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The Great Society and the High Tide of Liberalism

The Great Society and the High Tide of Liberalism

Sidney M. Milkis
Jerome M. Mileur
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 512
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    The Great Society and the High Tide of Liberalism
    Book Description:

    The long era of liberal reform that began with the Progressive movement of the early twentieth century and continued with the New Deal, culminated in the 1960s with Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Inspired by the example of his mentor, Franklin Roosevelt, Johnson sought to extend the agenda of the New Deal beyond the realm of economic security to civil rights, housing, education, and health care. In the end, however, his bold ambitions for a Great Society, initiated against the backdrop of an increasingly costly and divisive war, fueled a conservative backlash and undermined faith in liberalism itself. In this volume of original essays, a distinguished group of scholars and activists reassess the mixed legacy of this third major reform period of the last century. They examine not only the policies and programs that were part of LBJ's Great Society, but also the underlying ideological and political shifts that changed the nature of liberalism. Some of the essays focus on Lyndon Johnson himself and the institution of the modern presidency, others on specific reform measures, and still others on the impact of these initiatives in the decades that followed. Perspectives, methodologies, and conclusions differ, yet all of the contributors agree that the Great Society represented an important chapter in the story of the American republic and its ongoing struggle to reconcile the power of the state with the rights of individuals—a struggle that has continued into the twentyfirst century. In addition to the editors, contributors include Henry J. Abraham, Brian Balogh, Rosalyn Baxandall, Edward Berkowitz, Eileen Boris, Richard A. Cloward, Hugh Davis Graham, Hugh Heclo, Frederick Hess, William E. Leuchtenburg, Nelson Lichtenstein, Patrick McGuinn, Wilson Carey McWilliams, R. Shep Melnick, Frances Fox Piven, and David M. Shribman.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-132-8
    Subjects: Political Science, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xxii)
    Sidney M. Milkis and Jerome M. Mileur
  4. Lyndon Johnson, the Great Society, and the “Twilight” of the Modern Presidency
    (pp. 1-50)
    Sidney M. Milkis

    The place in history of Lyndon B. Johnson and the Great Society is a difficult matter to assess. As the essays in this volume reveal, the Great Society marks both an extension of and a critical departure from the New Deal. In this essay I seek to make sense of the continuities and discontinuities between the 1930s and 1960s by exploring Lyndon Johnson’s complicated relationship to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. More than John F. Kennedy, LBJ committed his administration to expanding the New Deal political order. JFK considered the Roosevelt legacy the stuff of the past, from which...

  5. Part I Rethinking the Great Society: Ideology, Institutions, and Social Movements

    • Sixties Civics
      (pp. 53-82)
      Hugh Heclo

      In a time when “teach-ins” became a campus fashion, the sixties as a whole constituted the biggest teach-in of all. The period became a school of sorts for teaching Americans how to think about public affairs. Its curriculum developed in thousands of campus debates, TV exposés, street demonstrations, and newspaper and magazine stories. Less dramatically, the teaching also occurred through official government pronouncements and denials, social science reports, professors’ books, and pundits’ commentaries. New policy undertakings—projects that put the “programmatic” into the Great Society’s programmatic liberalism—were shaped by this schooling, and in turn, the various government programs added...

    • Pluralism, Postwar Intellectuals, and the Demise of the Union Idea
      (pp. 83-114)
      Nelson Lichtenstein

      Trade union movements in the industrialized West normally stand on the left side of a nation’s political culture, and they usually reap benefits of great organizational and political value when leftwing ideas circulate freely and when social democratic regimes come to power. This is true in most of Western Europe, Canada, and even Poland, Spain, South Africa, and South Korea, where the rights-conscious values and radical impulses characteristic of “the sixties,” even when delayed for a decade or more, dramatically increased trade union numbers, prestige, and power.

      But little of this happened in the United States. Trade union membership did...

