A Debate That Never Ends

Steve Downs

Building the Great Society
By Joshua Zeitz
Viking Press, 2018, Penguin Randomhouse paperback, 2019, 400 pages, $18.

BERNIE SANDERS, IN his June 11, 2019 speech about democratic socialism and the centrality of “completing the New Deal,” gave a nod to the Great Society programs of the 1960s. Coming amid all the mentions of FDR and his programs, most people listening to this speech probably missed it.

It’s not unusual for political activists on the left today to try to connect the policies they promote to the New Deal. It’s pretty rare for any of them to make a connection, as Sanders did, to the Great Society.

Building the Great Society, a new book by historian and one-time candidate for Congress Joshua Zeitz, illuminates how current discussions of social, political and economic policies are continuations of discussions that took place not only in the 1930s, but also in the early 1960s.

Zeitz’s book helps fill in the gap between the New Deal and today and makes clear that the terms of the debate have changed little over the last 80 years. It will help those committed to updating and completing the New Deal to have a fuller understanding of their place in the decades-long fight for a more equal and just society — and the obstacles that have interfered with the realization of those goals.

Building the Great Society is a group biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson and the team LBJ put together when he became president in November 1963. This team included veterans of the New Deal, such as Johnson himself, Jim Rowe and Abe Fortas (soon to be appointed by LBJ to the U.S. Supreme Court).

It included younger New Dealers who became involved in Washington politics in the late 1940s, notably Horace Busby and Clark Clifford (a future Secretary of Defense who in the early ’90s was indicted in a major banking scandal). Bill Moyers (who became a major figure in journalism), Harry McPherson and Joseph Califano (future Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare) were of a younger generation that, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, was just beginning to make their mark in DC.

And there was LBJ’s close aide, Jack Valenti (future and long-term president of the Motion Picture Association of America), who became an active participant in national politics only after (literally on the day) LBJ became president.

Zeitz tells how that team advanced a broad liberal agenda of civil rights; health care for senior citizens; federal aid to elementary and secondary education; desegregation of schools, hospitals and nursing homes; measures to clean up air and water pollution; and comprehensive immigration reform. Those who are interested in how political goals become policies and laws will definitely find this book worthwhile.

He also tells the story of liberal Demo­crats’ betrayal of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the Democratic convention in 1964, as well as how deepening U.S. involvement in Vietnam brought the Great Society drive for reform to a screeching halt.

This is not a comprehensive history of the early ’60s fight for civil rights or the later ’60s fight against the war in Vietnam. Zeitz certainly acknowledges those fights, but his focus is very specifically on what was going on in the White House and on Capitol Hill during a brief period of time — early 1964 to late 1967.

Completing the New Deal

LBJ and much of his staff consciously saw themselves as continuing, or completing, the New Deal. Johnson himself had entered Congress in 1937 as an ardent New Dealer. He moved to the right in the late 1940s and 1950s (voting to override Truman’s veto of Taft-Hartley and against anti-lynching bills, for example).

Zeitz writes that, on his first evening as president, LBJ told his aides, “…every issue that is on my desk tonight was on my desk when I came to Congress in 1937.”

Zeitz identifies those issues as “Civil Rights. Health insurance for the elderly and the poor. Federal aid to primary and secondary education. Support for higher education. Anti-poverty and nutritional programs.” (xviii)

Not only do the issues continue to resonate, so do the nuances of the discussions. There is food for thought here for anyone supporting the Green New Deal or other progressive social/legislative programs. For example:

• Jobs and Income or Opportunity — advisors to LBJ were split over the best way to tackle poverty. Some, based on their experience of Federal job creation in the 1930s, argued that guarantees of jobs or income were needed.

Others, drawing on “opportunity theory,” argued that the government should take steps (such as supporting schools, desegregation, training, provision of housing and healthcare) to make sure everyone had an equal opportunity (in what they expected to be a continually expanding economy) to make their own way — but should not provide jobs. The opportunity theorists won out and their position became the liberal orthodoxy for the next half century.

• The effects of automation — “(I)n the early 1960s, policy makers and journalists tended to associate the poverty with white families in areas of the Appalachians and Midwest that had been stripped clean of coal, or where automation had rendered human labor obsolete.” (48)

 According to one survey, more Amer­icans feared being replaced by machines than feared the USSR. (49) Obviously, it wasn’t just white workers who lost jobs when coal mines closed or mines, factories, railroads, and warehouses became more automated.

Sixty years later, politics and economics are still shaped by the effects of job losses going back to the 1960s and U.S. workers still fear (with good reason) being replaced by machines, i.e., artificial intelligence, robots, and autonomous cars and trucks.

• Classwide programs targeted to address the effects of specific oppressions — LBJ’s advisors knew there was the potential of strong backlash by white workers against the Great Society’s civil rights and anti-poverty programs.

According to Zeitz, Horace Busby, a top aide to Johnson, “worried that a program specifically tailored to the poor, rather than initiatives designed to lift the floor for all citizens — education, health care for the elderly — would create a political backlash.”

