Lessons the Democratic Party Seems to Have Forgotten

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Mitch Lerner is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Institute for Korean Studies at The Ohio State University. He is the editor of "A Companion To Lyndon B. Johnson" (Wiley, 2013). 


Late in the evening after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, new president Lyndon Johnson returned to his home in Washington D.C. Shortly after midnight, he marched to his bedroom, bringing three of his closest advisors with him. There, sprawled across a king-size bed in his pajamas, LBJ launched into a long monologue about his vision of the future. “We'll pass legislation that allows everyone anywhere in this country to vote,” he told them, “with all the barriers down. You give people a vote, and they damn sure have the power to change their life for the better. And that's not all. We're going to get a law that says that every boy and girl in this country, no matter how poor or the color of their skin, or the region they came from, is going to be able to get all the education they can, by loan, scholarship, or grant, right from the federal government. And I aim to pass Harry Truman's medical insurance bill that got nowhere before. Never again will a little old lady who's sick as a dog be turned away from a hospital because she doesn't have any money to pay for her treatment.”

For the next five years, Johnson would devote himself to implementing this vision. The list of federal programs is almost overwhelming: Medicare and Medicaid; aid to education; civil rights laws; poverty programs; job training; Head Start; and much more. Some of Johnson’s efforts were tremendously successful. Others were spectacular failures. But as Democrats struggle to understand their dismal performance in the 2014 mid-term elections, they could start by turning back to the Johnson presidency. For regardless of the specific details of the Great Society programs, the ideology that lay behind them speaks volumes about the American conception of the role of government, and offers lessons for the contemporary Democratic Party that seem to have been forgotten.

Lyndon Johnson’s political values were shaped in a small farming town in the Texas Hill Country, one where the populist political movement of the late nineteenth century flourished. Populism meant many different things to many different people, but for LBJ and his formative influences it was rooted in the idea that free-market capitalism and federal regulation could–indeed, must––co-exist. Johnson, and many like him, believed fundamentally in the American system of private enterprise and free markets, and he embraced the basic tenets of capitalism at his core. But he also believed that the system was easily corrupted, that a wealthy and powerful elite would inevitably seek to seize control of the levers of the marketplace to feather their own nests at the expense of the small farmers, ranchers, laborers, and others who occupied the lower rungs of society. The role of the government, in his eyes, was thus to preserve the competition that lay at the core of the system but to ensure that that competition was open and above board. This meant taking protective steps to ensure that the less fortunate were neither exploited nor forgotten, that the downtrodden would have the opportunity for advancement, that those of lesser economic means could still reach the American dream. Great Society reforms did not seek to fundamentally reorder and radicalize capitalism; they sought instead to preserve the system by placing some checks on those who might exploit it and some protections on those who might be exploited.

These values defined his political career from the very beginning. Running for congress from Texas 10th district in 1937, he based his initial candidacy on the idea that a powerful financial elite had led the nation astray. His first radio address as a candidate pledged economic and power development in the region and “a program of farm relief that places the farming section on a parity with the industrial section.” “The East has been protected with a tariff and other special favors since the beginning of this government,” he concluded. “I am in favor of balancing the books.”

His first substantive entry into the Congressional Record championed public housing not just because it was necessary but because a wealthy elite had been benefiting by providing substandard housing to the American poor for years. “Beware,” he warned, "of arguments that are put out by the people whose real opposition is that they are now making large returns from the hovels that will be repaired or removed as soon as decent housing is provided."

In August of that year, he gave his first commencement speech, to students at Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos, Texas, where he encouraged them to act to repair a corrupted system. The South, he noted, had for decades been “encouraged in a low-wage scale so that Eastern and Northern investors and manufacturers, already the spenders of its natural resources, could likewise exploit its human resources.” This had created a massive wealth imbalance that haunted the region. “In the United States today, 36,000 families at the top have as much income as the total income of the eleven and a half million families at the bottom,” he thundered. “What they have taken away will never come back to us. It will make profits for ‘them’ but not for ‘us.’ It will make them richer and our South poorer.” Breaking this elite control in order to benefit the many was, in his eyes, both an obvious and a moderate solution. “Such reciprocation,” he concluded, “rather than indicating the destruction of democracy, is unanswerable proof that our democracy works.”