    • Contested Rights The Great Society between Home and Work
      (pp. 115-144)
      Eileen Boris

      The proper relation between wage earning and family labor has stood at the center of a century-long debate over public assistance for those in need. A set of binaries has framed this discussion. Do public or private efforts sap initiative or alleviate suffering? Will marriage or economic independence relieve the poverty of single mothers and their children? Must mothers of preschool children be forced into the labor market, or can they stay home? Should charity or welfare be available only to worthy widows or women with incapacitated husbands and withheld from those without “suitable homes” or with out-of-wedlock pregnancies?


    • Making Pluralism “Great” Beyond a Recycled History of the Great Society
      (pp. 145-182)
      Brian Balogh

      Explicit in the title of this essay and lurking throughout the volume is a seemingly innocuous term: “pluralism.” Both Nelson Lichtenstein and Hugh Heclo argue that the Great Society killed pluralism. Lichtenstein engages pluralism in order to castigate it as a Trojan horse (designed by liberal intellectuals, no less!) that first co-opted social democracy and later succumbed to self-absorbed rights consciousness. For Heclo, the self-contradictory demands made of pluralism in the sixties—asking government to do more yet trusting government less—overwhelmed a system built on compromise. “Combining ferocious opposites and keeping each ferocious,” not the compromise and bargaining essential...

  6. Part II Lyndon Johnson and the American Presidency

    • Lyndon Johnson in the Shadow of Franklin Roosevelt
      (pp. 185-213)
      William E. Leuchtenburg

      For reasons only those captivated by psychohistory will care to explore, Lyndon Johnson went through life with a series of “daddies”—older men he revered and counted on to advance his career—and of all the daddies, by far the most important for him was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Toward the end of his life, Johnson told Walter Cronkite: “Franklin D. Roosevelt, he was my hero, he was like a father to me. I think he saved our system, I think he saved our country, I think he saved me.”¹

      So keen was Johnson to establish his credentials as an FDR...

    • Great Societies and Great Empires Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam
      (pp. 214-232)
      Wilson Carey McWilliams

      Always a bit larger than life, Lyndon Johnson seems even more titanic when compared with his successors. During the lackluster campaign of 2000, James MacGregor Burns, longing for a president uniting “transformational” vision and “transactional” political craft, thought immediately of “a 21st century LBJ.”¹ Even among Johnson’s erstwhile critics, memories are growing fonder: George McGovern recently wrote that he now rates LBJ—with the exception of Wilson, FDR, and perhaps Theodore Roosevelt—as “the greatest president since Abraham Lincoln.”²

      Johnson’s contemporary admirers, however, are apt to draw a sharp distinction between the Great Society and the war in Vietnam, treating...

    • Lyndon Johnson Means and Ends, and What His Presidency Means in the End
      (pp. 233-250)
      David M. Shribman

      From this vantage point, where the writing of journalism ends and the crafting of history begins, the fog has lifted, the physical characteristics of the landscape of the 1960s now are clear. A third of a century later, the view is far different. At the time—when the passions were strong, the wounds raw, the heartache real—the principal figures of the age seemed to be John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. In popular portrayal, they were the martyred prince and the prince of darkness, polar opposites whose struggle for the presidency opened the decade and whose shadows dominated...

  7. Part III The Great Society in Action

    • The Politics of the Great Society
      (pp. 253-269)
      Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward

      The features of domestic policy that distinguish the Great Society era are widely agreed on. First, new federal programs were initiated, presumably to deal with such social problems as juvenile delinquency (Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Offenses Act of 1961), mental illness (Community Mental Health Centers Act of 1963), poverty (Economic Opportunity Act of 1964), and blighted neighborhoods (Demonstration Cities and Metropolitan Development Act of 1966).¹ Second, these new programs were targeted to the big cities, and especially to the inner-city populations that were increasingly black and poor. Third, as the number of programs increased, the state and local fiscal contributions...

    • The New Politics of Participatory Democracy Viewed through a Feminist Lens
      (pp. 270-288)
      Rosalyn Baxandall

      In this essay I examine the contribution of second-wave feminism to new forms of democracy and equality. To establish a foundation for my line of reasoning, I explore why a democratic mobilization to challenge female inequality was necessary and long overdue. Finally, I present a historic overview of the accomplishments and shortcomings of consciousness-raising, because the feminist practice was a key contribution to the idea and practice of participatory democracy.

