Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University and author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” Melody Barnes was President Obama’s director of the White House Domestic Policy Council from 2009 until 2012, and is currently the co-director of the University of Virginia’s Democracy Initiative and a professor of practice at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. Both are part of a new podcast supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, “LBJ and the Great Society,” being launched February 4. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion at CNN.
Democrats are laser-focused on winning the 2020 presidential election, but what remains less obvious is the vision that will unify them and appeal to others in November and beyond. Even as they debate often profound policy disagreements, a successful Democratic candidate must inspire Americans with a clearer, bolder vision than President Trump has offered for what America can be in the 21st century. He or she must understand that policy matters, but purpose matters more.
For those seeking inspiration for such an approach, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society offers a compelling case study of what the federal government can achieve and how grassroots activists can help move Washington toward a better place if animated by a clear purpose.
When Johnson delivered his Great Society speech on May 22, 1964, at the University of Michigan, he called Americans to a higher purpose. In the midst of social convulsions and divisions unseen in modern America, Johnson offered a vision of American freedom born of our bedrock values – tolerance, pluralism and the rule of law – and he challenged Americans to extend the benefits and responsibilities of those values to everyone, expanding our notion of American citizenship.
Johnson’s argument was simple: For America to fulfill its purpose, it needed to expand its definition of freedom to include all Americans, and in so doing build a country where actual economic opportunity might, for the first time, accompany that freedom.
The policy outcomes of Johnson’s clarion call remain unprecedented. The Great Society guaranteed health care coverage to the elderly and the medically indigent, ended legally sanctioned segregation, and made it possible for millions of younger Americans to attend colleges and universities, often for the first time in their families’ history.
In addition to Medicare, Medicaid, civil rights legislation and the Higher Education Act, in a relatively short span of time Congress also passed federal aid for elementary education, food stamps, Head Start, immigration reform that ended the quota system put into place in 1924, arts funding, a war on poverty and more.
'Race for the White House'
While many conservatives continue to argue the Great Society constituted a massive failure, the programs created a basic floor of rights and benefits that most Americans now consider part of the fundamental fabric of our nation. Even as detractors raged against the changes taking hold, those on the left and right built on Johnson’s foundation. Richard Nixon’s Environmental Protection Agency was the fruit of Johnson’s environmental protection legislation. Tea Party activists holding up signs that read “Keep Your Government Hands Off My Medicare” as they opposed President Obama’s Affordable Care Act proposal was a significant expression of acceptance on the right of the basic premise of the Great Society.
Some have argued that the Great Society was possible only because Johnson had a Democratic congressional majority. While recreating those kinds of majorities will be extremely difficult in 2020, Democrats can look to another crucial element of why the Great Society happened.
By Johnson’s own admission, the achievements of that era were fueled by a movement of women, men and children who aspired to be fully included in the life of the country and rallied with a president whose purpose was their own. Johnson was right. It was a bottom-up movement that gave LBJ a window to do big things in the face of entrenched and formidable adversaries.
When Johnson became president, Congress was as gridlocked as today. In the early 1960s, a bipartisan coalition of southern Democrats and Republicans who controlled the major committees refused to allow most liberal policies to pass through their gates, especially civil rights laws to end desegregation and ensure the protection of voting rights. For all Johnson’s legislative prowess, it was unclear whether the “Master of the Senate” would be able to break the roadblock that had stifled Kennedy on most issues.
It took enormous grassroots activism to break through. The Great Society could get started only because the civil rights movement created unbearable pressure on members of Congress to support the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When the Voting Rights Act wasn’t Johnson’s top priority, the marches and confrontations in Selma forced his hand.
Medicare would never have become the law of the land had it not been for the mobilization of union leaders in districts and in Washington, applying pressure on legislators who feared the American Medical Association. The AFL-CIO formed the National Council of Senior Citizens, a group with more than 500,000 active members that took an interest in health care policy.
Unions were vital in the 1964 elections, helping many of the candidates who swelled the Democratic majorities in January 1965, and made possible passage of a Medicare bill that had been blocked for almost a decade.
The Great Society illustrates that grassroots movements are foundational to the vibrancy of our democracy and can work hand in hand with a president trying to change conventional wisdom in Washington. If the president and Congress are finally to deal with issues, such as bold legislation to curb climate change or achieve a path to citizenship for undocumented people living in the United States, sustained pressure from the bottom up must work with – and sometimes push – the occupant of the Oval Office.
Finally, the Great Society was a demonstration of tremendous political fortitude and risk-taking in furtherance of a worthy purpose. Democrats must promise the same today.
We often remember Johnson as a three-dimensional chess player who constantly thought about how each move could help him strengthen his standing in Washington. Yet there was another part of Johnson that we tend to forget. For all of his political savvy, Johnson was also willing to expend precious political capital to expand civil rights – thereby modernizing the New Deal – even if the risk of losing key blocks of voters was immense.
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A Roosevelt protege, Johnson supported and voted for New Deal policies that aligned democratic principles and economic opportunity – but he also understood the New Deal’s relationship with Jim Crow.
The New Deal left America’s racial status quo largely in place, and Johnson, who opposed civil rights legislation until the late 1950s, was fully aware of the depth of Southern opposition to efforts to change it. Once in the Oval Office, he took on the task of extending the promise of the New Deal by pushing policies that had still been deemed impossible by liberals in the 1930s, such as linking economic opportunity and civil rights.
LBJ was undaunted by the risk as he strengthened the social contract that has expanded our democracy.
Democrats shouldn’t forget the Great Society. It was far from perfect and far from complete for a host of reasons, including Johnson’s disastrous policy in Vietnam. But it does provide a model for what government can achieve, the ways that citizens can change the conventional wisdom in Washington and how leaders are capable of taking big risks that don’t necessarily serve their self-interest – when Americans are called to a higher purpose.