Liberalism in the 1960s: Lyndon Johnson and The Great Society


I.                     Introduction: The Great Society was the name for Johnson’s domestic agenda (analogous to FDR’s New Deal).  It demonstrated the height of liberal policymaking in the post-World War II era. Unlike the New Deal, it occurred during a time of prosperity for most Americans. By the end of Johnson’s presidency, the Great Society was undergoing criticism from both the Right and the Left.


II.                   Background on Johnson (LBJ)

1.        Early political career

He was a white Texan who grew up in a lower middle-class family. He was a strong supporter of FDR & the New Deal during the 1930s. He served as a U.S. Senator from Texas for many years, eventually rising to become the top Democrat in the Senate.  As a Senator, he enjoyed lots of power.


2. Vice President

It’s a surprise that Kennedy (a northern liberal) asked him to be his Vice Presidential candidate in 1960 (the Kennedys and the Johnsons didn’t get along very well; Robert Kennedy and LBJ hated each other) -- and it’s even more of a surprise that Johnson accepted because in some ways being a VP represented a step down from the power he had as a Senator.


3. Personality

LBJ’s a puzzle: white southerner, crude, often sexist, sometimes racist, paternalistic; yet, strong advocate of civil rights and reforms to help poor and uneducated Americans. 


Had an incredible ego. He saw himself as in competition with his idol, FDR. Prone to insecurity, self-pity, fits of rage, personal vendettas. Basically: a Strong personality. 


4. Master politician.

LBJ was much more successful than JFK in implementing a liberal program. He was determined to pass the measures JFK couldn’t get Congress to approve. Why could LBJ attain what JFK couldn’t?

·         LBJ played on nation’s mourning for the slain president: “pass these laws in tribute to JFK.”

·         Probably one of our country’s most skilled politicians. Knew how to get Congress, especially reluctant white southerners, to do things. His notorious “Johnson treatment” could be quite coercive (even physically so.)

·         Won by landslide in election of 1964, plus Democrats gained seats in Congress.  LBJ thus had more a impressive mandate than JFK did.


III.                 Great Society Programs 

Not since FDR and the New Deal had there been such a coordinated effort (Pres. & Congress) to pass a legislative program. It was the strongest legislative program since the New Deal.  Out of 87 bills proposed as part of the Great Society package, Congress passed 84 of them in a six month period.


A.      Philosophy:  America was . . . Great.  Everyone could get ahead & achieve middle-class status (his assumption was that everyone naturally wanted to), but some Americans were held back by artificial restraints, such as racism and lack of education.  He believed the fed. gov’t should take action to remove these restraints and make this society truly great by including everyone in its opportunities & bounty.  He emphasized consensus and unity.


B.       Civil Rights  - his first priority

1.       C.R. Act 1964, V.R. Act 1965. 

He was morally committed to racial equality, but his commitment also served a political purpose. 

He most wanted national consensus, so the nation could move forward with a liberal program to expand opportunity and not be held back by deep conflicts – mainly south vs. north. 


So here he was a southerner, and the best way that he could see to repair the nation was to get out in front of the civil rights issue or else, he suspected, the “liberals would get me. They’d throw up my background against me, they’d use it to prove that I was incapable of bringing unity to the land I loved so much . . . I had to produce a civil rights bill that was even stronger than the one they’d have gotten if Kennedy had lived.”


Still, it was risky for him because he was alienating southerners. (Some suspect that this was why he was in such a rush to pass all the other aspects of his program because he knew that a consensus wouldn’t last.)


2.       Affirmative Action

In 1966 he issued an executive order requiring gov’t employers to take “affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed . . . without regard to their race, color, religion, or national origin.”    It was his effort to increase employment opportunity for minorities


LBJ: “You do not take a person who for years has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, you’re free to compete with all the others.” 