      The women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s was the largest social movement in the history of the United States. Its impact has been felt in every home, school,...

    • Freedom from Ignorance? The Great Society and the Evolution of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965
      (pp. 289-319)
      Patrick McGuinn and Frederick Hess

      The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 was a central component of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and one of the key legislative achievements of the Great Society. This act marked the first major incursion of the federal government into K–12 education policy, an area that historically had been the domain of states and localities, and initiated a new era of federal involvement in school reform. At the heart of the ESEA was a powerful equity rationale for federal government activism to promote greater economic and social opportunity. The moral clarity behind the ESEA and the...

    • Medicare The Great Society’s Enduring National Health Insurance Program
      (pp. 320-350)
      Edward Berkowitz

      A high official in the Johnson administration described Medicare as a “real jewel in the crown of the federal government.”¹ President Lyndon Johnson, who readily agreed, put Medicare in the company of the Social Security Act of 1935 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 as the most “comprehensive and constructive and beneficial” public acts in the period between the New Deal and the end of his term in 1969.² With great pride, he signed the Social Security Amendments of 1965 into law on July 30, 1965, in an impressive ceremony at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri....

    • Justices and Justice Reflections on the Warren Court’s Legacy
      (pp. 351-362)
      Henry J. Abraham

      In his trenchant review of a book on the Warren Court by Lucas A. Powe Jr., a professor of law and government at the University of Texas,¹ A. E. Dick Howard quickly identified the gravamen of the Warren Court’s legacy:

      Like some Nordic giant, the Warren Court has been both mythologized and demonized. To civil libertarians and civil rights activists, it is the bastion against such evils as injustice and racism. To conservatives it was an arrow aimed at the heart of the Constitution. Alabama’s [Democratic U.S. representative] George Andrews spoke for many such critics when, chiding the Court for...

  8. Part IV Legacies

    • The Great Society’s Civil Rights Legacy Continuity 1, Discontinuity 3
      (pp. 365-386)
      Hugh Davis Graham

      Looking back today at the directions American society has taken since World War II, most scholars see the 1960s as a cultural and political watershed and emphasize the discontinuities that flowed from it.¹ The subtitle of this essay on civil rights policy reflects this view and reads like a baseball score, with discontinuity winning, 3 to 1. The three great discontinuities in civil rights policy that flowed from the watershed of the 1960s are linked closely to the legislation of 1964 and 1965, the breakthrough period of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program. But the policy changes range through the “long...

    • From Tax and Spend to Mandate and Sue Liberalism after the Great Society
      (pp. 387-410)
      R. Shep Melnick

      The image of the Great Society retains a strong hold on the imagination of liberals and conservatives alike. To conservatives, the LBJ years were the moment of the Great Wrong Turn: unlimited expectations replaced limited government; maximum feasible participation quickly morphed into maximum feasible misunderstanding; real progress against poverty halted just as the official War on Poverty began; the long-awaited triumph of color blindness was jettisoned in favor of a new form of counting by race; and before long, McGovernism had replaced the Truman Doctrine as the cornerstone of the Democratic Party’s foreign policy. For most liberals, in contrast, the...

    • The Great Society and the Demise of New Deal Liberalism
      (pp. 411-456)
      Jerome M. Mileur

      The domestic New Deal ended in the final years of the 1930s, victim in part of Franklin Roosevelt’s Court-packing plan, his executive-reorganization proposals, and his purge campaign—and also by the two-term precedent that made him a lame duck who would be gone by 1941. Predictions of FDR’s political departure, however, proved premature as he went on to win a third and a fourth term as president. But in the 1940s, Roosevelt’s presidency was centered on the war abroad, not reform at home, and in the aftermath of that war the new liberalism for which he stood was recast to...

  9. Contributors
    (pp. 457-460)
  10. Index
    (pp. 461-490)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 491-491)