Such beliefs, of course, were not unique to Lyndon Johnson but instead reflected the values of many who felt the system had been stacked against them. Particularly in the small farming communities of the South and West, the sense had emerged that the American promise had become corrupted by an emerging financial elite. The forces of the wealthy had taken over, wrote the Texas Advance in 1893. "Corporate greed and monopoly have concentrated the wealth into the hands of a few hundred men, who are as essentially the masters of the people as were the feudal barons of the middle ages." A Birmingham newspaper agreed: "The South is again being invaded. This time there [are] no heraldric shouts of civic strife, no cannon’s opening roar, no bright bayonets flashing in the sunlight. It is a far different army, led by very different men. The North has brought her machinery down here instead of her guns, her factories instead of her trained soldiers." Their solutions varied but generally sought not to radicalize but to reform, reform intended to empower the downtrodden to challenge their position in life. The South, thundered a Georgia senator, was "as effectually cut off from all influence in the management of the United States government as it would be if it was a British Crown colony." Steering the nation back to the correct path, in this vision, meant not tearing the system apart but empowering the powerless so they had an equal chance of benefiting from its opportunities.

Today’s Democrats might take some lessons from those values. LBJ’s beliefs took him from a small Texas town to Washington DC, where (measured by legislative victories if not always by results) he became one of the most successful politicians of the twentieth century. He and the many who supported him championed what today’s Democrats seem to have forgotten: the American people embrace the free market but also recognize the need for the federal government to sometimes intervene to balance its excesses or thwart its corruption.

Lost in today’s partisan world in which each side demands an “all-or-nothing” consensus and attacks the other side reflexively is the fact that there is a middle ground, a wellspring of American values that believes that the free market must be preserved but not worshipped; that industrial capitalism is the best system in the world even while it has to be sometimes constrained; that the American people need to compete but also sometimes need to be protected.

Today’s Democrats appear to have forgotten that lesson. Obamacare stands as the perfect example. It is clearly not socialism; it is instead an effort to level America’s playing field and protect the powerless by finding a moderate approach that emphasizes competition and the marketplace while placing that competition within a regulated framework designed to prevent abuses. One can love or hate the program, but it is at heart a middle of the road effort that resonates with the American reform traditions that LBJ and many others championed. And yet, instead of making that argument to the American voters on Obamacare or any other reform, Democrats ran in fear, as if they had accepted the right’s contention that such reforms were somehow un-American. History suggests otherwise.

Recently, Senator Chuck Schumer spoke for many of his party, lamenting the Democrats’ support of Obamacare as a political misstep, one that drove Americans to vote Republican in 2014. Schumer has it exactly backwards. What drove the American people away wasn’t the law but the failure of his party to defend the principles that lay behind it. Contrast Schumer’s comment with those of freshman congressman from Texas, who in a 1938 speech noted that he had been criticized for supporting public housing programs by conservatives who argued that the program would compete with private business. “Yes, sir; it is true,” Lyndon Johnson admitted. “The government is competing with shacks and hovels and hog stiles and all the other foul holes in which the underprivileged have had to live. The government is attempting to wipe out these wretched excuses for American homes. If you object to that kind of government competition, then I'm disappointed in you."

Many Americans stand today equally disappointed, not with those who oppose government action but with those who supposedly champion it, for their failure to defend the position that free-market competition and government regulation must co-exist. If Democrats wish to know where they went wrong in 2014, they might look to the past to learn that American voters won’t punish them when they espouse reforms; they will punish them when they espouse nothing.



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