1967 – sex added to the Aff. Action order

1968 – “required gov’t contractors to develop ‘specific goals and timetables’ to achieve equal employment” (many people point to this as the beginning of “quotas”)


C.       War on Poverty

In his 1964 State of Union address, he declared “an unconditional war on poverty in America” – almost a “utopian effort.”  He wanted to assist those seemingly stuck on the bottom of American society – an  “underclass.”  He said the robust economic growth of the nation after WWII wasn’t helping these people like it was helping the majority of Americans.  These people thus needed a special effort from the gov’t; represented the liberal idea that the gov’t had a responsibility to ensure that its citizens had a decent life.

Combined different approaches:


1. Office of Economic Opportunity   -- purpose was to provide education and training for unskilled young, poor people – not to give hand-outs.  Talked about breaking the cycle of poverty & creating more opportunity.  This new federal agency included the following programs:

Job Corps (vocational training)

VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) to assist poor at home

Upward Bound (to prepare impoverished kids for college)

Low-income housing programs. 


2.        Community Action Programs (CAPs) – neighborhood-based programs.

Community Action philosophy: involve poor people themselves in the planning and administration of the programs designed to help them. Used the idea of “self-determination.” Tried to combine grassroots control with federal government funding.   CAPs helped instigate a movement for rights of poor people, and increased the poor’s expectations & demands of their gov’t.


CAPs were controversial: while they empowered many poor people and gave them leadership experience they had never had before, some CAPs were characterized by mismanagement, disorder, and instability.  CAPs also had to face powerful resistance from local/city gov’t’s, which the CAPs had bypassed because they were funded & supported directly from the fed. gov’t.   (For instance, Chicago mayor Richard Daley (ironically, a Democrat) hated the CAPs in his city and accused the Johnson administration of subsidizing communism.)  Many people in the power structure were uncomfortable about empowering poor people.


3.        Food stamps – program began during Kennedy admin, and strengthened with a 1964 Food Stamp Act. Purpose: address problem of hunger, and help low-income people get better nutrition.


4.        Appalachian Regional Development Act (“TVA for Appalachia”): $1.1 billion for highway construction, health centers, other resource development.


5. Raised minimum wage – in real dollars, in ’67-68, the min wage was the highest it has ever been, before or since.


D.       Medical Care – (can also be considered components of the War on Poverty)

1.        Medicare:  Truman proposed a national health care system, which was shot down immediately. JFK spoke vaguely about it.  Critics for years had been denouncing these ideas as “socialized medicine.”

But LBJ got the legislation through Congress by restricting aid to the elderly and by making it available to all elderly, regardless of need (thus avoiding the stigma of “welfare” to the needy.) 

Like Social Security, American workers contribute to the Medicare fund, so it’s sort of a compulsory insurance program.  Like SS, a middle class constituency supported (and continues to support) the Medicare program.


[Still, Johnson faced a major lobbying effort against it by medical profession and insurance companies. He overcame opposition by allowing doctors to practice privately and charge normal fees; Medicare simply shifted responsibility for paying those fees from the patient to the gov’t.]


2.        Medicaid – federal medical assistance to welfare recipients of all ages.  A “welfare” program.


Medicare & Medicaid: the most important extension of federal social benefits since Soc. Security. (Still, America does not have a universal health care system.)

By mid 70s, two programs were paying for medical costs of 1 in 5 Americans.  Between 1970 and 1990, the annual price tag for Medicare went from $7.6 to $111 billion, and for Medicaid from 6.3 to $79 billion. 


E.        Education

LBJ very committed; wanted to be known as “the education president” – had long-standing belief that problems of discrimination & poverty were linked to ignorance.


Strong obstacles to federal funding of education – they had gotten the best of Kennedy’s efforts. (America has a long tradition of local control of school districts, and many Americans feared that with federal funding came federal control --and then the fed. gov’t could require policies like integration.)

But LBJ demonstrated his consensus-building skills and managed the passage of the:

1.        Elementary & Secondary Education Act of 1965, First federal aid to K-12 schooling legislation passed in U.S. history.

2.        Higher Education Act of 1965 – direct aid to U.S. college and universities, low-interest student loans; special aid to institutions with disadvantaged student populations.

3.        Headstart – federally funded preschool for economically disadvantaged children.


Federal spending on education more than doubled in the 3 years after LBJ became president.


