Were Johnson’s great society programmes a failure?
In 1969, President Lyndon Baines Johnson left office after having earlier declared that he would not seek, or accept the democratic nomination for the next presidential election. It was an acrimonious end for an administration that boasted greater social legislative achievement than any that preceded it and fundamentally altered the basis on which American social policy was formed. The primary debacle that can be said to account for the demise of the Johnson presidency was the protracted and costly US involvement in Vietnam. Although it was under the Kennedy administration that the US first became embroiled in Vietnam, it was Johnson who accelerated such developments and therefore has gone down in history as the primary protagonist in one of America’s most divisive conflicts.
However, are such calamities enough to justify the claim that Johnson’s great society programmes were a failure? After all, the legislative vigor with which he attempted to address America’s pressing social issues was admirable. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial discrimination in public places, such as hotels, restaurants and public transport. It also developed significant political rights, in particular franchise extensions for America’s less advantaged. As a parallel drive, Johnson also announced his ‘war on poverty’ which was institutionalized with the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) and Economic opportunity Act of 1964. Following an overwhelming election victory in 1964 Johnson accelerated the great society programmes with a spate of legislative achievements. 1965 saw 115 presidential recommendations for legislation, with an above average 90 being approved. However, although in 1965 the great society programmes appeared to be a resounding success, later assessment has cast doubt over just how much praise should be lavished upon the Johnson administrations legislative achievements.
The overriding issue that dominates the discussion on the success of the great society is Vietnam. As Ira Katznelson has noted, both the great society programmes and the war Vietnam were formed on the same ideological basis. This basis was the establishment and conservation of democratic principles abroad, whilst simultaneously reinvigorating the democratic process at home. As such, she argues that the two drives were so interconnected and reliant upon one another’s success, that it was impossible to hope that the great society could be successful in light of the failure in Vietnam. This is an accurate assessment which is adhered to by a majority of writers on the subject and one to which I offer my own endorsement.
However, leaving aside the volatile issue of Vietnam and its repercussions on the great society initiatives, is it possible to see successes if we look at the great society programmes in their entirety. Prominent amongst the voices of dissension is the leading academic George Gilder, who argues that above all the great society legislation (and the New Deal and Fair Deal that preceded it) created a situation that led to a reliance on state security benefits. Ultimately, the great society legislation was formed on an historical basis that had begun with Roosevelt’s New Deal and played a significant role in halting progress in terms of ‘societal betterment’. Gilder asserts that although Johnson’s war on poverty was well motivated, it nonetheless did more to prolong and exacerbate America’s poverty problem than alleviate it. A climate of dependency was therefore created that allowed people living in poverty to continue doing so, instead of achieving progress and betterment through their own endeavor. As such, Gilder argues that there developed a necessity, to reverse the great society legislation and the negative impact it had on US societal progress. The Reagan administration, along with its emphasis upon the individual was the inherent result of this situation and the overall failure of the great society programmes.
However, although Gilder’s arguments present a coherent and systematic approach to the question, he still fails to highlight the groundbreaking nature of the great society programmes. Gary Gerstle, although operating from a point of view relatively similar to Gilders offers us a further detailed assessment. He argues firstly that the great society programmes failed to address the question of income distribution adequately and as such had a long term impact upon the problem. This impact was so widespread, affecting in particular black communities that even before the election of Ronald Reagan in 1981 there was a significant divide between rich and poor in America, which could easily be traced along racial lines. As such, Gerstle sees the inability to redress this imbalance as the primary failure of the great society.
In conclusion, it is clear that there were serious flaws in the great society programmes initiated by Lyndon Johnson. Many of these deficiencies took years to present themselves and impacted greatly on the America that developed in the post Vietnam period. However, it is also the case that the great society heralded a new era in the relationship between the individual and the state. Just as with the post war Labour government in Britain, the great society ushered in a revolutionary way of conceptualizing state intervention and although the seeds for such a transition may have been sown much earlier, it remains nonetheless a marked achievement of the Johnson administration. It would be easy to conclude that such developments came to abrupt halt and even reversal in the 1980s with the Reagan administration. However, I feel it is short sited to view this era as one of rolling back the achievements of Democratic Party of the 1960s. It is true that significant revisions were made to the great society legislation; however the bulk of it remained unchanged. Therefore, it remains the foundation on which modern American democracy and equality stand.
Fraser, Steve and Gerstle, Gary. The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order: 1930-1980. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Katz, Michael B. Ed. The “Underclass” debate: Views from history. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993.
Schulman, Bruce J. Lyndon B Johnson and American Liberalism: A Brief Biography with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books, 1995.