a guaranteed annual income. But his was a rare intellectual honesty. By and large, the Great Society programs burrowed their way into government and the Democratic party. Fifty years later, the great opportunities of the 1960s economic boom and LBJ’s promise of “opportunity for all” have slipped through America’s fingers, leaving us the remains of a welfare state that has entrapped African Americans in the tender grasp of the leviathan.

This article appears as “The Sixties’ Forgotten Failures” in the January 27, 2020, print edition of National Review.

Fred SiegelMr. Siegel is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal and a scholar in residence at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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