F.        Urban Renewal 

Established new cabinet department: Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)

Also, Model Cities program – federal subsidies for urban redevelopment.  Rent supplements to the poor.


G.       Immigration  Immigration Act of 1965 was a landmark piece of legislation.

It eliminated the “national origins” (quota) system that had been established by the Immigration Act of 1924. The new Act allowed people from all parts of world to enter U.S. on equal basis.  Legacy: Asian & Hispanic population grew – creating a more diverse population since the 1960s.


H.       The Environment and the Consumer  (note: do not have to memorize these - just grasp the general idea that there was a lot of legislative activity)

Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act 1965

Water Quality Act of 1965

Clean Waters Restoration Act 1966

Air Quality Act of 1967

Fair Packaging and Safety Act, 1966

Automobile Safety Act, 1966


IV.                Evaluation of the Great Society

A.       Impact

Extended the boundaries of fed gov’t action. 

Bureaucratic proliferation.

Bolstered the foundation of the welfare state. 

Significant increase in federal spending.


B.       Positives

Economy great (for awhile); GNP rising, deficit dropped.  Unemployment dropped. 


Greatest reduction in poverty in American history. (Result of both economic growth and War on Poverty programs.)

Poverty especially reduced among elderly – Medicare prevented them from becoming impoverished. 

Big drop in infant mortality.

Blacks and whites were affected equally (in same proportion) by War on Poverty. 

Significantly reduced hunger in this country.


Supporters of Great Society: White liberals (fast becoming a minority);  blacks; poor people.

In fact, there was never much widespread, mainstream support for Great Society efforts.


C.       Negatives and Criticism

1.        Promises, Promises (criticism from the Left)

War on Poverty promised too much – impossible to eliminate poverty.  Led to disillusionment when problems failed to disappear. 

Some programs weren’t planned well; ill-conceived; didn’t work.  For instance, Job Corps taught skills that were fast becoming outdated in America’s increasingly post-industrial economy.


Critics charged that the fed gov’t did not allot enough funding to truly get at the deep problems in this country that created inequity.  1964-67, fed gov’t spent $6.2 billion on poverty programs – not much – especially in comparison to the simultaneous funding for the Vietnam War.


There critics argued that the problems of the urban underclass needed a deeper set of reforms; problems had to be attacked more aggressively.

Radicals (i.e. the New Left) argued that liberal Democrats were not going far enough, weren’t presenting a real challenge to Am. system, weren’t actually redistributing wealth in this country. 

Both the perceived failure of the Great Society and Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War led to the New Left’s disillusionment with mainstream liberals.  There came to be a big gap between “liberals” and “Leftists/radicals” by the end of the 1960s.


2.        Big Government (criticism from the Right)

Bureaucratic proliferation; encouraged dependence on the gov’t and laziness among Americans, especially poor Americans.

Conservatives disliked increasing growth of fed. gov’t, especially on welfare and similar assistance programs.


3.        Guns AND Butter? Hurting the economy

Critics said the president can’t fight both wars at once: against Communists in Vietnam and against poverty at home.  Budget finally outpaced increases in revenues in late 60s.  Fed gov’t spent $94 billion in 1961 and $196 billion in 1970.  Created a strain on economy, sending the economy into a tailspin in the 1970s.


4.        Break-Up of New Deal Coalition

New Deal coalition was built by FDR in the 1930s and brought together many disparate groups in this country,  But by mid-to-late 60s, groups in that coalition increasingly clashed.  We see mounting objections to increasing black equality/power, as well as to the new power of the poor.

  Hard to keep white southerners in the coalition.  Hard to keep white ethnic, working class (the rank and file of unions) in.


The middle class, usually supportive of liberal goals, increasingly grumbling that fed. gov’t was paying too much attention to the people on the  bottom and neglecting middle class needs


Ironically, during the height of liberal power in the federal gov’t, represented by LBJ and his Great Society, a conservative movement was growing in this country. By the 1980s, many Americans were convinced that Great Society programs had not worked, and that gov’t programs to solve social problems could not work.  Conservatives set out to dismantle the Great Society.