By Julian E. Zelizer
Penguin Press. 384 pp. $29.95
Frustrated by congressional inaction on a pressing social issue, a president decides to do what he can through executive action. The Democratic chief executive characterizes the Republican Party’s philosophy thusly: “We are told the object of leadership is not to pass laws but to repeal them.” For their part, conservatives view deficit reduction as “the cure for a cancer that was gradually destroying the economy”; the only budget deal they will consider includes deep cuts in spending on social programs.
Those words and deeds aren’t products of the dysfunctional 21st-century U.S. political culture; they are from the 1960s, popularly considered the heyday of activist government. In his insightful history of the ambitious package of laws known as the Great Society, Princeton professor Julian E. Zelizer briskly dispels nostalgia for a time when politics were supposedly easier, asserting that “this period of liberalism was much more fragile, contested, and transitory than we have usually remembered.”
Congressional obstructionism was common in 1961, when President John Kennedy thought executive action might be the only way to advance African American civil rights in the face of Southern Democrats’ implacable opposition. Wielding disproportionate power as chairmen of key committees thanks to the seniority system, segregationist Democrats regularly allied with conservative Republicans to make sure the government did as little as possible in every area. “The short period in which Congress enacted most of the Great Society programs,” Zelizer comments, “was more an aberration than the norm.”
That aberrational period began with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, shrewdly positioned by Lyndon Johnson as a memorial to his assassinated predecessor. Zelizer gives Johnson full credit for his instrumental role in the passage of this and every other piece of Great Society legislation, but he stresses the equally crucial work of grass-roots activists and Johnson’s congressional allies. Zelizer reminds us, for example, that Johnson wished to delay sending the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to Congress until after he had passed education and health care bills. Civil rights activists responded wth a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. ; the resulting police violence shocked the nation and pushed up Johnson’s timetable — prettty much exactly as depicted in the film “Selma.”
On the Congressional front, Liberals learned to overcome the procedural rules their opponents routinely threw up as roadblocks by employing procedural maneuvers of their own to get legislation out of committee and onto the floor for a vote. Civil rights leaders exerted public pressure with demonstrations and marches that they knew would provoke violent responses; television coverage of the savage police beatings of peaceful protesters turned white opinion outside the Deep South firmly in favor of civil rights.
The Democratic landslide in the 1964 election seemed to confirm that most Americans supported not just civil rights but also the “unconditional war on poverty” Johnson had declared in his first State of the Union address. His Economic Opportunity Act (EOA) of August 1964 had even garnered the votes of some conservative Southern legislators, who might rail against big government but knew that their poor white constituents would be among the primary beneficiaries of the anti-poverty funds distributed through the EOA.
Republicans, who stuck to their small-government principles and voted en masse against the EOA, were shaken by LBJ’s crushing defeat of ultra-conservative Barry Goldwater that fall. “A growing number concluded that if they continued to just say no,” Zelizer writes, “the next presidential election would be as disastrous as the last one.” So Republicans participated in crafting the Social Security Amendments of 1965 that created Medicare and Medicaid. Not even the American Medical Association, which successfully stymied national health insurance for 20 years, could overcome legislators’ impression that the American people had given Johnson a mandate, and it was unwise to stand in his way.
That mandate held through the Voting Rights Act and a slew of additional legislation (including immigration reform, urban renewal, environmental protection and federal aid to education) dedicated to the liberal idea that government had an obligation to ensure a decent life and equal opportunity for all its citizens. The mandate foundered on fair housing.
In 1966, Johnson sent Congress a bill prohibiting racial discrimination in the sale or rental of homes. Northern urban Democrats did not, it turned out, necessarily want African Americans living in their neighborhoods, nor did they want the government telling them what to do with their property. The Civil Rights Acts of 1968 finally passed in greatly watered-down form, but only after riots in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination “propelled Congress to adopt a measure that would demonstrate its concern to African American voters,” Zelizer writes.
By then, white voters had handed the Democrats bruising losses in the 1966 midterm elections, and Republicans had rediscovered their ability to just say no. It was the Vietnam War as much as the Great Society programs that created the 1966 budget deficit (still much smaller, Zelizer points out, than deficits under President Dwight Eisenhower), but it was steep cuts in social spending that Republicans insisted on in return for the tax surcharge LBJ needed to balance the budget. They got the White House back in 1968, and you could argue that liberalism has been on the defensive ever since.
Zelizer would disagree. He cites the notorious tea party outburst against the Affordable Care Act — “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” — as evidence that conservatives today accept the fruits of the Great Society, even if they don’t realize it. His more fundamental point is that it’s always a struggle to enact bold legislation, which becomes possible in historical moments created by much broader forces than the political genius of a few individuals. “Only if we understand how political landscapes change and can be changed,” he writes, “will we ever have a chance of breaking the current gridlock in Washington.” His intelligent, informative book certainly contributes to that understanding.