How Obama and the Democrats Can Build a Twenty-First Century Supermajority

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tags: Barack Obama, James Patterson, 1965, Great Society, public policy


Pope "Mac" McCorkle is associate professor of the practice of public policy and director of graduate studies, master of public policy program at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.

Credit: Wiki Commons.

The virtues and vices of 1960s liberalism are on striking display in Bancroft-Prize winning historian James Patterson’s The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America. And as Patterson deftly shows, the extremes were fused into the presidential administration as well as personal character of Lyndon Baines Johnson.

“These are the most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem,” declared LBJ in lighting the National Christmas Tree on December 18, 1964. “Today -- as never before -- man has in his possession the capacities to end war and preserve peace, to eradicate poverty and share abundance, to overcome the diseases that have afflicted the human race and permit all mankind to enjoy their promise in life on this earth.”

During his first year in office after John Kennedy’s November 1963 assassination, LBJ pushed through the historic Civil Rights Act. In the November 1964 election, he swept the country except for five traumatized Deep South states and opponent Barry Goldwater’s home state of Arizona. In 1965, with newly strengthened Democratic majorities, Congress enacted a raft of legislation to fulfill LBJ’s Great Society vision -- including Medicare, Medicaid, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Higher Education Act, comprehensive immigration reform, and the Voting Rights Act.

In late July 1965, five days after Congress guaranteed African Americans the right to vote throughout the South, massive riots broke out in the Watts ghetto of Los Angeles. In 1966 Republicans gained back enough ground in Congress to revive the power of the conservative coalition with Southern Democrats. And Ronald Reagan won the governorship in the liberal bastion of California. Two years later Richard Nixon popped out of the dustbin of history to grab back the presidency for the Republicans.

Patterson appropriates his Eve of Destruction title from Barry McGuire’s 1965 pop protest song. McGuire’s predictions of social catastrophe shocked the bourgeois airwaves. But Patterson resists the notion that the 1960s were the worst of times. He sees LBJ’s Great Society as ushering in constructive domestic changes whose full promise was curtailed when failure in Vietnam led to a loss of faith in government.

Today’s conservatives argue that the country was already rebelling against Great Society liberalism before Vietnam split apart the Democratic coalition. But the argument about whether the Great Society itself or the Vietnam War was to blame misses the larger point. The central flaw in JFK-LBJ foreign policy was also at the heart of LBJ’s Great Society. That common flaw was the lack of a limiting principle.

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty,” proclaimed JFK at his first inaugural. On Vietnam, LBJ searched in vain for a way to limit this universalistic commitment. On domestic policy, LBJ did not care much about finding one.

It was traditionally thought that liberalism could only go so far in helping the poor and downtrodden without morphing into socialism. Yet in 1965, as James Reston of the New York Times wrote, LBJ was "riding on the greatest economic boom in peacetime history." LBJ thought that capitalism would generously fund rather than limit his Great Society vision.

And as Patterson also points out, LBJ was not the only liberal mesmerized by the strength and abundance of the American economy. He identifies a February 1965 Time editorial essay entitled "Boom Without Bust" as epitomizing this optimism. The Time essay celebrated the supposed fact that “[e]conomic policy has begun to liberate itself from the preoccupations of an earlier day and from the bitterness of class or partisan division that becloud rational discussion and hamper national action."

Patterson does not give much space to 1960s conservatism. But the conservative antithesis to the limitless liberalism of the 1960s suffered from the opposite problem: it had no change principle. Launching his influential National Review magazine in 1955, William F. Buckley was adamant about his guiding philosophical attitude. The conservative mission, according to Buckley, was to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who urge it.”

The National Review’s agenda of complaint focused on communism, secularism, Keynesian economics, and Ike’s failure to mount an all-out attack against FDR’s welfare state. The race issue in the South did not rank among its top priorities.

Yet from its beginning Buckley’s National Review felt compelled to express solidarity with the white status quo against federal support for African-American civil rights. National Review denounced the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education as an “act of judicial usurpation” that was “shoddy and illegal in analysis, and invalid as sociology.” In 1957 Buckley insisted that Southern whites were “entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, where they do not prevail numerically” because they represented “for the time being, the advanced race.” And in 1960 Buckley declared: “We frown on any effort of the Negroes to attain social equality by bending the instrument of the state to their purposes.”

With National Review’s blessing, Barry Goldwater carried the banner against change in the 1964 presidential election. Although an advocate of school desegregation while a city councilman in Phoenix, Senator Goldwater castigated Brown as an abuse of federal judicial power. Then on the eve of announcing for president in 1964, Goldwater’s libertarian stance against Big Government really got stuck in the racial mud when he opposed LBJ’s civil rights legislation.

Even before JFK’s death, Goldwater bluntly acknowledged his plans to defend the white Southern status quo in his 1964 presidential campaign because he had to go hunting for electoral votes “where the ducks are.” He still worked up enough moral outrage to denounce the Civil Rights Act in apocalyptic terms as a “grave threat to the very essence of our basic system of government” and leading to “the destruction of a free society.” Along with such allies as Reagan, Goldwater went on to trash Medicare and the rest of Johnson’s Great Society’s vision. “Having given our pensioners their medical care in kind,” declared Goldwater, “why not vacation resorts, why not a ration of cigarettes for those who smoke and of beer for those who drink?”

In the realm of foreign policy, Goldwater and crew had no libertarian hesitancy about going beyond Kennedy and Johnson in flexing government’s military muscle. To defend the American South, conservatives wanted the federal government to leave the region alone; to prevent communist change in South Vietnam, they were willing to annihilate the place.

