Change We Can Believe in, XXXIV
Change We Can Believe In: Dismantling the Great Society
Okay, maybe I exaggerate. But still. Couldn’t he work a little harder to defend the hard fought achievements of presidents and legislators over the last half century that have moved us toward a more just society?
One of the pleasures of The Passage of Power, the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson biography (which I read last month and wrote about here) is the account of Johnson’s success in having Congress pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The story of Johnson’s further legislative successes, such as the 1965 Voting Rights Act, must await volume five, perhaps a decade away. And what a fascinating volume that will be, as Caro also confronts Johnson’s simultaneous destruction of his career and the country in dragging us into expanded war in Vietnam.
Nonetheless, on the positive side of the ledger, Johnson did achieve the seemingly impossible, enacting legislation that made our country more just and humane. This is, of course, the very achievement that the modern Republican Party is set on erasing, and that Obama chooses not to argue for.
A week ago, Mark Lilla’s Sunday NYT lead review of Charles Kesler’s I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism received a lot of attention, understandably so. Here is its clever opening:
Once upon a time there was a radical president who tried to remake American society through government action. In his first term he created a vast network of federal grants to state and local governments for social programs that cost billions. He set up an imposing agency to regulate air and water emissions, and another to regulate workers’ health and safety. Had Congress not stood in his way he would have gone much further. He tried to establish a guaranteed minimum income for all working families and, to top it off, proposed a national health plan that would have provided government insurance for low-income families, required employers to cover all their workers and set standards for private insurance. Thankfully for the country, his second term was cut short and his collectivist dreams were never realized.
His name was Richard Nixon.
The review is well worth reading in full. I’ll quote another passage, with a line (highlighted) that brought me up short.
Whenever conservatives talk to me about Barack Obama, I always feel quite certain that they mean something else. But what exactly? The anger, the suspicion, the freestyle fantasizing have no perceptible object in the space-time continuum that centrist Democrats like me inhabit. What are we missing? Seen from our perspective, the country elected a moderate and cautious straight shooter committed to getting things right and giving the United States its self-respect back after the Bush-Cheney years. Unlike the crybabies at MSNBC and Harper’s Magazine, we never bought into the campaign’s hollow “hope and change” rhetoric, so aren’t crushed that, well, life got in the way. At most we hoped for a sensible health care program to end the scandal of America’s uninsured, and were relieved that Obama proposed no other grand schemes of Nixonian scale. We liked him for his political liberalism and instinctual conservatism. And we still like him.
I clearly don’t fit Lilla’s self-description as a centrist Democrat.
And neither does Kevin Baker, Harper’s political writer and crybaby himself, who chose to respond the next day. He quotes Lilla’s assessment that “the Great Society’s liberal architects vastly overreached and overpromised, destroying the public’s confidence in active government and threatening the solid achievements of the New Deal and the Progressive Era,” then asks what Lilla has in mind:
Just what part of the Great Society does Lilla believe represented vast overreach and overpromise? He doesn’t say, which can only leave us to guess. Could it be the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, or Fair Housing Act, which ended the system of legalized “Jim Crow” segregation in America once and for all?
Was it the Job Corps, the Food Stamp Act, Legal Aid, or the other programs of the War On Poverty, which sought to directly aid and empower the urban poor at the astronomical cost of $3 billion spread over three years?
Was it the massive aid to education at all levels? The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which equipped low-income schools with supplies and special-education programs, including Head Start? Was it the Teacher Corps? Was it the Higher Education Act, which brought us Pell Grants, and the other college scholarship and loan programs that made it possible for so many young people from middle- and working-class families to fill the seats in Professor Lilla’s classrooms?
Was it the Wilderness Act? The Endangered Species Preservation Act? The other environmental laws that constituted the first significant clean-air and -water legislation in our history?
Was it the Consumer Protection Act, which made cigarette companies put warning labels on their lethal product, or the National Traffic and Motor Safety Act, which still saves the lives of tens of thousands of motorists every year?
Was it the Fair Labor Standards Act, which extended the minimum wage to another 9 million workers? Was it the Wholesome Meat Act, or the Truth-in-Lending Act? The support for the arts and culture that gave us NPR and public television, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Kennedy Center, and the National Art Gallery?
Or . . . could it have been Medicare and Medicaid?
The Great Society was a group of long-overdue reforms that brought basic justice and opportunity to many millions of Americans, greatly spurred our prosperity, and probably avoided a race war. What truly undermined confidence in government among some whites at the time was the extension of full civil rights to black Americans and, much more lastingly, LBJ’s misadventure in Vietnam.
Baker’s further analysis must be why I couldn’t bring myself to watch the presidential debate two days later. I knew Obama would disappoint. And he did. Here is Baker’s diagnosis of the failures of centrist Democrats.
Centrist Democrats like Lilla know this full well. What they are really trying to construct is a posture, a pose, a brand label that will allow them to pursue a certain political agenda today. For “centrists” everywhere in the West now—in America, and in Europe—this depends on maintaining that no complaints from the right or the left have any validity. It is absolutely required that the “center”—that is to say, the status quo—be the only viable alternative, even as millions of Americans lose their homes and languish in the unemployment ranks, and as the people of Greece and Spain strike, and riot, and comb through trash bins for food.
The past, then, must be sacrificed to maintain this aura of reasonableness. Lilla doesn’t actually object to the real Great Society. What he feels he must object to is what has become the popular perception of it: that because of “overreach and overpromise”—Poverty wasn’t eliminated in the space of seven years! It was only cut in half!—the entire program must be sacrificed on the altar of moderation.
The trouble with this strategy is that it never works. All of the Democrats elected president since Lyndon Johnson ran as populists but governed as centrists—the very formulation of which Lilla seems to approve. And under each of these presidents, Democrats suffered their greatest losses in local, state, and congressional elections since the 1920s, opening the door again to increasingly radical right-wing Republicans and their wealth-destroying policies.
It has become a defining characteristic of the centrist Democrat that he never stops saying he’s saving you, even as keeps shoving your head back underwater.
Like Obama saying during the debate that he and Romney have “a somewhat similar position” on Social Security. Not to be a crybaby or anything, but this isn’t what I had in mind when I voted for him four years ago. I think I have the right to ask for more.