President Lyndon Johnson was both a champion of civil rights and someone who displayed shocking racism.
How LBJ transformed the lives of millions of Americans
01:24 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Dr. Abdul El-Sayed (@AbdulElSayed) is a physician, epidemiologist and former health director for the city of Detroit. He is also a CNN political commentator. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

In 2020, crisis abounds. The Covid-19 pandemic has taken over 170,000 American lives, and destroyed millions of livelihoods. In the second quarter alone, the American economy contracted by a third – nearly four times worse than the worst quarter of the Great Depression. Meanwhile, one poll found that nearly 9% of Americans came onto the streets for the movement for Black Lives, calling for an end to systemic racism – though politicians have yet to deliver real, lasting policy change. And Donald Trump has taken a fresh run at defiling America’s democratic and cultural institutions and norms, driving public mistrust in government to an almost historic low.

Abdul El-Sayed

It could not be clearer that now is a time for action. It’s tempting to ask whether Vice President Joe Biden can launch an “FDR” moment, should he win the election this fall, and follow in the footsteps of the New Deal. But, that’s probably the wrong question. The more apt historical analogue for a President Joe Biden working to right America’s floundering ship would not be FDR, but another three-letter president: LBJ.

The parallels are uncanny: Lyndon B. Johnson was elected to Congress at 29 – the same age as Biden. Both served for decades in the US Senate, and shared a combination of procedural mastery and an ability to forge unlikely relationships. Both served as Vice President under young, charismatic once-in-a-generation presidents. If Biden wins in November, he will join LBJ in having stepped over an ideologue accused of harboring fascist tendencies to be elected president – LBJ having defeated Barry Goldwater in 1964.

Importantly, neither were progressive stalwarts in their time as legislators. As a “Dixiecrat,” LBJ had blocked every piece of civil rights legislation that came up for a vote as a Senator. And Biden was an important ally of the banking industry for 20 years, before working towards better consumer protections as Vice President. He has also apologized for portions of the 1994 Crime Bill, portions of which paved the way for the mass incarceration we see today.

Though LBJ’s presidency is most often remembered for his tragic and failed leadership during the Vietnam War, his domestic legacy, under the banner of the “Great Society,” is far and away the most progressive in the modern era. He passed Medicare and Medicaid which guarantee health care for the elderly and the poor. His adept maneuvering was critical to passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 – the most important pieces of civil rights legislation since reconstruction.

Through reforms to housing, K-12 and higher education and food benefits, these programs ushered in the single greatest redistribution and reinvestment in low-income communities since the New Deal. Crucially, where the New Deal left Black Americans behind – explicitly excluding them in many circumstances, like Federal Housing Administration loans (leading to the legacy of redlining we see in urban communities today) – the Great Society programs sought directly to curb racism. Even the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 eliminated de facto discrimination against immigrants from all but western European origin – paving the way for people like my parents to come to this country.

So could this be Joe Biden’s LBJ moment?

The answer may lie in dissecting a few critical features of LBJ’s time in office, circumstances that have been erased in our habit of telling history as the decisions of a few powerful people. LBJ’s Great Society was not simply driven by a man – but by a moment, a mandate, and a movement.

LBJ’s was a unique and historic moment. He became President by rifle-fire when his more popular, more charismatic predecessor was assassinated in LBJ’s home state. The young, handsome John Fitzgerald Kennedy had captured the country’s imagination – daring Americans to go to the moon, and also solve their problems here on Earth. LBJ inherited the sudden loss of a presidency pregnant with possibility on which he was left to deliver.

Though the cultural moment that was JFK’s assassination transcended politics, it demanded political deliverance, in part avenging JFK’s loss by delivering on the ambitious reform programs on which he was elected.

Coming on the heels of the Obama years, Donald Trump’s horror show of a presidency offers the same cultural and political dynamics: Cultural whiplash that demands political deliverance.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, there was the movement. Nowhere was this more critical than the fight for civil rights. Though the mid-1960s are well-remembered as the civil rights era, the national uprising against racism didn’t create itself – it was the result of hard, thoughtful organizing by the icons of that era.

From the Freedom Summer to the Selma to Montgomery March, committed organizing by movement leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer and the late John Lewis were critical to pressing public opinion for civil rights legislation. Indeed, LBJ, who had the implicit support of his Dixiecrat colleagues in the Senate, was able to maneuver the legislation into being. He understood the consequences: After he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law, he allegedly told an aide, “we (Democrats) have lost the South for a generation.”

Why does it matter now?

As we approach election day, progressives find themselves frustrated with the outcome of the spring’s primary race. They fear that hopes are fading for broad, sweeping reforms like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal to take on the twin challenges of climate change and a vastly unequal gig economy, universal college to unlock higher education for young people from working class homes, or rethinking our criminal legal system to end mass incarceration.

But the threat of Donald Trump’s reelection isn’t all that should bring progressives to the (socially distanced) ballot box this fall. If LBJ’s example serves as any indication, the progressive future we hope for remains ours for the making.