During the 1964 campaign Goldwater talked about “defoliation of the forests” in Vietnam. One year later Reagan opined that “we could pave the whole country and put parking stripes on it.” And in 1972 Goldwater declared that he could have ended the war in a month by making North Vietnam “look like a mud puddle.”

Exercising a historian’s caution, Patterson does not carry his 1960s narrative into the present day. But both Democratic liberalism and Republican conservatism are clearly struggling with their respective 1960s legacies.

Thoroughly burned by Vietnam and other misadventures, Democrats have become very shy about exercising government’s military might (this may be changing under Obama). Democratic liberalism has gone from promising always to pay any price to questioning whether ever paying a significant military cost helps national security or the cause of freedom. On occasion liberals can come close to isolationism or even pacifism.

Usually, however, post-Vietnam liberal sentiment on global affairs has still held out hope for boundless change. At root it resembles the “soft” side of LBJ’s vision for Vietnam. That side came to the fore in moments when LBJ expressed his desire to talk turkey with Ho Chi Minh, build Vietnam a state-of the-art rural infrastructure to ”dwarf even our own TVA,” and in effect persuade the Vietcong to become part of a global Great Society.

On the right, some older remnants and libertarian upstarts are trying to go back to pre-World War II traditions of conservative isolationism. In contrast, the dominant “neo” conservatives in the Republican Party hold up the need for maintaining a global military burden. They show little sign of believing in change toward a new, peaceful, multi-lateral world.

On the domestic front, the 1960s ideological poles on the role of government remain frozen in place. Liberals have lost the dream of a GDP growth machine whose production of material abundance can be taken for granted. Many liberals stubbornly hold on to the belief that government can pry away an adequate surplus from the wealthy to keep paying for a big domestic change. Yet the truth is that American liberalism from the 1960s onward has unconsciously relied on the force of conservative Republican opposition to establish its real-world limits.

As a result conservatives claim that their side has simply been engaged in saving the American Dream from the specter of Big Government socialism. In his later years, Buckley at least began to puncture this fantasy: he acknowledged that federal intervention was necessary to address systematic racial discrimination in the South. But few conservative pundits today are willing to say out loud that 1960s liberalism distinguished itself by addressing the most outrageous blight on the American Dream -- or that liberalism politically brow-beat their side into the prudence of acquiescing to simple justice.

It is true that LBJ’s undisciplined liberalism must shoulder a good deal of the blame for Medicare in particular spinning out of control and now endangering the fiscal health of the nation. Yet the for-profit hawking on television of “free” Medicare-covered products for seniors underlines that the Reagan-Goldwater cries of socialized medicine in the 1960s hardly grasped the basic problems with this Great Society centerpiece. And only a rare Republican today wants to be caught opining in public that we should go back to the pre-1960s in health care when seniors and the disabled had no coverage guarantee.

In sum, each side must depend on the ideological vice of the other to mitigate their own.

On the one hand, conservative William Voegeli of the Claremont Review of Books is correct that at the heart of LBJ’s domestic legacy lies the vision of a “limitless welfare state.” Thus liberalism needs the knee-jerk opposition of conservatism to reduce the range of what can be enacted and keep government from going terminally in the red.

On the other hand, in his recent New Republic repudiation of the Goldwaterite conservative legacy, Sam Tanenhaus is correct that fear about Big Domestic Government has left it unable to embrace “the country’s developing ideas of democracy.” Thus liberalism’s overreaching must result in enough obviously called-for changes so that Republicans can avoid indelible branding as anti-democrats responsible for a grossly unjust society.

And in foreign policy, our politics has been depending on the Republican conservative side to assert the national interest in military terms when peaceful progressive change is not in the cards. But our politics has also been depending on the liberal Democratic side to pull the nation back when the assertion of Pax Americana gets out of hand. With George H.W. Bush at the helm, our first war with Iraq demonstrated the conservative role. With George W. Bush at the helm, our second war with Iraq demonstrated the liberal role.

This has certainly not been a recipe for a reliable productive relationship. Our standing in the world has to suffer major damage before overly dovish liberals can gain enough authority to influence military matters. Conservative willingness to sign a blank check for the military-industrial complex has compromised its standing to deflate Big Government grandiosity.

And as exemplified in the latest Bush era, borrow and spend has been the logrolling solution to get around ideological conflict on the domestic front. Now in Washington the parties will not let go of hammerlocks on each other. For all the talk about Republicans being from Mars and Democrats from Venus, the parties look like quarreling Siamese twins unable to move in any direction with or without each other.

In such an uninspiring atmosphere, not much hope might seem to exist for more liberal change even with realistic limits. Meteoric liberal hopes in Obama have died just like they did for LBJ. Yet liberals should draw consolation from Obama’s avoidance of LBJ's tragic fate as a one-term president.

The clear contrast with LBJ has come in President Obama’s stewardship of foreign policy. As reflected in his Nobel Prize speech, the President’s embrace of just war-making doctrine has pointed toward a liberal foreign policy with sensible limits. Obama's rejection of pacifist and isolationist tendencies in post-Vietnam liberalism has actually strengthened his hand in moving to withdraw from the Iraq and Afghanistan quagmires.

Contemporary liberalism remains in need of a domestic Nobel moment from the president. That would be the time when the president lays out durable limits for liberal taxing and spending that actually strengthen his immediate case for more revenue from the wealthy and for genuine investments in the future. He periodically seems to be zigging toward such a moment in between zagging toward more conflict with his Republican opponents.

If President Obama can correct this liberal weakness in establishing limits, the Democratic coalition can become a super-majority force in twenty-first-century American politics. If the president cannot pull off that feat, an opening will continue to exist for a genuine conservative maverick -- like Chris Christie? -- to overcome the conservative phobia with change and fashion a dominant position for the Republicans.

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