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Henningsen: The Great Society At Fifty

Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” consisted of The War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as four 1965 measures: Medicare/Medicaid, Elementary and Secondary Education, Voting Rights, and Immigration. Together, they represented the most extensive federal effort to address basic social needs since Roosevelt’s New Deal. Johnson was more liberal than Americans realized, but the Great Society was less so. The “War on Poverty”, for example, was really more of a skirmish, fought to increase opportunity, not eliminate poverty. Most of its funds went to administration.

To get his program through Johnson relied on Democratic congressional majorities, arousing Republican antagonism that would nourish the Reagan Revolution and today’s Tea Party conservatives. To reassure established interests, he avoided truly radical programs, and handed much of the funding to old time politicians, like Chicago’s mayor Richard Daley, who perpetuated problems the Great Society meant to address.

And Johnson oversold his policies, creating unrealistic expectations and disappointing Americans who believed, for example, his promise that Medicare and Medicaid would not only prevent catastrophic illness from bankrupting them, but would help eliminate disease itself. Most importantly, the program was fatally underfunded. Even at its height, the Great Society never approached the New Deal, when 1/3 of the federal budget went to programs fighting the Great Depression.

Still, the Great Society was the peak of an era of progressive reform dating back to Theodore Roosevelt. It reshaped medical care and made the federal government a major factor in education. Its immigration policies literally changed the face of the nation and its civil rights provisions began to fulfill unkept promises of Reconstruction. But many Americans regarded Johnson’s efforts as over-reach by “big government” and have spent the years since trying to scale back his programs, if not destroy them entirely.

Most of today’s debates over healthcare, education, race, and immigration are really arguments over the continuing effects of the Great Society and the new relationship it crafted between government and individual citizens. The fundamental issue goes right back to the American Revolution: how much power should a central government have in a democratic republic and how should it use that power? Lyndon Johnson had an answer and, fifty years later, we’re still arguing about it.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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