What Everyone Gets Wrong About LBJ’s Great Society

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tags: LBJ, Great Society



Joshua Zeitz, a Politico Magazine contributing editor, is the author of Building the Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson's White House, which will be released on January 30. Follow him @joshuamzeitz.

This article has been adapted from Building the Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson’s White House, which will be released on January 30. 

Since at least the early 1980s, Republicans have been committed to dismantling Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society—a collection of programs the 36th president vowed would lead to “an end to poverty and racial injustice.”

Twenty-one years later, in a scorching address delivered in 1983, President Ronald Reagan denounced the Great Society as a bundle of expensive and failed initiatives that contributed to, rather than alleviated, suffering. Johnson’s legacy reinforced the what Reagan called the “central political error of our time”: the flawed notion that “government and bureaucracy” were the “primary vehicle for social change.”

A Democratic Congress blocked Reagan in his attempts to unravel Johnson’s work, but no such obstacle encumbers President Donald Trump. Congressional Republicans control both chambers and are far more conservative in their views than they were in Reagan’s time. Many signature items of Johnson’s legacy—from civil and voting rights to environmental protections and aid to public schools—are today under assault. Indeed, there is no more a dogged advocate of overhauling the Great Society’s antipoverty programs than House Speaker Paul Ryan, who claims that their “top-down approach” “created and perpetuated a debilitating culture of dependency, wrecking families and communities.” 

Yet for all Johnson’s grandiose rhetoric, the Great Society was more centrist—and is more critical to the nation’s social and economic fabric—than has been commonly understood. The presidential aides who conceived and implemented its component parts rejected policies that would enforce equality of income, wealth or condition. They did not broadly support quantitative measures like cash transfers or a guaranteed minimum income but, rather, believed that qualitative measures like education, workforce training, access to health care, food security and full political empowerment would ensure each American a level playing field and equal opportunity to share in the nation’s prosperity.

Governing in an age of unmatched prosperity, the architects of the Great Society were convinced that the means to a more just society was not cutting the pie into smaller slices so that everyone would enjoy an equal share, but baking a larger pie. The idea that the economy might someday stop growing, or that inequality would increase, rarely factored seriously into liberal thinking.

Fifty years later, it’s perfectly legitimate to ask whether Johnson’s vision is adequate in a country in which fewer workers enjoy employer pensions and health care, 31 percent of children live in single-parent families (up from 12 percent in 1960), household wages have long been stagnant, and inequality has reverted to levels we have not seen since the eve of the Great Depression. But it’s a myth to say the Great Society failed, just as it’s a myth to portray it as a radical left-wing, big-government project. And understanding those myths is the key to figuring out what to do now. ...

Read entire article at Politico

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