Blogs > Cliopatria > Is Bush Repeating the Mistake of LBJ?

Jan 26, 2005 8:04 pm

Is Bush Repeating the Mistake of LBJ?

40, 50, 60 years ago it was an assumption of the governing class that poverty caused resentment and resentment caused instability and instability led to war. Hence: we must address the problem of poverty in 3rd world countries. Here's Ike in his second inaugural:

In too much of the earth there is want, discord, danger. New forces and new nations stir and strive across the earth, with power to bring, by their fate, great good or great evil to the free world's future. From the deserts of North Africa to the islands of the South Pacific one third of all mankind has entered upon an historic struggle for a new freedom; freedom from grinding poverty. Across all continents, nearly a billion people seek, sometimes almost in desperation, for the skills and knowledge and assistance by which they may satisfy from their own resources, the material wants common to all mankind.

Today the unspoken assumption of the governing class--that is, the people who run the Pentagon, the White House, and the State Department--is that the absence of freedom causes frustration, which causes instability, which causes terrorism--and war.

Whatever happened to the problem of poverty?

Was it forgotten once the Soviet state collapsed?

Or have we just replaced one easy nostrum with another?

I suspect the latter.

Perhaps we could channel LBJ and ask for his advice. He was confident that addressing the problems of poverty would cure America of racial divisions and injustice. But the Great Society programs largely flopped. They were badly designed, threw money at problems, and led mainly to disappointment and heartache. In short order America's inner cities went up in flames.

Doesn't Bush's simple approach mirror LBJ's? After LBJ's failures became manifest we were treated to the autopsy of the Great Society. I fully expect, sooner rather than later, to be reading the autopsy of neo-conservatism.

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Stephen Tootle - 2/12/2005

You should check out Charles Kesler's article on the Bush doctrine over at CRB:

HNN - 2/1/2005

I am not sure that I would agree that LBJ's Great Society came from nowhere. LBJ was a New dealer. The Great Society was an extension of the New Deal.

Was the New Deal out of the mainstream? Of course! While it had roots in Progressibism it marked a departure from American tradition--that's what made it so memorable.

It ended the Victorian attitude underlying solutions to poverty that had been promulgated during the Progressive Era. Now government was given a prominent role in ending poverty.

The only real antecedent was Populism.

As for LBJ's status as sui generis--well, we happen to have been living through a great era of prosperity. When grass grows in the streets of America again you'll hear presidents speaking like LBJ. The New Deal and Great Society are now part of the American tradition. You can't wish them away. Put that eraser back in the drawer. It's part of our history now.

David Husband - 1/30/2005

Are people who are broke and have no prospects not free at all? Do we have a sub-class of slaves in American society, every American who lives in poverty? Every poor person has the exact same right to vote and right to speak as every other American does, the right to worship or not whichever God he pleases. The rights of citizenship are granted to all regardless of wealth, although it is true that many who are poor lack the freedom to do many things that wealthier people can do. But their rights as citizens are identical.

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/30/2005

How free are people who are broke and without prospects?

David Husband - 1/28/2005

The interesting thing about poverty and freedom is that our society is based upon the conception that freedom is the right of every person, while the right to wealth is not considered to be obligatory for all people. While poverty is an acknowledged scourge and it is generally accepted that it should be eradicated, there is wide spread disagreement over whether this is even possible. Yet, freedom is the right of every American and it is generally acknowledged that freedom is a right that can be given to all. In fact, Bush in his inaugural address, spoke to those who doubt by noting that it was a peculiarly odd time to be doubting whether freedom can reach all people, following a century where freedom has spread rapidly and dramatically.
The difference between Bush and LBJ, at least ideologically, is very clear. Bush is attempting to link to a commonly accepted value that is held in great esteem by all Americans and which has been a driving force in American society throughout its existance. In many ways, American society has been shaped by its messianic belief in the value of freedom to transform individuals and societies. Bush has not departed from American tradition in his rehtoric, its not his idealism that American's neccesarily quarrel with, its instead the lack of success in turning the idealism into practical reality.
The comparsion is not apt, as the ideology is on an entirely different level, with Bush following imperfectly in American idealistic tradition, but still following the main gist of the tradition. LBJ's Great Society was a departure from the traditon, noticeable in how no other president has taken up the battle against poverty with similar fervor. The issue of freedom and its expansion has always been an underlying current of the American Presidency, from the Civil War, to "making the world safe for demcoracy" to World War II and was the underlying motivation beneath the Cold War philosophy of containment, the belief that the Communist system was ultimatly repressive and harmful to personal freedoms.
LBJ' Great Society was born and died with him. The issue of personal freedom is woven into the fabric of American history. Bush is attempting to set the stage for a new Cold War against terrorism, set to identify it with the core values of freedom and liberty. The comparison does not hold up in the light of America's idealistic history.

Ed Schmitt - 1/28/2005

This is a thought-provoking post, and in essence I think Rick is onto something. Even though it seems Pres. Bush really believes the nostrum about freedom, it does appear interchangeable with some of the rationale behind stabilizing governments in the post-colonial era through foreign aid. There is a big difference however, excepting the Marshall Plan, in the level of political will and economic resources being directed toward this war in Iraq and U.S. attempts to combat global or domestic poverty during the Cold War. Also for comparison, just look at the disproportionate levels of spending on Vietnam and on OEO programs. When you dismiss Great Society programs as badly designed, I think you are correct in some instances, but so much of it emerged rapidly (in Johnson's thinking better too quick than not at all) in the cauldron of LBJ's post-Kennedy assassination blitz. In many instances the programs also were not simply about throwing money at problems - Johnson rejected much greater proposed levels of anti-poverty spending thoughout the life of OEO. As Alice O'Connor's book Poverty Knowledge powerfully explores, many War on Poverty programs were shaped based on the systems analysis models being implemented in the defense department and designed to more efficiently produce effective outcomes (the big exception being community action, which some in the Bureau of the Budget thought could be about economizing since local leaders in poor communities could better assess community needs and target dollars more effectively than bureaucrats). Anyway, this larger point deserves discussion.