Busby wrote, “America’s real majority is suffering a minority complex of neglect…they have become the real foe of Negro rights, foreign aid, etc., because as much as anything, they feel forgotten…” (53)

How many times have you read a version of that argument since the 2016 election?

Backlash and George Wallace

LBJ’s people hoped to avoid that backlash by advancing programs that would benefit large numbers of whites at the same time as they disproportionately benefited African-Americans. It didn’t work.

Upon signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964, LBJ remarked, “We have delivered the South to the GOP for a long time to come.” (75) LBJ would prove to be right, but it wasn’t just in the South that an important layer of white voters rejected the Civil Rights agenda of the Great Society and shifted their votes to the GOP.

In 1964, immediately after the signing of the Civil Rights Act, George Wallace ran for president in Democratic Party primaries. Wallace was the very embodiment of white backlash. He ran, in Zeitz’s words, on issues of crime, class resentment (against liberal elites) and fears of a race war.

Wallace received 25% of the vote in Wisconsin, 30% in Indiana, and 43% in Maryland. He dropped out of the race after the GOP nominated Barry Goldwater — declaring he had achieved his purpose. (101)

Nixon’s Southern Strategy in 1968; the so-called ‘Reagan Democrats’ in 1976 and 1980; Trump’s nativist and racist campaign in 2016, all of these were predicated upon the GOP — and way too many white voters — rejecting the Great Society and embracing white supremacy.

• Union dues and free riders — Given that LBJ had voted to overturn Truman’s veto of Taft-Hartley, I was surprised to learn that his legislative program included repeal of the “right-to-work” provision from Taft-Hartley. A bill to do this was voted on by the Senate in February 1966. There was a majority in favor, but not enough to force “cloture,” so it died.

According to Zeitz, George McGovern’s vote against repeal was one of the reasons the AFL-CIO did not support him when he ran for president in 1972.

• Realignment — Michael Harrington (who would later be a founder of DSA) is mentioned a few times in this book. His book The Other America was influential in liberal policy circles in DC and he advised LBJ’s team on a few occasions.

Zeitz does not bring up Harrington’s strategy of “realignment” of the Democratic Party — that is, driving out the conservative Southern Dems and transforming the DP into a progressive party based on unions and civil rights groups. However, in his discussion of the Immigration and Nationality Act, he notes:

“Yet alongside the administration’s vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws, immigration reform catalyzed a new electoral alignment — which some political scientists have dubbed the ‘Great Society coalition’ — that comprised African-Americans, Latinos and well-educated white voters (many of whom unknowingly benefited from the legacy of Johnson’s higher education policies). This coalition, though not ascendant for at least a quarter century after LBJ left office, would in later years prove a powerful counterweight to the forces of white backlash.” (197)

That passing observation suggests that Harrington’s goal was achieved — but realignment didn’t have the intended result. Conservative Southern Dems left the Democratic Party. Unions and civil rights groups remained; today they provide much of its institutional base, although the influence of unions on the party has fallen along with the decline of unions in the private sector since the 1960s.

African-American and Latinx voters became the most reliable DP voters. But far from becoming a truly progressive, pro-working class party, the DP moved to the right — at least in part in pursuit of the very voters who were giving their votes to the GOP because they rejected the Great Society’s civil rights and anti-poverty agenda.

Influential voices on the left, such as Justice Democrats (from JD website: “We want our democracy to work for Americans again as soon as possible. The best way to do this is by working to change the Democratic Party from the inside out”) and Bernie Sanders (“As somebody who is an independent, we can bring them [those who are disenchanted with both parties — SD] into the Democratic Party to help create a party which will stand with the working families of this country and have the courage to take on the very powerful special interests who wield so much economic and political power in America.” CNN town hall 2/25/19) are pushing new versions of the realignment strategy.

It would be useful to ask why the outcome in the 1970s and ‘80s was so contrary to Harrington’s vision and whether it is likely to be any different this time around.

The End of the Great Society

LBJ won reelection in a landslide in 1964. The DP increased its majorities in the House and Senate. Zeitz argues, though, that this did not reflect a mandate to pursue the policies of the Great Society.

 By 1967, faced with the growing backlash on the right; rising costs for the Vietnam War, which soaked up funds that could have been used for domestic programs; and the loss of political support from the left due to opposition to the war, the Johnson administration put its domestic reform agenda on the backburner.

Zeitz opens a window on a time when mainstream liberalism had a broad reform agenda. That time was followed by the Nixon administration and then the rise of the pro-corporate, anti-working class neoliberal agenda that became the common political currency of both the Republicans and Democrats.

Now, fifty years after the Great Society sputtered to a close, the concerns and policies of mainstream liberals in the 1960s are being given voice by progressive — even democratic socialist — candidates for office. It says a lot about the state of U.S. politics in 2019 that so few of the proposals raised even by democratic socialists would have been out of place in the policy discussions at the White House half a century ago.

September-October 2019, ATC 202