Political scientists typically question such conclusions, pointing to the political fundamentals that Lyndon Johnson had on his side: large congressional majorities, liberal public opinion and less ideological polarization. A full explanation for Johnson’s success requires acknowledging these factors, but that hardly means that Johnson’s individual skill (or that of his contemporaries) should be dismissed.
In “Artists of the Possible,” I argue that the broader period from 1961-1976 (which I call the Long Great Society) stands out for its high levels of productivity and liberalism in all branches of government — and it is not well explained by political fundamentals.
After analyzing hundreds of domestic policy history books, I compiled 790 significant policy changes since 1945. More than 40 percent were enacted between 1961 and 1976. This is twice the rate of policy change outside of the period. The legislative, executive and judicial branches were all substantially more productive during this time. This productivity is not explained by unified government or a lack of ideological polarization: Models including these factors still show significantly more policymaking during the Long Great Society.
Policy changes during the period were also overwhelmingly liberal: They expanded the scope of government spending, regulation and responsibility. Liberal policy changes outnumbered conservative changes 15 to 1; all three branches moved policy to the left. The figure below visualizes the direction of policy since 1945. I use a measure borrowed from “The Macro Polity“: liberal minus conservative policy changes per biennium. The Long Great Society stands out as a liberal period in all branches. The liberalism of this period is not explained by Democratic control, liberal public opinion or the ideology of policymakers.
Any explanation of this era must extend beyond Johnson, but the presidents did play key roles. The increase in productivity started in the Kennedy administration, which developed some of the proposals passed under Johnson. Richard M. Nixon oversaw an administration that was just as active and liberal on domestic policy. All three had substantial congressional experience and many productive ties with established interest groups and long-serving senators. In contrast, all of the presidents elected since 1976 have served less than a combined eight years in Congress.
Notably, although policy historians credited Johnson, Nixon and Kennedy with more policy changes than any other political actors, these presidents were almost never credited for unilateral action. Instead, it was what I call a “governing network” that helped make these presidents successful. Johnson benefited from productive connections to more than 260 actors, including legislators, interest groups and others. After Johnson left office, many of these same actors maintained their connections to one another and thus enabled further productivity. Along with these three presidents, more legislators, administrators and interest groups were involved in policymaking in multiple issue areas and across branches of government.
As we approach the Civil Rights Act anniversary, expect to hear plenty of stories about Johnson cajoling and threatening his compatriots—and some longing for a president that knew how to move legislation. We should remember that Johnson had substantial help and that the productive liberal period outlasted his presidency.
But that should not let Obama, John Boehner and their contemporaries off the hook. The Long Great Society was not an inevitable consequence of trends in public opinion, ideology and election results. Even as leaders during that time disagreed and endured sometimes hard-fought negotiations, their relationships with each other and the coalitions they forged allowed for productivity that stands in stark contrast to today’s gridlock.