There are days that call for history lessons, and while most liberals don’t realize it, we should definitely insist on May 22 being one of them. After all, it was 49 years ago yesterday that President Lyndon Baines Johnson intoned these words at a speech delivered to a graduating class at the University of Michigan:
“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 of 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.”
At the time, they seemed to foreshadow the apotheosis of New Deal liberalism, that unique brand of boldly assertive economic and social progressivism set into motion during Franklin Roosevelt’s whirlwind opening term (1933-1937) and ratified as America’s dominant political ideology for a generation by his landslide reelection in 1936. While it may be hard to imagine today, the overarching philosophy that guided national policy during the middle third of the twentieth century held that the federal government could play a proactive role in fighting poverty, discrimination, and economic injustice without violating the precepts of the Constitution (which, as I explained in an earlier op-ed, did not inherently proscribe state intervention in economic matters). As Roosevelt himself explained in his 11th State of the Union address, “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”
This precept clearly provided the theoretical foundation for Roosevelt’s revolutionary first term, which saw the passage of unprecedented federal job-creation programs (including the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Civil Works Administration, the Public Works Administration, the Works Progress Administration, and the National Youth Administration), relief measures for the poor and elderly (the Federal Emergency Relief Act, the Home Owners Loan Corporation, and Social Security), business regulations to curtail financial chicanery (the Emergency Banking Relief Act, and the Securities and Exchange Commission Act), and protections for workers and consumers (the National Recovery Administration and the National Labor Relations Act), to name just a handful of its major policy initiatives. While these policies had philosophically eclectic roots and did not in their own right end the Great Depression (which Roosevelt had inherited from his predecessor, Republican Herbert Hoover), they significantly alleviated the misery endured by millions of Americans as a result of that worldwide economic collapse. What’s more, they brought together a political coalition that lasted nearly half a century, one that included unions and blue collar laborers, farmers and rural Southern whites, African Americans and so-called “ethnic whites” (generally southern and eastern Europeans and Jews), big city machines and intellectuals, and anyone who agreed with Roosevelt that conservatives who justified the hardships imposed on the working class by laissez-faire policies had forgotten that “economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings.“
As a result, Democrats controlled the White House for 28 of the 36 years after Roosevelt first took office (1933-1953 and 1961-1969), as well as 32 of the 36 years during that same period (excepting the midterm reshifts from 1947-1949 and 1953-1955). Even after the rush of achievement from Roosevelt’s first term wore off, both he and his successors spent the next three decades continuing to use the government as a constructive force in America’s economic and social life. Again, the list of programs is too extensive to receive all but the briefest skim here, ranging from Roosevelt using the economic mobilization necessitated by World War Two to end the Great Depression and push through the G. I. Bill of 1944 to Harry Truman passing the Employment Act of 1946 and Fair Housing Act of 1949. Dwight Eisenhower (a moderate Republican) signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 (creating the modern interstate highway system) and juiced America’s current technological boom via influxes of funding for scientific research. John Kennedy’s passed school lunch and other food programs in impoverished areas and was an outspoken advocate of civil rights legislation. That isn’t to say that this period was a political goden age; after all, it also saw the rise of the military-industrial complex (against which Eisenhower issued his famous warning), the ballooning of our federal debt, and the lagging of civil rights due to the continued influence of conservative Democrats and their growing number of Republican sympathizers. At the same time, it was at least a period in which the government was unapologetic about trying to actively improve the lives of its citizens.
Although few could have realized it at the time, Lyndon Johnson’s speech on May 22, 1964 marked the last time this would be the case. Christening his ambitious new social and economic agenda as “the Great Society,” Johnson capped off the first year of his presidency with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in public accomodations, housing, and jobs, as well as increased federal power to prosecute civil rights abuses. Following his own landslide election in 1964, he then passed the Medical Care Act, which established Medicare and Medicaid; created the Department of Housing and Urban Development; increased federal support for education by subsidizing textbooks and libraries for needy public schools, strengthening standards, providing scholarships and low-interest college student loans, and funding educational television and radio broadcasting through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; brought the campaign against legalized racial discrimination to its climax with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the Immigration Act, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968; kickstarted the modern environment movement with the Wilderness Preservation Act, the Water Quality Act, the Clear Air Act Amendment, and the Air Quality Act (by comparison, Richard Nixon being credited for establishing Earth Day seems ridiculously trivial); and protected consumers as never before with the Truth in Packaging Act and the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act.
Ironically, when Johnson overwhelmingly triumphed in the election of 1964, his victory was attributed in large part to the staunch conservatism of his Republican opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater. Indeed, it was Johnson’s own kowtowing to conservatism on foreign policy that caused the New Deal coalition to fragment — by supporting the disastrous Vietnam War to win over the right wings of both parties (which blamed Harry Truman for the success of the Maoist Revolution and John Kennedy for the failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs), Johnson alienated the rising New Left and was pressured into dropping out of the 1968 presidential race. The subsequent Democratic infighting weakening the party enough to elect Republican Richard Nixon in a squeaker. Nevertheless, the fact remains that while May 22, 1964 seemed to usher in nothing more than the latest phase in the political era that had begun on March 4, 1933 (the start of Roosevelt’s presidency), in reality it was the last time liberal rather than conservative ideas would establish the premises of our political discourse. In the dozen years after Johnson left office, the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter achieved very little in the way of social and economic reform and strived for even less, with the two Republicans and lone Democrat focusing more on foreign policy than domestic issues. In Nixon’s case, this was due to his personal temperament, in Ford’s case it was due to his own weak political standing, and in Carter’s case it was due to his incompetence in handling legislative negotations. All opted for centrist accomodations rather than advocating bold new initiatives of their own. The final death knell of the New Deal era rang out on November 4, 1980, when a protege of the conservative movement that had been denounced as “extreme” during the Johnson-Goldwater election — a former California governor and erstwhile Hollywood star named Ronald Reagan — was elected over a Democrat, Jimmy Carter, who had been rendered unelectable due to the Iranian hostage crisis and his own ineptitude on domestic issues.
That brings us to our current era, the one that started a third of a century ago after Reagan’s election. It is one in which the Republicans have moved the nation farther and farther to the right under leaders like Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, and George W. Bush, while the Democrats have countered with avowed centrists like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. In inevitable concurrence with that happening, our politicians from both parties have shifted our national dialogue to the right, making visionary rhetoric like that of Lyndon Johnson seem almost inconceivable in our own times. We have lost the courage to say, as Andrew Jackson, our party’s first president, said, that “there are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses.” When a Republican like Eisenhower even suggests that the government can do good as well as evil, he is run out of the party. When a Democrat who wants to avoid being depicted as radical wants to argue the same thing, he feels reflexively compelled to do so quasi-apologetically, preemptively accounting for the default branding he will receive as a Constitution-hating socialist in both what he says and how he governs.
This is nothing short of tragic, and for any liberal who is unconvinced of that by looking at the history, they need only look at how relevant Johnson’s words on that May 22nd still applied to this May 22nd:
“There are those timid souls who say this battle cannot be won; that we are condemned to a soulless wealth. I do not agree. We have the power to shape the civilization that we want. But we need your will, your labor, your hearts, if we are to build that kind of society.
Those who came to this land sought to build more than just a new country. They sought a new world. So I have come here today to your campus to say that you can make their vision our reality. So let us from this moment begin our work so that in the future men will look back and say: It was then, after a long and weary way, that man turned the exploits of his genius to the full enrichment of his life.”